Ninth place Manchester United played host to sixteenth place Aston Villa in a Premier League battle on Sunday 1 December 2019. Aston Villa came to Old Trafford looking to continue on their positive form that they showed earlier in the week when they bested Newcastle United by two goals. While Manchester United were trying to find the form that they showed on their opening game vs Chelsea when they put four past the blues.
United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been consistent in how he has put his teams on the field. United lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Juan Mata got the start in the creative number ten role in the middle of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James. The Frenchman Anthony Martial was set to spearhead the attack up front. All the United players were well-rested this week as none of the starting 11 saw any time against Astana in the midweek Europa League match.
Aston Villa were aligned in the 4-1-4-1 with captain Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi running the wings. Wesley being the loan striker showed that Aston Villa would play a very counter-attacking game while looking to go man for man in the middle of the park.
United’s slow start
United started with a couple of early runs and good positional play to deal with long ball nature that Aston Villa would be susceptible to play.
United saw upwards of 68% of the early possession but saw that steadily drop to 43% at the end of the first half. Aston Villa grew into the game and in winning the 1v1 battles in the middle of the pitch as they began to get the ball to wings through possession or restarts. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams looked sluggish and off their previous defensive forms. This caused Fred and Andreas Pereira more ground to cover giving the Aston Villa wings time on the ball.
This time on the ball for Grealish in the 11th min proved to be deadly as he unleashed a strike that David de Gea could only watch as it curled into the top right corner. Aston Villa’s right-winger El Ghazi was hurt on the cross that he delivered to Grealish and was shortly substituted for Trézéguet.
United continued to struggle in attack while Villa was very organized in the defense and held a good shape as United surged forward. As you can see below United did not have good runs from Martial, but all their attacking players were looking to receive the ball in wider positions and run at players with the ball.
The creative ability to move players and create space for others seems to be a struggle for United. Mata was trying to supply this but was having to come too far back into the midfield to receive the ball. This left United only attacking the back four of Aston Villa with one or two players. Their first-half goal came from a corner that Rashford and Mata won due to good pressure high up the field. Pereira providing the cross that Rashford headed off the post to level the score at one-all.
Adding men into the attack
United continued to apply good pressure to Aston Villa and began committing numbers in the attack in the second half. By doing this better opportunity to score in advanced positions was created. Mata started to find space between Villa’s defensive lines. With his ability to hold the ball and combined in tight spaces United was able to push players into the attack.
This is where they miss Paul Pogba’s ability. As of late Scott McTominay has been to step into this role and settle an unstable midfield for United. United’s ability to attack with at least six is a must for them to start scoring more goals at regular intervals.
James and Rashford started to use the midfield better in build-up play vs trying just to outrun the Villa backline. The combinations that they were creating started to move the Villa defense and space to play through the defensive line started to show up.
Wan-Bissaka, Williams, and even Luke Shaw at the end of the game steadily stayed in the attack. The ability to run at players on a shifting defense with the defensive backs is one of United’s strongest assets. When done well it provides space for Martial, Rashford, and James to exploit.
United capitalized from a set-piece that resembled their first-half goal. Fred delivered a cross off of a corner to Victor Lindelöf at the far post who headed it home.
Spreading the defence
Aston Villa continued to move the ball forward with long passes and big switches of play. The straight long passing attempts were dealt with by Harry Maguire and Lindelöf effectively, but the switches of play continue to trouble United’s back four. Villa was able to switch play a number of times due to the United not closing down the players correctly. The backline is counting on the midfield stopping the switch by applying pressure that takes the attacking player into United numbers. When this does not happen United end up scrambling to recover and get behind the ball.
They leave players, space or both on the backside of play and continually show major vulnerabilities to teams that can effectively switch the point of attack. United’s continual issues come from the over-commitment of players to one half of the field.
Aston Villa’s second-half goal came off of United’s over-commitment of players to the ball and not enough weak side organization or discipline. Tyrone Mings came forward on a corner an worked to stay onside as the ball came back across. His finish was excellent.
The late additions of Jesse Lingard, Shaw, and Mason Greenwood only added to the dominance in possession United showed in the second half. This late push was not enough to provide them with 3 points on the day. If United can find the combination upfront and lock down the back they can return to the promising form they showed when Solskjær took over. Aston Villa has a great player in Grealish and needs to find ways to get him on the ball more. As Mings continues to organize the backline for Villa they will work to stay out of the relegation zone.