Less than a week had passed since Manchester United defeated Aston Villa in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, as the sides locked horns once more. The previous affair was another timid display from United, although there were indeed moments in which the reds enjoyed passages of aesthetically pleasing football. Steven Gerrard was hoping for some swift revenge, while Ralf Rangnick was eager to see cohesion in his sides tactical performance. Villa Park was the setting for today’s match.
As was the case before the sides previous meeting, there were plenty of positive omens for United. Villa were winless in their last 22 home games against the red devils, and United were looking to record their 300th away win in the Premier League, making them the very first side to achieve this remarkable record. Despite this, what United fans were hoping for more than anything, was a performance that they could be proud of.
United lined out without their leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, while Villa’s high-profile acquisition, Philippe Coutinho, was only ready for a place on the bench. Academy graduate Anthony Elanga has been impressing the manager in training and had earned a starting birth alongside fan-favourite Edinson Cavani. As always, the Manchester faithful expected!
Villa Park is a ground that holds many fond memories for United, and the travelling support battled it out with a boisterous partisan crowd. The atmosphere was fantastic from the opening minute and the players had little excuse but to come out of the blocks fast.
As was the case in the previous meeting, United started on the front foot, controlling the ball with ease and forcing Villa into conceding several set-pieces early on. It was from one of these set-pieces that United broke the deadlock. A crafty understanding between Alex Telles and Bruno Fernandes allowed the Portuguese to hit a 30-yard effort on goal, which was uncharacteristically bundled into the net by Emiliano Martínez.
United would have been delighted to get in front so early, but the response to going ahead is what would please the United faithful even more. After 15 minutes of play, United had achieved 85% possession, looked threatening with the ball and saw an encouraging partnership develop between Telles and Elanga.
United’s game plan was clear from the offset: retain possession, overload the flanks and deliver crosses into the box for Cavani and Greenwood. Telles the early conductor and Elanga his willing decoy, a welcome sight for the travelling contingent.
30 minutes played and Villa hadn’t mustered a shot on goal. United continued to control the tempo, hold the ball and force the home side to sit deep. The youthful flanks of Greenwood and Elanga supplying continuous headaches for the Villa defence. If ever there was a time to highlight the importance of John McGinn to this Villa side, this was the game.
Villa eventually began to impose themselves on an attacking front, and the play moved toward an end to end spectacle. Unlike Monday’s game, United did not wilt. Instead, despite the growing pressure from the home side, United would respond in kind and both keepers would be kept on their toes. The half ended with United holding a goal advantage and much to be positive about for the second half.
The home crowd came to life at the restart and the Villa players responded. The opening 5 minutes saw Villa hold possession, press confidently and threaten through the impressive Jacob Ramsey. For the first time in the game, United were having to withstand periods of sustained pressure. We would now find out how much discipline was being transferred from the training ground.
United’s play transitioned toward a counter-attacking mentality and the away side came close to adding to their lead through Elanga and Greenwood. Both youngsters continued their impressive hour’s performance and were inches away from the goal that their performances deserved.
Ronaldo’s absence allowed Fernandes a free role in his attacking duties and he doubled his tally with a characteristically brilliant finish. Villa retaining much of the ball but unable to supply anything of worth, United happy to sit deep and break with speed.
The introduction of Coutinho changed the dynamic of the game and it didn’t take long for his debut to spark to life. Within 10 minutes, he was instrumental in supplying an opportunity for Ramsey to calmly finish. This amplified the pressure on United and eventually led to a Villa equaliser through the Brazilian.
The game fizzled out without any further opportunities of substance and it’s another 2 points dropped from United. Jekyll and Hyde is a familiar trait of this side and one that shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. Much work to be done and more questions to be asked of this squad.
5 talking points
– Elanga impresses. The Swedish international was a constant threat on the wing and his runs allowed Telles to drive into space. Football is often about players grasping their moment and this very much felt like that. Elanga certainly did himself justice today and nobody would begrudge him a second opportunity against Brentford.
– Greenwood looking sharp. He’s come under the radar for some criticism of late, and fans are questioning his inability to pass to teammates in critical moments. I thought he was extremely dangerous tonight and was very unlucky not to score. A welcome sight to have a confident Greenwood available and his goals will be needed to push toward that top four spot.
– Bruno spearheading the attack. With the absence of Ronaldo, questions were asked as to who would supply the goals. In similar fashion to last season, Bruno was given a free role of sorts, and the Portuguese responded in typical fashion. He looked menacing in moments and will be frustrated that his goals were in vein.
– Midfield, or lack of. In the first half, the team controlled the tempo and had the lions share of possession. In the second half, United were almost entirely reliant on fast breaks and long balls from defence to the flanks. What happened the midfield composure of the first half? I’m also questioning how beneficial the presence of Scott McTominay would have been in seeing out this game. His lack of availability was key for me here.
– A game of two halves. From controlling the game with ease, to sitting deep and inviting pressure. If there was ever a game to define the frustration that this group of players can supply, this was it. Jekyll and Hyde at its finest