Aston Villa (1), Manchester United (2) – Our Villans are bedeviled by Man U.

Sunday, February 11th, 16:30 – Villa Park

Referee: Rob Jones

As our Villans added to their remarkable home winning record that recently ended, we must remember that we did not deserve every individual win and that good fortune was our friend on many occasions.  By the same token, our Villans did not deserve to lose to Man U. on Sunday.  That is not to say that the Red Devils were lucky.  They played very well and were clinical with the few real opportunities they created.  A draw would have been a fairer result based on the play, especially considering that our Villans had twice as many shots on goal (10 to 5) than their visitors.

Our Villans played their hearts out to a man.  No Villa player on the field let the side down.  I can also find little, if anything, to criticize in Unai Emery’s leadership: the team selection, their overall strategy, the substitute selection and timing.

I was relieved to see Jacob Ramsey start the game after noting he was getting close to full match-fitness in recent runs off the bench.  I was half anticipating that Pau Torres would start but Emery, not me, would have a far better assessment of who would be more effective on the day (Lenglet or Torres).

In fact, I believe that Lenglet had a masterful defensive performance, and, in addition, he contributed to Luiz’s goal by forcing a save by Onana that was only partially cleared.  Perhaps, Torres’s passes would have been more incisive, but we did not lack for incisive passes from the back, it was the failure of passes in the last third and our finishing that was the difference. 

In fact, it may have been something totally outside the realm of the game itself that could have been the most important factor.  That would have been the presentation of an award to Ollie Watkins for scoring 50 goals, an award that occurred just prior to the game.  It reminded me that the only other award to a Villa player I can recollect this season was recognition of the Ballon d’Or award to Emi Martinez just prior to our game at Nottingham Forest.  That turned out to be Emi’s worst performance for Villa. 

Nottingham Forest scored on their first shot on goal and their first shot in the second half.  They had three shots in total, 25% of the play and zero corners.  Emi saved one shot.  We lost 2-0.

Back to Ollie, he was slow in moving with the offside trap in the 17th minute and that resulted in Rasmus Højlund being onside when he scored!  That Ollie played at a high level for the rest of the game is consistent with him being slightly less focused on his defensive duties early in the game than he should have been.

Suffice to say, it is far easier to hold a lead, especially than coming back against a team as accomplished as Manchester United.  I doubt we would have won either of our home games to Manchester City or to Arsenal if we had fallen behind.

It is hard to appreciate as a spectator but chasing a game for 50 minutes is exceedingly tiring, especially for midfield players and exhaustion probably contributed to Kamara losing his footing in the 64th minute, a fall with serious repercussions (he will probably need knee ligament surgery and may be out for the season).

So, what happened in the game?  Well, the Red Devils started confidently as was to be expected from a team loaded with talent and enjoying a recent winning streak.  Garnacho and Rashford were able to penetrate on each flank thanks to an engine room featuring Casemiro, Mainoo, and Bruno Fernandes.  Højlund, on a goal a game pace, was also lively and would have scored if not for an important intervention and a shot block, both by Carlos. 

The visitors were rewarded with multiple corners and, right away, it was evident that they saw Maguire’s size as an opportunity to make him the primary target of the set-piece.  Kamara’s efforts to impede the far bigger player were futile and it was Maguire heading to his striker uncovered in front of the net that Højlund relayed past Martinez to open the scoring.  The reason that the Dane was open was that the defense immediately moved toward Maguire at the back of the penalty box to catch any Man U players offside.  Unfortunately, as noted, Watkins was tardy and played Højlund on.  Aston Villa 0, Manchester United 1, in the 17th minute.

That had to have been a bitter pill for Ollie and his teammates.  Nonetheless, our Villans upped their effort, and, for the rest of the game, their offside trap was perfectly executed (6 offsides called).  Meanwhile, Man U, employed a low block with as many as ten players behind the ball.  To their credit, on the break, each of their forwards was capable of racing the length of the field and testing Emi.

Still, we played bravely with none being more audacious than Jacob Ramsey.  Lining up on the left, he interacted with Moreno, Luiz, and Watkins intent on finding a channel to run into and make something happen.  When he was repelled, he would press to recover.

When, in the 22nd minute, Carlos and his cohorts, found themselves being high-pressed, the Brazilian center-back lofted a perfect pass over Man U.’s backline for the speedy Bailey to run onto.  It had the perfect shape with enough backspin to keep it from running to Onana.  The keeper had to exit the penalty area to reach the ball and was only able to head it towards the touchline.

Watkins, following twenty yards from the play was able to gather the ball and evade the recovering Maguire before feeding John McGinn.  Our captain advanced to the penalty area with Mainoo, Varane, and Shaw already lined up and ready to close in.  With an excellent first touch, a blistering curving shot was launched forcing Onana to get a very strong right hand behind it and push the shot wide of the post.  Brilliant by McGinn and just as good a save by Onana.

Villa, raced in the aftermath, taking a short corner for Luiz to zip a curling cross that Lenglet almost reached before it bounced in the 6-yard-box and went wide of Onana’s left post.  That passage of play lasted less than twenty seconds.  Villa fans were sensing an equalizer coming.

Less than a minute later, an excellent passing play from Villa’s own half on the left touchline, featured Moreno, to Lenglet, to Jacob Ramsey, inside to McGinn, one-touched to Watkins as he left Maguire standing and collected just outside the corner of the 6-yard-box.  Credit to Dalot for leaning on Ollie and to Onana for racing off his line to cut down the angle.

The keeper’s extended left knee blocked the shot.  That was the best opportunity for our Villans to score to that point.  A minute later, Ramsey received a pass (in the same area that Watkins had) and Jacob rushed to curve a shot around Varane and Onana only to be lacking enough spin on it and the shot went a couple of feet wide.

In the 45th minute our Villans had a chance to unveil one of Austin MacPhee’s set-play gems.  It would have been a gem if it had worked.  From a similar position from where McGinn had scored in the reverse fixture in December, Alex Moreno and Leon Bailey were sent to stand next to Onana for the kick.  The intent was to distract the goalie and it might have worked if McGinn’s shot had been on-target (the top near corner of the net).  Unfortunately, McGinn’s shot was under-cooked and Onana was able to move to his left and gather, but slipped out of play and gave up a corner.  Maguire bravely headed the corner clear but clashed heads in the process.

Halftime came and our Villans went into the break, like the fans, feeling that they had done enough to score and tie the game.

After the break, our Villans maintained their pressure while Man U. was focused on defense but broke forward whenever they could.  With our Villans knowing that a point out of the game would keep Man U. eight points behind, and us still ahead of Spurs on goal difference, there was all the motivation they needed to give their best but not get desperate.  That was evident when from a Lindelof error (he came on for Shaw at the break) that led directly to Cash intercepting and firing a cross across the 6-yard-box that Ollie beat Varane to only for Onana to make an unconscious save from a few yards out at the 49 minute mark.

Our forwards maintained their high possession passes and when Casemiro was able to exploit a turnover and find Garnacho one-on-one with Lenglet, our French defender was able to block the progress of the young, and talented, Argentinian only to see that an offside flag had been raised.

Man U. strung together a few attacks, many involving Rashford’s silky runs on the left and Fernandes’s penetrating crosses and corners.  However, when a Fernandes cross was blocked, Cash immediately found McGinn in acres of space in the middle of his half.  Our captain saw Bailey’s eyes light up and relayed a pass for our Jamaican to run onto.

Leon picked a diagonal run to throw-off the retreating Fernandes, Dalot, and Casemiro who had been running counter-diagonally.  Just before Leon reached the D of the box, he had to select one of his two teammates, both speedsters who were in position to shoot.  Watkins had run diagonally to the right and was a yard inside the box, and open, and Ramsey, arguably Villa’s fastest player, had come straight down the middle, and caught up with the play.

While Watkins, for a second, appeared to be the best option to score, Fernandes had slowed in anticipation of that pass coming and he was ready to confront Villa’s potent striker.  Meanwhile, Dalot and Casemiro had been sucked into thinking that Leon was going to shoot and eased up to block.  Between them Ramsey kept running, still watching over his shoulder.  The pass was made, and Jacob somehow missed it and the golden opportunity rolled to Onana, on his way out of his 6-yard-box. 

That was in the 60th minute and, only a minute or so later, Jacob had a similarly golden opportunity that he again fluffed.  Perhaps he was distracted by his first faux pas, and his miskick was easy for Dalot to clear.

When Kamara went down awkwardly when turning sharply in the Man U. half, he had to be taken off. That created an opportunity for Diaby to get a run, and he took advantage.  A shot by Diaby was deflected for a corner that Bailey took.  It was brilliantly directed to beyond the far post where Alex Moreno had snuck in, and the Spaniard immediately returned the ball into the mix where it fell to Lenglet.  The French defender got a shot away that Onana added to his large count of great reflex saves.

The ball was half-cleared to Bailey who knew exactly what to do.  He set himself for a shot but, instead found Douglas Luiz open in the 6-yard-box for a pass where our Brazilian found a good place to deposit it, above Onana’s left shoulder.  The Holte-End crowd went crazy, and Douglas did a Brazilian shimmy (I guess).  Aston Villa 1, Manchester United 1, in the 67th minute.

In the 72nd minute, Diaby weaved his way down the right before sending a pull-back to the top of the box.  With Man U. ready to descend on Ramsey he stepped over the pass that Luiz had to control before shooting and Varane blocked his chance for a brace.

Luiz had an even better chance to make it a pair of goals in the 75th minute.  With Villa pressing McGinn sent a teasing cross, again to Moreno at the back post, and Dalot panicked and gifted an errant clearance to Luiz with only Onana to beat.  To score two opportunistic striker goals in the same game was too much to ask and Luiz’s miscue rolled into Onana’s hands.

Diaby could have made himself the hero in the 80th minute when he found himself all set to pick the top corner only to rush and not get the curve.

McTominay had come on for Rashford in the 73rd minute, as a defensive option, but with a catch.  The Scot is the team’s leading goalscorer.  With Villa pressing Casemiro released Dalot down the right on a break that we rebuffed only for Mainoo to find space down the right where he received a Varane chip.  The composed 18-year-old defensive midfielder avoided the tackles of Luiz and Ramsey and let the ball run to Dalot who whipped a perfect cross for the 6’4” McTominay to climb over our 6’1” Matty Cash to overpower Martinez from a few yards out.  Aston Villa 1, Manchester United 2, in the 86th minute. A sucker punch!

When Ollie Watkins got on the end of a cross from Cash in the 90th minute, Villa fans had a sense of déjà vu of the game at Bournemouth last December when, with the home team leading 2-1, they were stunned to see our striker head into the top corner of the net for an equaliser.  Not this time, I’m afraid.  This header went straight into the arms of Onana.

Shortly after the whistle blew and, ever since, the injury news has added to our Villan woes.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Moreno (Digne 87′), Kamara (Diaby 65′), Douglas Luiz, Bailey (Tielemans 73′), McGinn (Zaniolo 87′), Ramsey, Watkins

Unused Subs: Torres, Olsen, Rogers, Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam

Man Utd: Onana, Diogo Dalot, Varane, Maguire, Shaw (Lindelöf 45′), Mainoo (Amrabat 92′), Casemiro, Garnacho, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford (McTominay 73′), Højlund (Evans 92′)

Unused Subs:  Bayindir, Eriksen, Diallo, Antony, Forson

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