Manchester United 2 – 1 Aston Villa
Last New Year’s Day was a turning point in Villa’s season. A win against Burnley, but with the devastating injuries to Tom Heaton and Wesley, dramatically altered the course for the Villans. This New Year would hopefully have the same result, but with a couple less injuries.
Opponents Manchester United would be looking to go joint top with Liverpool with a win. Gary Neville had gloated on Twitter about having the same number of points as the Reds. This would surely have done Dean Smith’s team talk for him, Villa had the opportunity to ruin United’s day and cement their own Top Four credentials.
Tyrone Mings regained his starting place in Dean Smith’s side, but there was no return for Ross Barkley. The on-loan Chelsea midfielder was still nowhere to be seen in the match day squad, his injury must be a lot worse than has been let on to both fans and the press. Meanwhile, Anwar El Ghazi would be looking to score his sixth goal in as many games, the Dutchman set up Jack Grealish’s opener at Old Trafford last term.
Villa lacked cutting edge in the first half, and found themselves going in at 1-0 down. The United goal came as Paul Pogba beat John McGinn in the centre of the park, Aaron Wan-Bissaka bombed down the right. His cross was missed by Tyrone Mings, and Anthony Martial made the most of the Villa centre-half’s mistake, by putting his side in front. Otherwise the Villans had been defensively sturdy, and had created some tidy moves in the first two thirds of the pitch. The application just wasn’t there in the final third. The best chance for the visitors came as John McGinn met a Matty Cash cross, and volleyed the ball on goal for David De Gea to save.
Villa came out much better in the second half, and started to find a bit more quality at the business end of the pitch. A quick free-kick from John McGinn ended up at the feet of Jack Grealish, who whipped a cross into the box. The touch from Traore killed the ball, and the winger finished past De Gea, 1-1.
However, as soon as Villa fans were starting to feel more comfortable, a throw-in from United led to a penalty for the hosts. Paul Pogba manufactured it, making sure he had contact with Luiz, then tripping over himself, as Douglas Luiz attempted to get to grips with the French midfielder. VAR saw no issue with Michael Oliver’s decision, and despite the athletic attempt of Martinez, Bruno Fernandes scored from the spot.
It was then a period of United domination, as the Villans struggled to regain their footing. Shots from Rashford and Fernandes went close, and Martinez was called into action more than once. Villa battled back into the game, searching hopefully for an equaliser. The full-backs charged forward, leading to some dangerous overlapping runs and crossing opportunities. Headers from Watkins, Mings and Davis all went close, but it just wasn’t quite happening for the men in the black shirts. Matty Cash would have his shot saved, and Davis one blocked, just before time was called.
A soft penalty undid a lot of good work from Dean Smith’s men. There was a mixture of defensive solidarity, attacking quality, and the ability to stay in the game. Heads would have dropped after the second goal went in last season, but there was still plenty of fight from the Villans after Fernandes’ spot kick. They had done enough to earn a point, but couldn’t quite put it all together when it was needed.
There’s a lot of positives to take from a match against tough opponent. The games won’t get any easier, as Villa face a further six matches in January alone.
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Emiliano Martinez – 8
There were a couple of stunning saves pulled off by Emi Martinez. The most spectacular came off a shot from Bruno Fernandes in the second half. Martinez was also very quick off his line from time to time, rushing out of his area to cut off passes played in behind, which took pressure off Konsa and Mings. As ever his claiming of high balls was sensational, it is almost impossible for attackers to put pressure on the Argentinian shot-stopper.
Matty Cash – 7.5
There were times when Matty Cash was having to defend against two United players on his own, as Bertrand Traore didn’t offer defensive support. This resulted in a large number of overloads, and created plenty of chances for the Red Devils to put in crosses. In spite of this, United failed to score from any attacks down the left.
Cash was joint first in the Villa team for tackles with three, and made three clearances to go along with it. At the other end of the pitch, the flying full-back provided an outlet for Villa with crosses from deep, and he was unlucky to have his shot saved in added time.
Ezri Konsa – 8
At the heart of the Villa defence, Ezri Konsa put in another fantastic display. Playing out from the back he was calm and collected, even with Rashford and Martial charging in to press and make his job difficult. His covering play at the front post as United created overloads on the Villa right, meant that not a lot came from crosses from Shaw on the overlap. When called upon in the air, Konsa delivered, winning three aerial duels. He seemed to have picked up a knock at the end of the game, which hopefully isn’t anything too serious.
Tyrone Mings – 7
There was one error that puts a cloud over a solid defensive performance by Tyrone Mings. The centre-back failed to meet the cross of Wan-Bissaka, which left a golden opportunity for Martial to score. There were no other hairy moments from Mings, who was present to clear the ball and make blocks multiple times. He was positive and proactive on the ball, without taking too many risks, which was pleasing to see.
Matt Targett – 7.5
Matt Targett did his job very well defensively, and tracked Marcus Rashford before the first goal as he should, meaning he wasn’t at fault. Targett was there to win the ball back at several key moments as United tried to break, making three interceptions. The attacking side of his game was certainly more present in the first half, as some link up play with El Ghazi resulted in one or two crosses from deep.
Douglas Luiz – 7
Douglas Luiz made one mistake, and that was to get the wrong side of Paul Pogba, and put the smallest amount of pressure on him. Douglas took to social media to vent his understandable frustration, after the game. With the penalty aside, the Brazilian had a good game, sweeping up at the base of midfield. He battled hard, making two tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks. The defensive midfielder also passed the ball accurately, and made a couple of nice switches to get the ball moving up the pitch.
John McGinn – 7
Some of the passes fizzed from one flank to another by John McGinn were truly masterful, but other passes just weren’t up to standard. The Scotsman tried to use his trademark style to win the midfield battle, but he found himself losing these battles more often than he did at Stamford Bridge. Paul Pogba had McGinn turning left and right shortly before the opener, and a couple of unsuccessful touches show that Super John wasn’t as tidy on the ball as he can be.
Bertrand Traore – 6
Bertrand Traore may have popped up when needed to score the Villa goal and showed a couple of very neat touches to spring Villa attacks from the midfield. But often he was wasteful, resulting in Villa being unable to sustain pressure on United. His case wasn’t helped by a selection of poor set-pieces, as well as failing to find a Villa player with any of his seven crosses. Defensively, the ex-Lyon man was a bit of a liability, not tracking Luke Shaw time and again. With the games coming thick and fast in the coming month, Dean Smith will hope that his winger shows more than flashes of brilliance and can provide a more consistent contribution.
Jack Grealish © – 7.5
While playing down the middle, skipper Jack Grealish couldn’t quite put his stamp on the game despite seeing more of the ball than in previous games. With Fred and Scott McTominay nipping at his heels from minute one, it was hard for Jack to get any space and time on the ball. Once he started to drift into the channels and wide space, there was more time to create chances and take on defenders. The Villa goal came as he did exactly that, capitalising on some poor concentration and creating a chance. The eventual return of Barkely, will no doubt take the opponent’s focus off Grealish and allow him to have more influence on games against tougher teams.
Anwar El Ghazi – 6.5
Anwar El Ghazi couldn’t keep up his brilliant goalscoring form with another at Old Trafford. The winger did have a couple of chances to put a strike on goal, but he wasted his best chance as Ollie Watkins controlled the ball towards him, on the break. The 25-year-old was also caught snoozing while tracking Aaron Wan-Bissaka for the opening goal, John McGinn tried to cover for him, but he couldn’t stop the cross.
Ollie Watkins – 6.5
Another game in which Ollie Watkins has worked hard, and had the big chance to score, but failed to do so. Seven games without a goal sounds worrying, but it isn’t too much of a problem when he makes up for it with his work rate. He has to score soon, he gets in the right positions, but he cant get the ball to go over the line. His header wide in the second half was disappointing, as was his header back across De Gea, instead of directing at the near post. Watkins is another player that will directly benefit from the dynamism that Barkley will bring to Villa’s attacking play. The mooted return of Wesley will also help lift the load too.
Off the Bench
Jacob Ramsey (78) – 5.5
Despite having 17 minutes on the pitch, youngster Jacob Ramsey didn’t have any impact. He only touched the ball eight times as Villa tried to force their way back into the game.
Keinan Davis (83) – 6.5
Powerful forward Keinan Davis put himself about in the last ten minutes of the match. He found himself on the end of a cross, which he diverted narrowly wide. If it hadn’t been for a sensational Eric Bailly block, he could have grabbed his first Premier League goal in the last seconds.
Dean Smith – 7
This was a game where Dean Smith didn’t do a lot wrong. The team played well, but one small lapse and a soft penalty cost his team. The Villans deserved a point, but things don’t always go your way, as Smith has learnt several times this season already. When trying to get back into a game like this one, the lack of depth on the bench does hurt the Villa cause. Having a player like Trezeguet or Barkley to bring on could have made a big difference, and mean that Smith doesn’t have to turn to someone as inexperienced as Jacob Ramsey.
Villa definitely have what it takes to get points from the upcoming Premier League games, even if they are incredibly difficult. It’s Liverpool in the cup up next though, and it’s likely that Smith and Jurgen Klopp will play a second-string first XI considering their league fixture demands of the month.