The start of 2021 presented the opportunity to move level on points with the league leaders in Liverpool. Only if they were able to get past the Villains, a team who have perhaps been the most exciting to watch in the league. It was going to have to be a hard fought victory if the victory was to come.
It proved just so. United led from a cross that Martial turned into the net. Villa came out in the second half with vigour and were justly rewarded with a goal from Bertrand Traore. Wan Bissaka was the most culpable having turned his back on the free kick that led to the goal. Parity lasted for only a little while as United earned their first penalty in what seemed a while and you know who. The Portuguese Inevitability side footed the ball past Martinez in the Villa goal from the spot. A hairy ending as Villa pushed but United were able to see it out, not least to a magnificent block from Eric Bailly just seconds before the whistle blew.
Final (Third) Control
No one can deny that when given the chance to transition, United’s chance creation is top quality. When the other team restricts the space, that’s when the Red Devils find it oh so difficult. For the last two months or so, Pogba has been deployed out in the wide left position and it gives something that United do not possess in the wide areas, which is the ability to calmly and effectively work within tighter areas either through dribbling or combination play. The issue has been that going backwards, Pogba has been found wanting. The penalty that proved costly vs Arsenal came from poor tracking back at the hands of the Frenchman. There was an occasion for a McGinn chance in the first half where Pogba lost Matty Cash, who was whipping in a great number of quality crosses today. Outside of that though, he was excellent. Whenever United were creating quality inroads into the opponent, Pogba was in the middle of it. There were two points in the game where he had chances to strike the ball and he dithered instead. Two other opportunities where he skewed the ball past the post, the second being one that he really should have put away. However, the shining moment was the first goal of the game where he flicked the ball over the head of McGinn and headed the ball into the path of Rashford. The Englishman’s flick saw Wan Bissaka through, who placed the ball onto Martial’s head. His involvement in the second goal was more substantial, being the player felled in the box for Bruno to set up and take. Recent weeks has seen a massive uptick in Pogba’s form. A continuation of this will only add credence to the talk of a potential title charge
Often, with the selection of the two midfielders in front of the defence, you are able to tell the type of game that Solskjaer thinks it will be. When you see Fred and McTominay stationed themselves as bodyguards ahead of the back four today, you saw it as clear respect to the Villa midfield of Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Jack Grealish. It is the hub of their team and where their best qualities lie so stopping that was clearly the vision. But, there are other ways to stop the other team from playing and stamping their authority on proceedings. It does not always have to be a case of breaking up play with tackles and interceptions. Luiz and McGinn are battlers but the difference between them and the Man Utd duo is that their ability on the ball is distinctly superior. Not just in the variety and quality of the passing but the consistency.
So after a good first 10 mins where United were able to stop the Aston Villa’s midfield duo from settling, Villa were able to move up the pitch. As soon as McGinn and Luiz were able to get their foot on the ball, the pendulum swung in firmly in their direction. It continued for much of the half but United were still offering up threats through counter situations, something that our first goal came from. The interval only seemed to make it worse, as the performance of both Fred and McTominay deteriorated to a standard where they weren’t even able to lay a glove on the Villa team defensively. Constant forays into our half as pressure built and it was only a matter time before Villa were able to equalise through Bertrand Traore.
De Gea pulled off some crucial saves. They were saves that plenty would have expected but given his recent form, it was good to see some reliability once the back line had been breached. The save from the Watkins header was probably the most stunning of them all but all were vital in bringing the three points home.
What a block from Bailly. All that needs to be said.