Having dumped Aston Villa out of the FA Cup only a matter of days ago, Manchester United slumped to a 2-2 draw in the Premier League on Saturday evening against the same opponent, which has devastated fans who had previously been looking at one of United’s best performances so far under Ralf Rangnick.
How did United set up?
With Harry Maguire, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Phil Jones all absent in the cup fixture on Monday night, many fans were expecting a shuffling of the pack at Villa Park, especially after Rangnick said that “they should be available for tomorrow” in his pre-match press conference.
However, none of those players made the starting side, with Ronaldo not making the matchday squad entirely; the manager said that “he still had problems with his hip flexor”. Also missing from the squad was Marcus Rashford, who was confirmed to have suffered a dead leg in Thursday’s training session.
With Scott McTominay and Luke Shaw missing out due to suspension, it was expected who would come in to fill their shoes.
It seemed that United dropped into a 4-1-4-1 formation when defending, but it looked like a 4-2-3-1 on the attack.
Here was the starting lineup and substitutes:
Starting XI: David De Gea (GK), Diogo Dalot (RB), Raphael Varane (CB), Victor Lindelöf (CB), Alex Telles (LB), Nemanja Matic (CM), Fred (CM), Bruno Fernandes (CAM) Mason Greenwood (RW), Anthony Elanga (LW), Edison Cavani (ST).
Subs: Dean Henderson, Tom Heaton, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Donny van de Beek, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard , Jadon Sancho.
How it went down
The Reds came out with a real energy that they seemed to have lacked in recent weeks. In the opening minutes, United registered a few set-piece opportunities in the final third, whether that be from the corner flag or from free-kicks. The early set-piece pressure paid off, with Fernandes’ long rage effort fumbled by Emiliano Martinez, giving United a 6th minute lead that stunned Villa Park.Embed from Getty Images
Although being the away side at a roaring ground, United well and truly took the sting out of the home side in the first half-hour. Whilst creating chances that could have put the game out of sight, United restricted Villa to what they could do on the ball. It wasn’t until the 32nd minute that Ollie Watkins registered their first shot of the game.
That Watkins effort sparked a good spell on the ball for Villa, but despite a few stops from De Gea, the Midlands outfit never really had the away side under immense pressure as the first half drew to a swift close.
United looked solid in a 4-1-4-1 formation without the ball, which saw Fred play parallel to Fernandes, both in front of a sitting Matic. In attack, the 4-2-3-1 was serving the players well; Elanga looked everything that Rashford hasn’t been with his pace, power and conviction off the left flank, whilst Greenwood was looking prominent off the right flank, always looking to find a teammate as United progressed up the pitch (something that he had been criticised for not doing under Rangnick so far).
With United a goal to the good heading into the second half, fans were looking for that pivotal second goal to earn some breathing space. Sky Sports commentator Andy Hinchcliffe summed the start of the second half up perfectly, claiming that it was “a really positive start to the half from Villa”, but it was Fernandes who scored the next goal of the game.
Following a mistake by Morgan Sanson – caused due to a high press that Rangnick has been looking to implement- Fernandes rifled home his second goal of the game to give United a comfortable cushion heading into the latter stages of the contest.
With Matic booked, Fred looking ropey defensively and the forwards starved of the ball, it seemed logical to bring on van de Beek to buffer up the central area of the midfield, as Villa were looking lively as they chased the game. However, Rangnick stuck with what had served him well against Gerrard’s side so far.Embed from Getty Images
It soon became squeaky bum time when Jacob Ramsey fired in a fine consolation strike in the 77th minute. The United manager responded by replacing Elanga with Sancho, but the home team maintained their momentum, and Phillipe Coutinho poked his new club level, with the score line becoming 2-2 in the 82nd minute.
Strangely, the manager opted to bring on Lingard and van de Beek in the 89th minute, but it was too little too late for United, who looked utterly shellshocked after dropping more points in the league.
Final score: Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United (Ramsey, 77’, Coutinho, 82’) (Fernandes, 6’ 67’)
Man of the matchEmbed from Getty Images
De Gea was a good shout for man of the match as ever this season, but it was captain Bruno that stood out today. It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for an attacking midfielder who doesn’t get fed much of the ball, but he really took the captaincy on his shoulders today and hauled United forward.
With 2 goals to his name, Fernandes was a great attacking outlet for United, but his defensive work should not go unnoticed; United’s Portuguese Magnifico made 4 ball recoveries in the first half alone. He thrived in the 4-2-3-1 shape going forward, but looked just as comfortable alongside Fred in a 4-1-4-1 out of possession.
The 27-year-old has now registered 5 goals and 1 assist in 5 appearances against Aston Villa during his time at the club. His tally is now 7 league goals for the season.
Let’s hope that he can build on this performance.
The bigger pictureEmbed from Getty Images
To be the better side for 70 minutes but end up drawing the game 2-2 is surely a sickening psychological blow for the players. In spite of the result, the performance was one of the best that United have produced since the arrival of Rangnick. The players looked tactically astute whilst they were in the lead, differentiating between the 4-1-4-1 and the 4-2-3-1 as previously stated, but composure went out the window after Ramsey struck his side’s first.
There has been multiple leaks from the dressing room in recent weeks, often claiming that there is a strong British clique in the squad, with some English players not having the right mentality to improve under the new coach. With Maguire, McTominay and Rashford absent today but United playing better on the whole, perhaps there is some food for thought there.
Foreign players have been more technically inclined than British players for many a decade, and perhaps that is what was seen today for United. It is important to note, however, that this is merely a theory based upon the leaks that have come out- this isn’t definitely the case.
The result leaves United 7th in the table, with the top four race looking bleak.Embed from Getty Images
In regard to negatives, the manager perhaps showed naivety not to make a change when United were two goals to the good, with van de Beek again going begging on the substitutes bench, but Ralf is a clever man and he strikes you as the sort of manager to learn from bad experiences.
Fred looked good in the press, but struggled to track runners. Matic looked tired towards the end and you could argue that cost the team three points.
There are some definite positives to draw upon for a change, though. Elanga looked superb today in and out of possession. The 19-year-old made only his second Premier League start, but never looked out of place. It was good to see the Swede start following numerous exciting cameos, and it shows Rangnick’s supposed faith in youngsters has legs to it.
The defence looked good for large periods, but it is difficult to overly praise as they ultimately let two goals past them.
Next up for Ralf’s Reds is Brentford at their Community Stadium. The game kicks off at 20:00 (BST) on Wednesday 19th January, with United in dire need of the points.