Manchester United clinched an important win on Monday night, beating a spirited Aston Villa side 1-0 in what was hardly a viewing spectacle, with the players again lacking chemistry under German manager Ralf Rangnick.
How did United set up?
Having had a whole week between the league fixture against Wolves and the cup tie against Aston Villa, fans assumed that Rangnick had a fresh bunch of players to choose from for the clash against Steven Gerrard’s side.
However, Rangnick confirmed before the game that Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire and Phil Jones were all absentees due to fitness, saying that “they are having problems”. The German went on to add that “I wouldn’t say that they are injured, but they have muscular problems”. Jones will be particularly disappointed following a man of the match performance on his return to injury against Wolves last week.
Manchester Evening News writer Tyrone Marshall confirmed that Jones has fallen victim to a quad problem, with Sancho suffering tightness in both hamstrings. His colleague, Samuel Luckhurst, confirmed that Dean Henderson’s absence was due to his desire to leave the club this January.
With the players missing in mind, the personnel that Rangnick opted for was no real surprise, but fans were again disappointed to see Donny van de Beek on the bench. Although it appeared a 4-2-2-2 on the eye, it was more of a 4-2-3-1 formation that the players were accustomed to across the course of the match.
Here was the starting lineup and substitutes:
Starting XI: David De Gea (GK), Diogo Dalot (RB), Raphael Varane (CB), Victor Lindelöf (CB), Luke Shaw (LB), Fred (CM), Scott McTominay (CM), Bruno Fernandes (CAM) Mason Greenwood (RW), Marcus Rashford (LW), Edison Cavani (ST).
Subs: Tom Heaton, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Alex Telles, Nemanja Matic, Donny van de Beek, Juan Mata, Amad Diallo, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Elanga.
How it went down
In the opening minutes of the first half, both sides looked eager to go forward, but there was an apparent lack of quality until the 8th minute of the game when McTominay glanced a header past Emiliano Martinez to score the only goal of the tie.Embed from Getty Images
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have been a proud observer of the goal, as it was a surprise link-up between his favourite midfield duo; Fred worked the ball onto his left foot from a wide area, managing to deliver a tasty cross that was met by the head of McTominay, who got delicate but impactful contact on the ball to nod United into the lead.
The Midlands side wasn’t fazed too heavily by the goal, however, and looked eager to respond throughout the majority of the first half. Emi Buendia couldn’t convert following a delightful run beyond the United midfield, and John McGinn saw a powerful strike saved by De Gea, with the Spanish shot-stopper alert to whatever was thrown at him.
Fernandes set up Cavani for a good chance around the half-hour mark, but despite registering a good strike, the Uruguayan’s effort was palmed away. Dion Dublin spoke the minds of many United fans in the BBC commentary box, claiming that Rashford ought to have made more of an effort to convert the scraps from the strike, but the winger found himself caught on his heels.Embed from Getty Images
Lindelöf had a moment to forget shortly afterwards; following an aimless clearance by Tyrone Mings, the Swede failed to control the ball from the air on the last line of defence, allowing Ollie Watkins a chance to register a shot that slammed off the crossbar.
Shaw and McTominay both registered strikes from distance before the interval, but it is fair to say that Villa were unlucky to go in at the break as the losing side.
Many Reds fans will have expected a strong second half from the players, but it could credibly be said that it was poorer than the first. Danny Ings fumbled the ball into the net on the 51st minute, following McGinn’s lofted free-kick. However, following a VAR review that lasted almost four minutes, the goal was chalked off, with Jacob Ramsey accused of blocking Cavani from an offside position in the build-up.Embed from Getty Images
The game livened up following the controversy, with players leaving impact on one another in tackles. The visitors managed to find the net again around the hour mark, with Ings’ stray chip converted in by Ramsey, but the former was evidently offside as he ran beyond the United defence. It was another head-in-hands moment for VAR, as even though the linesman eventually called for offside, play was allowed to go on and Lindelöf was injured by the goalpost when trying to claw the ball away.
That was about as good as it got for Gerrard’s side, who failed to muster up anything special in the final third of the game. Cavani made way for Van de Beek on the 72nd minute when United were looking shoddy in possession, and the Villa boss brought on Anwar El Ghazi to try and resurrect his side’s hopes, but the game petered out as time went on. Greenwood registered a couple of left-footed strikes after cutting in, but they never troubled the keeper.Embed from Getty Images
The 85th minute saw Fernandes, Rashford and Ramsey replaced by Lingard, Elanga and Philogene-Bidace respectively, but the game swiftly drew to a close, with the home side progressing to the 4th round of the cup.
Final score: Manchester United 1-0 Aston Villa (Scott McTominay, 8’)
Man of the matchEmbed from Getty Images
As has been the case a few times under Rangnick now, the wider performance was incredibly uninspiring. With that being said, though, there were some performances that deserve a mention.
De Gea was routinely comfortable in goal having been called into action throughout the game, and Varane showed his world-class reading of play throughout periods of the match, but it was McTominay who probably pips the prize having proved the match winner.
McTominay had a good first half, which saw him score the only goal of the game and complete some tidy long balls and tough tackles, yet fans should not get carried away as the Scotsman failed to match those same heights in the second half. In fairness to him, however, the entire team were mundane following the interval. The 25-year-old has now scored as many goals in his last 3 games than he managed in his previous 39 (2).
The bigger pictureEmbed from Getty Images
After slumping to the first defeat under Rangnick last Monday, it was important that the team got the victory today, and the 1-0 clinch sets United up for a 4th round clash with Chris Wilder’s Middlesbrough. Unfortunately for fans, not many will be left buzzing for the cup tie following another lacklustre showing under the lights. United finished the game with 43% possession, which is the lowest total for a win at the Theatre of Dreams this campaign.
The team lacked fluidity at the best of times. The midfield again failed to assert any authority over the opposition, the forwards looked poor in decision making, and the win raises more questions than it does answers. What on earth has happened to Marcus Rashford? Fans were in anguish when he showed no attempt whatsoever to convert the leftovers from Greenwood’s second-half strike.
The win means United have now won all 10 of their last 10 home games in the FA Cup. In that time, the Reds have scored 21 goals in those games, conceding just 2 strikes.
There is still work to do for Ralf, and the longer time goes on, it feels like the mountain becomes steeper to climb. There are more negatives than there are positives when United are winning at the moment, which frankly seems bizarre. The side come up against Aston Villa again this Saturday, this time in the Premier League at Villa Park, which is sure to be a tougher test than what it was tonight.