They rehashed the third round tie that was played out on Monday night, where the Red Devils ran out as undeserved winners. This one was always going to be more difficult as it came at Villa Park. United started brightly and their start was rewarded with a goal, a Martinez mistake allowed Bruno to get on the scoresheet. Villa ebbed their way into the game and by the time United got their second, they were fully on top. A wayward pass from Sanson allowed Fred in, who played it square to Bruno. The Portuguese doubled his and United’s lead. Villa’s ascendancy wasn’t dwelled and they continued to roar forward. A quick fire double from Ramsey, which Fred diverted into his path, and Coutinho brought Villa Park to a fever pitch. In the end, both teams had to settle for a point.
Another New Normal
In recent weeks, after initial stubbornness with the 4-2-2-2, Rangnick has been scratching around for a formation that could coax something more out of the United team, both on and off the ball. An orthodox 4-4-2, a hybrid 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 in the second half of the Wolverhampton defeat and the 4-2-3-1 on the aforementioned game against tonight’s opponents. Today though, it saw the return of the 4-3-3. An injury to Ronaldo, along with suspensions for McTominay and Shaw, meant that it was an extremely changed team. Maguire and Sancho had recovered from their minor issues but were only rewarded with a place on the bench. Elanga started from the beginning, adding weight to the reports that he has been impressing Rangnick in training since the German has come to the club.
Since then, when the team has played, the options when the team has had the ball has been perhaps the biggest issue. Defensively, there has been somewhat of an improvement. Much was made of the amount of shots Wolves had in that one defeat but the quality of those shots amount to an xG of just 0.8. They were mostly long range shots. Offensively though, it has been quite ghastly. There has been nothing, not even the individualism that was relied upon in the previous era. The 4-2-2-2 is either going to create chances by getting high value turnovers or players of high technical quality combining in tight spaces. United were not doing the former and do not possess the latter. In the same way that a 4-4-2 is easiest shape to defend, a 4-3-3 is the easiest to attack in. The shape naturally creates passing angles, offers good centrality without compromising on width and the number 10 position being freed allows for a fluidity of players to drop into there.
We saw more of what it could offer United in that regard today. Fred, much maligned, is not a holding midfielder and never has been. He came to Shakthar as a winger and his way of defending is high octane, pressurising those on the ball to give it up rather than positioning himself cleverly to pick up loose passes. Having Matic, the only true defensive midfielder at the club, behind him allowed the Brazilian to be freed to do that job. Often, he was pressing higher than Bruno was, being the support behind Cavani. Speaking of the Portuguese, outside of his goals, his ball retention for the most part was a darn sight better than the usual dross we are offered up to. In fact, his return to type in the first half was what allowed the Villains to get a leg up in the first half, put us under pressure in the final 15 minutes of it. Telles and Dalot on the sides allowed for us to play out of those position under pressure where we often concede or go back on the ball. Obviously, kinks were still there and questions will be asked when more of the team becomes fit. Cavani was running around more than anything. Matic, as he does, began to wane the more he became tired. A replacement for him, in this window, is paramount. Is this possible with Ronaldo in the team? Will Maguire, Rashford, Shaw, McTominay come back in?
As much as a coach does help with the ability to control a match, you really are at the behest of your player’s ability. Majorly, their technical ability but also their mental ability. United lack in both. More in what? I couldn’t possibly offer you an answer. As soon as Villa stepped up the pressure, the drawbacks of our midfield were all there for the world to see. They simply do not have the technical capabilities nor the mental fortitude to cope with a team that will press them on their touch. The manager, of course, will share in the blame. The momentum was building, even when we went 2-0 ahead, and he done extremely little to change the course of the game. He remarked that van de Beek changed the course of the game on Monday by bringing a semblance of control. Yet, nothing happened until the Sancho change. It was obvious what was going to happen.
Elanga, while not doing anything to out of the ordinary, done capably on his first start of the season. While lacking in the extra x factor that a lot of United’s attackers have, he was just doing the simple things, on and off the ball. He had a few shots. A header that should have been on target and a shot snapping past the post was the closest he came.
Cavani playing 90 minutes is beyond me. That’s all I’ll say on that one. No string of words could possibly put solid thoughts behind that decision of Rangnick.