Manchester United (0) vs Aston Villa (1) – The New Era Certainly Has Begun

What a brilliant day for the team and fans around the world when Aston Villa soundly defeated their greatest nemesis and this season’s previously unbeaten and leading goal scoring team, those Red Devils, on Saturday, 1-0.  That they shut them out in the process, and with Alec Ferguson in the crowd of 72,922 at Old Trafford, made it all the sweeter.

Manager Dean Smith had lots to feel good about and he showed it.  Austin McPhee, a set-piece coach and the latest addition to Smith’s coaching squad was the recipient of Deano’s very best bear-hug and he deserved it for turning the team going from just about the worst to the best in the set-piece category in the Premier League, and for winning the game with Kortney Hause’s brilliant header from a Douglas Luiz corner in the 87th minute. 

Smith has also to be congratulated for the team he put on the field, how they took the game to Man U, and how he inserted the right subs at the right time.  While commentators were questioning selecting a 20-year-old academy unknown over a $35 million acquisition, Emi Buendia, they had to conclude that the trio of McGinn, Luiz, AND Ramsey more than held their own and stymied most Man U attacks before they got started.  In fact, they appear the perfect combo against all opponents in the Premier League. They are all incredibly quick, composed, out-hustle, and are always looking to make an incisive pass (especially McGinn) or carry the ball into the opposing penalty area (mostly Ramsey).  Luiz, meanwhile, is the Villan most likely to anticipate an opponent’s run into the Villa penalty box and be there to thwart the danger.

It is thanks to this youthful trio (McGinn is the oldest at 26) that the back three of Konza, Hause, and Mings, prevented Ronaldo getting a single shot on-target and that the most dangerous of Man U.’s four efforts to reach our goalie was a header by Harry Maguire.  Of course, our Villan backline did not put a step wrong for the 90 plus minutes and made sure that Mason Greenwood, the most dangerous Man U threat, had to work so hard to get a shot that his two on-target efforts lacked sting.

The efforts of their defensive teammates meant that our wingbacks were liberated and could dominate Luke Shaw and Wan-Bissaka.  The perfect example of that was Villa’s most incisive move of the game.  A 40-yard pass by Hause to Cash on the right wing at the half, a reckless attempt to clear by Shaw, Cash able to race down the line before executing a give-and-go with John McGinn that Cash was able to zip through the 6-yard box to Matt Targett who had outraced Wan-Bissaka only for Targett to sky over an open net should have been an early opening goal. Perhaps Targett was distracted by Wan-Bissaka’s desperate slide.  In fairness, how often does Targett find himself facing an open net in the 6-yard box?

As for the performances of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, each outing finds them combining more effectively.   What may surprise some is that Ings is doing more pressing and chasing while Watkins is getting more looks at goal.  That may change, but it was Ings’s chasing of Maguire to a long pass down the right wing that saw the Man U team captain and England international pressed enough that his pass back to de Gea wrong-footed the goalie and caused him to deflect the ball straight to Watkins. To de Gea’s credit, he extended his right foot to block the striker’s first-time shot.  The block, fortuitously for the Red Devils, came too fast to Ings and it bounced off him and back into the goalie’s arms.

Watkins most important contribution was stretching the Man U’s defense with great channel running and competing for second balls from set-pieces, another Villa innovation.  It starts with exploiting Mings’s aerial superiority to become the target for goal kicks and other clearances from Emi Martinez.  Tyrone’s position as the left center back makes him available to take a position on the leftwing touchlines where he won just about every kick that came his way against Man U.  By heading on to Watkins, Villa’s striker had more opportunity to win the second ball and feed Ings or Targett down the wing.

Of course, that presupposed that Emi’s kicks were accurately placed.  In fact, they were as our Argentinian superstar delivered on each of his responsibilities.  He was impressive enough to suggest that if he had featured in the Chelsea fixture (and not Jed Steer), the result could have been different.  The four saves he made against Man U. were made to look easy inclining the shooters to use more power and to aim for the edges of the goals (a prescription for missing the target which they did).

The contrast between the keepers was stark.  Martinez looked calm and confident while de Gea appeared tense and irritated at his defenders for having the temerity to let any opponent shoot anywhere near his goal.  He was particularly irked at Maguire for passing to his “wrong foot”!  How much this tension transmitted to his teammates was hard to tell, but Man U seemed not a particularly happy bunch nor did they play with much intensity.  Overwhelmingly, commentators and writers suggested that the Villa appeared to want the points more than their opponents.

Another complaint against the home side was how slowly they played.  In fact, that would have contributed to the lopsided possession numbers.  Man U dawdled on the ball, or went on mazing runs, that often resulted in shots from outside that safely rebounded off claret and blue bodies.  That their 50% more passes than Villa yielded 28 shots of which only four reached Emi showed tremendous inefficiency.  Meanwhile, our Villans turned 7 shots into three on-goal (and one goal), much more clinical.

While the first half was played at a fast tempo, with Man U appearing the more likely to score despite our Villans having more bona fide chances, the home side appeared tired and frustrated after the break.  Their mood was not helped by de Gea’s careless clearance just two minutes into the half.  McGinn took advantage of a poor kick and he found Watkins and Ings behind Varane and Maguire with only de Gea to beat.  Maguire tackled Ings from behind but the calls for a penalty were made moot by an offside flag.  Unfortunately for Maguire he had already injured himself in the process.

The likelihood that Maguire aggravated a previous injury only added to Man U manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s frustration as he had already had to substitute Luke Shaw for his injury.  Maguire’s wrestling move to prevent John McGinn a clear break on goal soon after suggested that the captain was struggling to remain in the game.  Despite trying, Maguire had to come off with a third of the game remaining and his loss may have contributed to the Villa goal.

Certainly, Villa appeared to get stronger the more the second half progressed.  When Villa’s pressing was enhanced by the addition of the fresh legs of Emi Buendia in the 75th minutes, it almost immediately led to a scoring opportunity.  When Cash was quick to intercept a Man U attack down his wing, he immediately picked out McGinn who spun past Lindeloff, who had come on for Maguire, before taking off down the open right wing and then finding Buendia in the box.  A quick dart towards goal had the Man U defenders back-peddling and leaving Ramsey open near the penalty spot.  Buendia noted and he slipped over a pass back to his teammate.  It looked as if young Jacob was going to be one-on-one with de Gea.  Unfortunately, his back foot gave on the turf and the youngster collapsed in a combination of pain and embarrassment.  Man U cleared, but the Villans maintained their pressure.

Even with the insertion of Cavani for McTominay, Man U could not get a handle on the game.  It was Buendia and McGinn who seized on a Martinez kick and set up Targett for a dangerous cross to the far post.  With Cash racing behind him, Lindelof had no choice other than to cede a corner.  With time clicking towards the 90-minute mark, Man U had barely been out of their half for over 10 minutes and it was Villa sensing that there was more than a single point to be won.

The big boys came up from the back and, since the corner was from the left, it was Luiz who came to take a right-footed inswinger.  The corner cleared those waiting at the near post and Wan-Bissaka headed clear at the far post.  The ball came out to Ramsey, 20-yards from goal but his volley went well over the bar.  That was all that Dean Smith needed to replace him with Villa’s latest Academy rising star, the well-named Cameron Archer.

Thanks to confident and skilled play by Ezri Konza, the Villa were able to advance deep down the left wing where Pogba gave up a throw-in.  For this new-Villa, that represented a long-throw opportunity for Matty Cash and his tall cohorts.  Mings competed with Pogba and the French international ended up giving away the all-important corner.

There was the typical amount of grabbing and pushing as defenders attempted to distract and block their marks.  In Cavani’s case, his mark was Hause, and the 6’0” Uruguayan was facing a significant height and size advantage to the 6’3” center back.  When Luiz’s corner came over, it was directed to the near post and Hause had to run from the middle of the goal almost to the corner of the 6-yard box with Cavani leaning on his back.  At the moment the ball arrived, Hause turned his head to the right and the ball sped like a bullet just inside the near post and high into the top corner with de Gea a foot away from reaching.  Goal!  Man U 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 88th minute.

Of course, with plenty of extra minutes anticipated, our Villans knew not to let their guard down.  Despite their best efforts, the unthinkable did happen.  With 90’15” on the clock, Man U was awarded a penalty for the fourth fixture in a row between the two teams.  In the three previous cases the penalty turned the game into a Man U victory.  Now, our Villans, facing just about the most consistent penalty-taker in the league were now looking at losing the lead and, quite likely, the game.  Villa fans everywhere had the same thought, “how could this be happening”.

What was different from previous times was that there were no recriminations at the culprit.  It was Hause, the scoring hero, who had accidently handled a defection off a Cavani header, and no complaining at the referee, Mike Dean.  Instead, there was much jostling around the penalty spot as Fernandes set up with Martinez, as later reported, telling the Portuguese international that the other Portuguese international, Christiano Ronaldo, should be taking the kicks.  Of course, Villa’s goalie had the credibility that came from saving three penalties in securing Argentina’s win over Colombia on their way to success over Brazil in the Copa America finals this summer.

We likely will never know exactly what made Fernandes sky the penalty over the bar, but Emi’s taunting must have contributed.  With all the pressure, Bruno was dissuaded from trying to fake the goalie as failure of that approach would have been humiliating.  As it was. As Fernandes was taking the kick, he could have noted that Martinez was diving to his right, where the ball was heading.  Martinez is strong with long arms and Fernandes could have been going for more elevation to get the ball over the goalie’s outstretched left arm and hand.  For whatever reason, the ball went at least a couple of feet over the bar and Villa still had the lead.

Still, there was still time for Man U to equalize and they came close.  Mason Greenwood received a pass on the right and, despite being confronted by multiple claret and blue shirts, was able to hit a sharp shot that could have tested Martinez at the near post but went a foot, or so, wide.  Phew.  Then a long pass was sent down that same right wing for Pogba to run onto only for his cross to sail behind the goal.  That was the last hint of danger.  The final whistle blew seconds later, and Villa players and fans could celebrate.  Man U 0, Aston Villa 1 and at Old Trafford.

Man Utd: de Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Shaw (Dalot 34′), Maguire (Lindelöf 67′), Varane, Fernandes, McTominay (Cavani 82′), Greenwood, Pogba, Fred, Ronaldo.

Subs: Heaton, Sancho, Matic, Lingard, van de Beek, Martial.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Hause, Mings, Konsa, McGinn, Luiz, Cash, Targett, J Ramsey (Archer 86′), Watkins, Ings (Buendía 78′)

Unused Subs: Steer, Bogarde, Carney Chukwuemeka, Young, Traoré, Nakamba, El Ghazi

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