Man United (2) vs Aston Villa (1) – Manager Rues Villa Loss

Aston Villa manager, Dean Smith, a very measured individual as soccer managers go, was not happy about the way his team was beaten in this New Year’s Day game, commenting:

“They got what I believed was a penalty at the time. I thought Douglas [Luiz] had got too tight from the throw in.

“Having seen it back it looks like he [Pogba] has tripped himself up and for me Michael [referee, Oliver] should have been sent to the camera. That is what VAR is for and if there is so much doubt then get yourself over there. I’m a little dumbfounded – it looks very dubious to me.”

Most neutral observers would have agreed with Smith. This was a very cheap decision, less than a minute after the Villans had tied the game, and it undermined the legitimacy of Manchester United’s win. The penalty was converted by the ever-clinical Bruno Fernandes allowing the hosts to bring on Nemanja Matic five minutes later with instructions to stop anything that looked dangerous. A half-a dozen free kicks later he was finally given a yellow card. Still, had had done his job. We can only surmise as to what would have transpired without the referee’s assistance.

For the record, the Villans committed only 10 fouls versus Man U’s 22 and received no cards. They took the play to their hosts, gaining twice as many corners (10 versus 5). No wonder that Smith rued the loss of a game he knew they could have won and certainly should have tied. They certainly had the better chances with Martinez hardly bothered, other than by the two goals. Villa’s striker, Ollie Watkins, and winger, El Ghazi, and sub, Keinan Davis all came close to tying the game despite the demoralizing call.

Smith’s other concern was his team’s overly passive first half. Indeed, within 90 seconds of the kick-off Bruno Fernandes had forced Martinez into blocking a cross at the near post after Fred had neatly chipped a pass for the ever-alert playmaker to slip behind a not-yet-awake defense. The ball bounced back to Pogba who could not control the spinning ball and El Ghazi got a foot in to clear the danger.

Initially, even Martinez was a little casual. He was a little off with his throw to Targett on the left wing and that allowed the hosts to intercept and Fernandes to feed Martial at the edge of the Villa penalty area. With Villa’s defenders scurrying to get in position, the French striker had time to hit a powerful curving shot that forced Martinez to athletically dive to his left and stretch a hand to prevent the shot sneaking under the crossbar. That was Man U’s first shot on goal at 9:50 and the goalie’s sanguine look suggested he felt good about the save. Given that it was created by his own error, it was probably quite a relief.

Coincidentally, it was Martinez who started the next attack, one that resulted in Villa’s first shot on goal. It resulted from a goal kick that reached its intended recipient (Watkins) who had finally unshackled himself from Bailly who had given him no room to function. Trying the other side of the field, the striker was able to rise over Man U full back, Luke Shaw, and head the ball onto his captain, Grealish, already scurrying down the right wing with Maguire, soon in tow. As Grealish reached the edge of the penalty area and confronted red-shirted reinforcements, the coiffed head looked-up and he slowed, and waited for his teammate, Matty Cash, to pass on his right. Cash had lost his marker in the journey and took the pass to the goal line with time to set his sights before crossing.

The cross teasingly cleared the tightly knit group in the six-yard box and arrived simultaneously with Villa’s torrid Scot, John McGinn. Perhaps recollecting how his shot against Chelsea the previous Monday had cleared the bar, he fashioned a shot that was all about placement, volleying towards a spot just inside de Gea’s right upright. Already scrambling in that direction, the Spanish goalie was able to push the shot around the post for a corner. From Grealish’s corner, de Gea had more work to do and he did his best to punch the in-swinging corner out of danger, only getting it as far as a retreating Watkins who blasted the descending ball into a defender and out for another corner. At 13 minutes, these were Villa’s first shots, and they were a reminder to Man U that this Villa line-up is vastly more dangerous than last year’s crew.

The second corner was cleared and, with Fred leading the charge, a fast break seemed to spell danger; that was until the impressive Tyrone Mings, heading back to his center back position, slid out a long leg and regained possession for the Villans.

The play was balanced after that with Wan Bissaka zipping in a fine cross that Pogba was well placed to put his boot into but decided, instead, to let it run for Fred who saw his powerful strike just rise over the bar. Truth be told, Martinez had it covered.

Villa’s next dangerous moment came with Grealish pulling the strings on the right to create room for Cash to launch an excellent cross towards Watkins well-positioned around the penalty spot only for Bailly to see the danger and get his head on the ball before Villa’s youngster had a chance to do so. Bailly’s header was directed out for a corner, whereas Watkins’ header would have had lots of net to choose from. Only 23 minutes gone and Man U manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, looked pensive.

From the corner, Man U cleared temporarily only for another cross (this time from Traoré) to be directed to Watkins’ noggin and, this time, it was Paul Pogba at the far post who was there to do the prevention. A couple of passes later, Pogba had the ball at his feet and he saw an open red shirt fully 75 yards away, but open. What he had not considered was that goalie Martinez was no slouch and the Argentinian raced out of his penalty area and made a diving header off the bounce to find an open Villan, rather than the ball find the open Rashford.

The next real danger at either end came when Maguire found Shaw on the wing, deep in Villa’s half, with Fernandes being the first to react. The full back quickly fed the Portuguese international in enough space to eye the top far corner and bend a shot in that direction. With Martinez scooting across his line, he realized that the shot did not have the requisite curve, but it was close. That was at 37 minutes and should have been a warning.

Just five minutes later, Man U. made a quality attack pay. When Pogba won a 50/50 ball with McGinn near the halfway line, he immediately pushed a pass out to Rashford standing on the right touch line. Targett made sure to limit the England international’s progress, but an artful redirect found an alert Wan Bissaka anticipating the play, picking up the pass and heading into the opening behind Targett. McGinn was onto the danger but was at least a couple of yards behind, though gaining. While Mings had two teammates alongside him (Konsa and Cash) and only one forward to watch he held his ground and marked the line between the ball carrier and Anthony Martial. Both Mings and Martinez were also conscious of the possibility of a shot to the near post.

As soon as Wan Bissaka was level with the six-yard box he hit over a hard cross that Mings bent down and to his right to head clear, except that it was too low and too hard for him to make a connection. The ball never changed direction until Martial, diving, met it with his head, five yards behind. The cross, to be fair, was dipping away (and Mings is 6’ 5”). It was much easier for Martial to dive forward making sure that the ball struck the left side of his forehead. Though surrounded by two defenders and a world class goalkeeper, the ball was past them and in the back of the net in a flash. 40 minutes had gone, Man U. 1 – Aston Villa 0.

The Villans shrugged off the disappointment but did not pose a serious threat before the whistle for halftime. During the break, Manager Smith made sure they knew they needed to up the tempo in the second half and within five minutes it almost paid off. Grealish was set-up with possession inside the left-hand side of the area and he froze Wan Bissaka before arching a perfect cross to Ollie Watkins at the back post. Able to fade back, he had time and space to levitate and direct his header back towards the far corner that de Gea had just vacated. A goalie not in the top tier might have flapped at air, but the Spaniard was able to hang for a split second and extend a long arm and claw the ball over the crossbar.

Within a couple of minutes, Villa broke out from defense and, thanks to a neat interplay with Traoré, Grealish was set free to run with the ball. As he crossed the halfway line, he judged that he could clear Bailly at the edge of his area with a pass, even as the defender ran back, and that the advancing Watkins and/or El Ghazi would be able to run onto it. In fact, the play worked perfectly. Bailly did not even attempt to intercept as he kept his focus on Watkins who deftly controlled the ball as it descended.

With his Dutch teammate alongside he let the ball run into his path, probably considering his recent purple patch. Sure enough, El Ghazi continued onto the ball and struck it ferociously with the outside of his right foot. The shot cleared the junction of the bar and the post by inches with de Gea a relieved spectator.

This suggested that there was a goal to be scored and it came within minutes. It followed some intense pressing by Villa in the Man U end and an excellent run with the ball by El Ghazi. When he was eventually brought down by Wan Bissaka the full back failed to back away to let El Ghazi take a quick free kick but was more amenable to John McGinn’s quick pass out to Jack Grealish standing, unusually quiet, on the wing.

Grealish carried the ball into the penalty area where McTominay made sure to protect against a shot on goal. With Bailly and Maguire both marking Watkins and Traoré being watched by Shaw, there appeared to be adequate protection except that Douglas Luiz, who never stops running, turned on the burners again and headed into the penalty area mix and drew the attention of Luke Shaw who left his winger in favor of this new threat. Luiz, in fact, jumped over the cross that Grealish zinged over while Watkins showed interest, but it was a little behind him. This was perfect for Traoré as he was now unmarked at the far post. He simply stopped the pass with his right foot and picked a spot, over de Gea’s spreadeagled right arm, and bulged the new with his left footed shot. This was Traoré’s fourth goal in four games, as much time as it took the Burkina Faso international to go from goat to hero. 58 minutes and the Villa had tied it. Man U 1 – Aston Villa 1. It was no more than the visitors deserved.

In less than a minute, the Villa team was on the end of a cheap penalty call. Defending Paul Pogba, six inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, Villa’s Douglas Luiz was attempting to hold him off as the French international carried the ball across the inside perimeter of the penalty area when their legs got entangled and, essentially, Pogba tripped himself. As noted, Villa manager Smith believed that the call was worthy of a review. There was no review and Fernandes placed the penalty kick beyond Martinez’s outstretched dive. 60 minutes and Man U 2 – Aston Villa 1.

At 65 minutes McTominay was replaced by Nemanja Matic to protect the lead. Just a minute later, the Villa came close tying the game again. As usual, it was from a cross by Grealish. This one looped down near the far post with nobody between El Ghazi and the near post. As the Dutchman bent to meet the ball with his head, his marker, Wan Bissaka, acrobatically executed a scissors kick and hooked the ball away. A diving attempt at heading the ball might have gotten El Ghazi to the ball quicker and/or a penalty for getting kicked in the head. El Ghazi missed an opportunity to be a hero, albeit an unconscious one.

Man. U were now in a position to play the possession game and run out the clock. Credit to Villa for sticking to their task and eventually forcing mistakes. When Traoré gained possession around the 70th minute mark he ran at the Man U defense with little support around yet managed to find a way to pass to El Ghazi with a little space in the left corner of the Man U penalty area. Not a gilt-edged place to shoot from, but the Dutchman pulled away from Wan Bissaka enough to fashion a powerful drive that de Gea had to smother at the near post.

A better opportunity came courtesy of yet another cross from Grealish, this one from the right corner of the area and aimed at the penalty spot. Watkins got the height, and his header was aimed at the top left corner but went a foot or so wide of the goal. Whether his shadow, Bailly, had leaned against him enough to throw his timing or whether a misjudgment, a golden chance was missed.

With Traoré losing focus on his defensive responsibilities, Shaw was able to close in on the left side of goal and zing a cross into the 6-yard box only for Konsa to, once again, demonstrate what a fine athlete he is, sliding in to block access. The resultant corner ended up as an opportunity for Fernandes to set himself at the right edge of the area to hit a bullet with all kinds of top spin that required another exquisite lunge by Martinez to tip the shot onto the top of the bar and over.

With Villa still in with a chance, Shaw recklessly blocked El Ghazi, now playing on the right wing. The free kick gave Matty Cash another opportunity to swing over a cross and for Villa’s big men, Konsa and Mings to join the offense. This was another sumptuous cross that curved in front of the 6-yard box that no defender running back to his own goal dared touch. Maguire was one of them and he had Mings right behind him. These two heavy weights ran in the direction of the ball, Maguire pushed Mings to the side while the Villan climbed on his compatriot England teammate’s back to get his head on the ball. The header sailed a foot wide of de Gea’s right upright with the goalie a spectator. If the ball had gone in the net, there was no saying what the referee’s call would have been (perhaps obstruction, or wrestling, or a goal).

Before the goal kick was taken, Villa brought on their second sub, replacing El Ghazi with Keinan Davis (Jacob Ramsey having replaced Traoré a little while before). With seven official minutes left, Smith was rolling his last dice. It was injury time before Davis got a smell of the ball. Then, mimicking Ramsey’s effort against Chelsea. Davis’s first touch was an attempt on goal that Bailly blocked out for a corner. From that corner Daniel James got enough of his head on the ball to redirect it vertically, with it landing on the top of the net (note to Gunnar, think about making sure your front man for the corner is taller than 5’ 7”). Grealish changed-up the next corner, taking it short and setting up Cash just outside the box.

Cash, on taking possession pulled the ball onto his left foot and Matic rushed to block, except that Cash neatly pulled the ball back to his stronger right foot and let go a powerful drive that looked set to bulge the back of the net until de Gea flung himself to his right and pushed the ball round the post. Yet another corner! This time, the cross had even more length and more whip causing it to clear all the defenders in the 6-yard box. Watkins backed-up to free himself from Wan Bissaka only for the ball to plummet just in front of him and out for a goal-kick.

Not to worry there were still a couple of those five extra minutes left. Some of that was eaten up by Tuanzebe being brought on for Fred and when Rashford picked up the ball and headed down the right wing towards the corner flag at 94:30 on the clock, it appeared that the game was over except that Rashford saw Pogba open. A neat pass and Pogba glided into the area and let go a shot that went as far as the Villa defender, Mings, in front of him.

Luiz carried the deflection out of danger and found Grealish who fed Watkins up on the left wing. Maguire came over to put the ball out and, with every second counting, Watkins took the throw himself to Grealish. Receiving it back the Villa striker shaped a perfect cross to Davis positioned just outside the 6-yard box. Maguire had just enough time to get back to Davis and the two big boys jumped and headed the ball in unison. The England center back may have prevented a goal, but what he failed to do was clear the ball that fell at Davis’s feet. The perennial sub pulled it onto his left foot and put all of his immense strength into blasting the ball only to see Bailly slide into his path and block the shot. De Gea pumped his mitts on the line in relief. Seconds later the final whistle blew, and the Man U bench emptied onto the field to shower Bailly with hugs of appreciation. Game over, Man U 2, Aston Villa 1.

The sense of great frustration and disappointment was natural, given how well this Villa squad performed. Still, the game should be seen as an indication of this young Villa team that is skilled and at peak fitness and that will continue to improve. One indication of that fitness is the team’s second half prominence. In their fifteen games they have outscored their opponents in the second half 20 to 8 (29 to 16 overall) and have only been outscored in the second half of one game versus outscoring their opponents in ten games.

Back home to face Liverpool in the FA Cup and then Spurs and Everton in the Premier League, followed by a visit to the Emirates to face Manchester City, that’s one of hell of a challenge and an opportunity.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Wan Bissaka; Bailly, Maguire, Shaw, Fred, McTominay, Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford, Martial

SUBS: Henderson, Mata, Greenwood, James (s 87’), Lingard, Alex Telles, Nemanja Matic (s 65’), van de Beek, Tuanzebe

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Kortney Hause, Ezri Konsa, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Taylor, Hourihane, Hause, Guilbert, Nakamba, Davis (s 84′), Ramsey (s 79′)

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