Aston Villa (1) vs Manchester United (3) – A Moment’s Madness and Villa Crumble

It’s hard to know what is more upsetting as a Villa fan.  Was it Douglas Luiz repeating his catastrophic error of tripping Paul Pogba in the penalty area at Old Trafford, in the return fixture at Villa Park, or the whole team deflate and allow Man U to take all 3 points without a fight?

Of course, that is somewhat of an exaggeration, but it’s hard to see how Man U would have turned the game around otherwise.  Sure, the visitors were playing some decent soccer between the boxes, but they had barely kept Martinez alert with their toothless attacks.

No doubt they would have brought on Cavani earlier and he would have been a handful, but Fernandes was way off the boil and unlikely to have generated a clear chance for the striker given how well the claret and blue defense was playing.

Of course, a fully alert eleven Villans would have helped our cause.  Away from Goodison Park, Ross Barkley was back to his “lost soul” persona.  That’s not to say, he did not contribute some fine touches when in possession, but he lost possession repeatedly and it became evident that his teammates were apprehensive about passing to him.

With Wesley and Morgan Sanson on the road to recovery, manager Dean Smith must feel obligated to use someone the team has already paid for.  Of course, he could have given Jacob Ramsey more opportunity to gain experience or changed the format to let Keinan Davis join Ollie Watkins as a twin striker.  For now, we have to give the “guvnor” the benefit of the doubt.

We also have to assume that Smith will do the best he can to retain the core players of his current squad for next season and that would include the talented Luiz, hoping that another year of maturity will round-out some of his edges.  It is hard to imagine that he won’t mature, surrounded by so many good role-models (e.g., John McGinn, Tyrone Mings).  Certainly, other players have grown over this current season (Watkins, El Ghazi, Traore, Cash, Konsa, and Targett) and give the team a solid core to build upon.

So, why did we not overcome our problem with Man U (not having beaten them at Villa since 1995)?  Dwight Yorke was in that squad, so that tells you how long it has been.  This has been such a topsy-turvy year that anything was possible, one of them being Villa’s newly found ability to score first.

That meant, at the kick-off, Villa fans were nervously hopeful.  Certainly, the solid performance that gained them a victory at Goodison Park the previous weekend was a confidence booster and the closeness to having Jack Grealish rejoining the squad another reason for optimism.

The initial butterflies would have settled down when it became apparent that the Villa were not intimidated by one of soccer’s elite clubs.  That was despite the zebra appareled visitors zipping the ball around with great precision and decisiveness.  McGinn, as usual, showed the way.  Surrounded by three Mancunians, Villa’s best-signing-ever, coolly slipped out of their grasp and was set for a dangerous break when Man U’s Brazilian midfielder applied a trip.  Less than 20 seconds on the clock and Man U had committed the first foul.

Also reassuring was that Villa were playing with a high-press and this forced the visitors to rush passes and twice Barkley was the recipient of a stripped ball, but his slow reaction time resulted in him immediately losing the ball.  Knowing that a Jack Grealish would never have allowed that to happen was a comfort to the claret and blue faithful.

When Rashford did gain a sight of goal from the left, a speculative shot was partially deflected by Ezri Konsa, turning into a cross that Mason Greenwood redirected back only for it to go to Matty Cash and be easily cleared.

Man U was dominating possession and they manufactured another opportunity.  This time it was Luke Shaw who was fed a pass by Paul Pogba as he headed into the area from the left of the goal, but he had no teammates in front of the goal and Emi Martinez blocking the near post.  The England winger’s only chance was to blast the ball and hope to overpower the keeper.  Martinez was not bothered, and he saved comfortably.

It was a similar story a couple of minutes later when Shaw was found high up and open on the left wing and his pass to Pogba was partially cleared to Fred who shot from distance and Martinez, again, comfortably saved. 

By the 10th minute, Villa had settled into their game plan and their press yielded some opportunities.  First, El Ghazi chased down a pass back from Wan Bissaka to Dean Henderson, now the presumptive first team keeper for Man U.  Henderson had little time or options and his chip over the fast-approaching Villan was too heavy and went straight out of play.  From the throw-in McGinn was able to find Matt Targett racing towards the goal line and his cross was blocked by the talented fullback that they picked up from Crystal Palace for $44 million, but at the cost of a corner.

The corner, taken short, yielded a cross from a good angle by Targett, but was a little heavy and cleared Watkins, Mings, and Konsa who were lined up to attack.  Credit for trying something different against a well-drilled Man U defense.

The short goal kick yielded another opportunity for the Villans.  When the ball came to McTominay McGinn was able to squeeze him at the touch line and then dispossess him.  The Scot fed El Ghazi who whipped the ball into the penalty area where Traore was camped, and Man were forced to give up another corner on the right.

Maguire rose high to clear Targett’s inswinger corner and Villa rotated the ball to Barkley, also on the right but the Chelsea loanee, with a line of Villans ready, overhit the cross straight into the stands.  Only a minute or so later Traore received the ball from Watkins on the right wing.  A momentary loss of concentration caused the ball to run to Shaw who, perhaps surprised, failed to protect against some fine poaching by Matty Cash in a dangerous position just outside the Man U box.

Cash passed to Barkley and immediately took off on the outside for the return, but Barkley hesitated, and lost possession yet again, this time back to Shaw.  The wing-back passed to Pogba who took-off up the vacant left wing with Traore, Barkley, and Cash all the wrong side of the ball and chasing back.  Pogba rifled a pass to Rashford who had noticed the space on the left.  The England international headed into box from the left, but was cut off by Konsa so he fed Fernandes arriving in support.  Mings and Luiz forced a quick effort by the Portuguese international that went wide of the post.  At 15 minutes on the clock, Villa were getting chances but sloppy play, mostly by Barkley was making it difficult to sustain pressure and must have been frustrating to his teammates.

Villa are fortunate to have the antidote to a player who is not carrying his weight and that is John McGinn.  A brilliant pass from his own half for Traore, aimed at the right corner flag, got what it deserved as Shaw was forced to concede a corner.  Targett took a left-foot inswinger but Maguire outjumped Konsa and the danger was cleared.

The next foray came from Man U who found an open Shaw (Traore had failed to backtrack) and he found Mason Greenwood who had space at the left corner of the box. He took what appeared to be a compromise between a left-footed shot and a pass that was almost a tap-in for Rashford who was running the inside right channel into the 6-yard box.  Targett, at Rashford’s shoulder, was able to display some neat footwork to intercept and clear confidently.

As the clock reached the 23rd minute mark, Villa attempted to break through on the left but lost possession.  Man U were similarly unsuccessful in their ability to find an open man and the ball ricocheted between Fred and McTominay, a perfect opportunity for John McGinn to dash in.  The Scot nicked it and laid the ball off to Luiz who passed to Traore who was in the inside left channel and heading into the penalty area.  The Burkinabe international turned outside Lindeloff who appeared to have any danger covered.

To everyone’s amazement (with the probable exception of Traore himself), thanks to almost no back-lift, the winger hit a brilliant shot that rifled into Henderson’s top-left corner of the net.  Lindelof and McTominay dropped their heads and Maguire turned his back on the two guilty parties while Henderson stared at the back of Traore in shock.  Aston Villa 1, Man U 0 in the 24th minute and the Villans had registered their first shot on goal and Traore, his 6th goal of the season.

From the ensuing kick-off, Villa were almost gifted their second goal.  Maguire received a pass on the left and saw none of his teammates open and turned to pass back to Henderson.  Watkins had anticipated and was fast enough that Henderson focused on kicking the ball before selecting a direction.  It was right at Traore who stood only 10 yards outside the Man U penalty area.  The kick was so hard and such a surprise that the goal-scorer’s attempt to control the ball left him spreadeagled on the turf.  If he had looked, he would have noted the empty net that was waiting for his seventh goal of the season.

With Traore down, Man U attacked up the left wing and Rashford zigged and zagge around Cash to reach the goal line before zipping over a cross, but Mings is there to clear for a corner that leads to nothing.

Then, when McGinn induced yet another trip by McTominay, the freekick was fed out to Targett to hit a low cross into the 6-yard box that Fernandes just got a toe on to deflect away.

Man U came back with a pinpoint pass by Greenwood to Shaw open in the left corner of the Villa penalty area and he promptly laid it back for Pogba entering the box.  The imposing French international took a moment to decide what corner of the net he was going to deposit his shot only for Traore to invade the space between his right foot and the ball.  Pogba stumbled into the Villa winger and flattened him, giving up a freekick and getting some egg on his face.

With halftime approaching United started to press. Greenwood received a pass at the right-hand corner of the Villa area, looked for options, then drove to the byline and crossed at pace. Martinez parried it out, but against Konsa who moved smartly to avoid an own goal, then cleared.

The zebra shirts were soon back crisply passing down the right flank culminating with a Wan Bissaka whipped cross into a sweet spot just outside the 6-yard box.  Konsa rose to head clear ahead of Fernandes arriving with intent.  The midfielder led with his elbow that caught Konsa around the eye and stunned him and caused him to fall awkwardly.

Between clearing his head and massaging his knee, the outstanding young defender had to deal with his assailant appealing that it was not a foul.  This annoyance, or perhaps the minute break, energized the Villa into more high pressing.  It worked as Maguire was induced to hit a cross-field pass from the left byline to the right byline to an open teammate only for the pass to bounce directly into touch.

Villa used their possession to work it to Traore on the right for a decent looking cross that El Ghazi coming in from the left, should have done something with.  Instead, he misjudged the cross and had to watch it go over his head.

Still, the Villa were game for more high pressing, only this time Watkins got a little careless and clipped Maguire.   A yellow card followed, something that turned out to be significant later.  At the time, the Villa striker appeared unperturbed and chased Maguire’s freekick to Lindelof and rattled the center back enough that he cleared hastily and, as it turned out, directly to McGinn. 

Villa’s inspirational midfielder eyed his options and Watkins, still running, this time from inside the penalty area back to the D of the box, was his choice.  He knew that getting the ball to the young striker anywhere around the area had promise.  Once again, Ollie proved what a great acquisition he was from Brentford in the off-season. 

He took the ball and, running at pace parallel to the goal, managed to get plenty of zip into a strike that was heading just inside Dean Henderson’s left post.  De Gea’s successor proved worthy by diving and just getting a hand in the way to prevent Villa doubling their lead just before the half.

Manager Dean Smith undoubtedly congratulated his team on gaining and maintaining a lead against their top tier rivals and told them to continue in the same vein.  The second half resumed and play was back and forth, mostly between the boxes.

When Luiz picked up a loose ball inside the Man U half, he neatly dispatched to the ever-energetic Matt Target charging up on the left.  The wing-back quickly found Watkins who laid it off for El Ghazi and was heading into the box for the return pass.

In fact, before El Ghazi could do anything with the ball, he was in a heap on the ground. McTominay came right through Villa’s goal-scoring surprise this year.  Instead of whistle and a yellow card, the referee was waving to “play on”.  Yes, the Man U Scot did go for the ball, but taking down an opposing player in the process is illegal.

That left the Villa on their back-heals to defend instead of a good opportunity for a set-play at the other end of the field.  That Mings comfortably blocked Pogba’s shot, that Martinez punched the corner clear, and Konsa, rejected a Pogba’s attempt to create another opportunity are beside the point.

A few minutes later, Man U came calling again.  This time Fernandes found Greenwood on the right and he teamed up with McTominay who tried to thread the needle as Greenwood headed for an opening.  Between El Ghazi and Targett they blocked the pass, and Targett fed the ball back to Luiz, who, in-turn, found Traore, and then back to El Ghazi.

All these were one touch passes that took the play out of the penalty area with an opportunity to break.  El Ghazi’s pass was inside to Barkley who had space and an opportunity to keep the play going to the right with Cash open.

Instead of one-touching to Cash, Barkley improvised.  He pivoted and attempted to release Traore down the middle.  It would have been an interesting scenario with Traore and Watkins facing Lindelof and Maguire and a wide-open half of the field ahead of them.

Unfortunately, the pass was a couple of yards behind Traore.  As reported elsewhere:

Man U threaten but Villa get possession only for Barkley to turn back into traffic and attempt to pick out Watkins but pass to Lindelof(f) instead. He passes to Wan Bissaka who feeds Pogba who carries the ball into the penalty area.  When his passage I blocked he backtracks, and Luiz trips him.

Whether it was Traore or Watkins (Traore was much closer to the Chelsea loanee than Watkins), it was a bad pass, and he knew it.  Barkley immediately threw his hands in the air in a signal that he knew he had messed up.  What he did not do was re-engage with the play.  No, I am not suggesting that he chase after the ball but rather located himself in a supportive position.

That would have been at the edge of the penalty area to be available for a pass or a rebound.  In fact, according to the recording of the game he stayed where he was.  When Pogba was backtracking away from the 6-yard box Luiz had no other Villan helping.

Fernandes did his bunny-hop and when Martinez dove to his right, he rolled the ball into Emi’s left corner. Aston Villa 1, Man U 1 and a brand-new game and Villa visibly frustrated with Luiz.

From the kick-off they played like a distracted team.  In the 55th minute John McGinn seized possession in midfield, and he carried the ball towards the right touchline trying to link up with Traore who was marked tightly by Shaw.  Three zebra shirts converged on the Scot who had no open teammate.  Barkley was being marked by McTominay, but Barkley did not make any effort to receive a lay-off pass.  McGinn lost possession but Man U had similar difficulty in making progress and a Villa defender fed Barkley.  Instead of the Chelseas loanee looking around to see which claret and blue shirt was open, Ross put his head down and attempted to run through the coverage.

Not only did Barkley lose possession to Shaw, but it was also another occasion where his turnover led directly to a goal.  Shaw passed to Pogba, who passed to Fred, who passed to Fernandes who turned inside and passed to Wan Bissaka on the right who forced Targett to back-pedal before slipping a pass inside to Greenwood.

Greenwood swiveled inside and left Mings off-balance then stroked a shot just inside the near post.  Martinez was too far from his left post and his dive was too little and too late.  Aston Villa 1, Man U 2, only three minutes after their first goal and Villa’s collective body language suggested the game was over.  Playing with little passion they still found gaps in the Man U defense.  A good effort by Traore who met a Targett cross at the near post forced Dean Henderson into a smart save.  Then, a reckless effort by Wan Bissaka to save corner resulted in Targett having a chance to find Ollie Watkins with a cross to the far post.  He rose above Maguire and headed over Henderson towards El Ghazi open in the 6-yard box only for Cavani to appear from nowhere and head clear and save a certain equaliser.

Then, a foolish play by Cavani in the 72nd minute resulted in an injury to Harry Maguire that could threaten his chances of playing in the Europa League Final and in the Euros.  The Uruguayan failed to control a clearance at the halfway line and El Ghazi took advantage and headed towards the Man U penalty area.  He had a formidable defender in his way (Maguire) and was not focused on an irritated Cavani coming at him from behind.  A reckless sliding tackle made Villa’s Dutch winger fall into Maguire and stretch the captain’s ligaments in his ankle. 

Bailly came on for Maguire while Keinan Davis and Wesley came on for Barkley and El Ghazi.  The changes worked to Villa’s benefit as Davis was able to hold off a challenge by Lindelof and lay a great pass for Watkins perfectly poised to tie the game only for a brilliant tackle by Wan Bissaka a split second ahead of the shot.

Eventually, Man U contrived to create one more opportunity and when Rashford had time just outside the area on the right, he laid a perfect cross to Cavani who had time a run across the outside of the 6-yard box who got the just enough of his noggin on the ball to find Martinez’s right-hand corner and the goalie flat-footed.  Game, set and match.  Aston Villa 1, Man U 3 in the 87th minute.

With Villa fans assuming that it could net get worse, the referee rubbed salt in the wound.  With Watkins racing for a through-ball and Henderson racing to clear it first, the Villa striker reached the pass first and deflected the ball away from the goalie’s foot.  Ollie appeared to have been tripped because he went down.  The referee judged that the Villan was trying to get a penalty call and gave him a second yellow and a red card.  How did Chris Kavanagh read the striker’s mind?  What evidence did he have from Watkins’ other player that he was a “diver”?  Worse still, Villa were with without their best scoring threat to face Everton.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Bertrand Traoré, John McGinn, Ross Barkley, Douglas Luiz, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Wesley (s, 78’), Hause, Jacob Ramsey (s, 65’), Davis (s, 77’), Nakamba, Philogene-Bidace

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Henderson, Wan Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, McTominay, Fred, Greenwood, Fernandes, Pogba, Rashford

SUBS: de Gea, Bailly (s, 78’), Cavani (s, 65’), Mata, Telles, Matic (s,86’), Williams, van de Beek, Tuanzebe

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