Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United: Villa move into commanding position but United hit back
A poor first half followed by an entertaining second half, and a characteristically improbable comeback from United.
Villa had an injury crisis in midfield, starting Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg in the centre. Gabriel Agbonlahor came in upfront, with Ashley Young just behind.
United also had injury problems, with Paul Scholes also unavailable through suspension. They reverted to 4-4-2 with Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov upfront, while Ji-Sung Park continued on the left.
The first half was a static, uninspired contest that neither side wanted to take the initative in. Both teams had a problem retaining position high up the pitch; Berbatov and Hernandez had terrible games for United, whilst Villa looked slightly unaccustomed to not having a ‘big man’ playing a classic hold-up role, although Agbonlahor did this job reasonably well at times.
In many ways the first half was similar to the Manchester Derby on Wednesday – neither were in charge, both presumably wanted to play on the counter-attack. It was somewhat of a stand-off – the only player in any space was Ashley Young, who was causing Michael Carrick problems.
Carrick wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be getting goalside of Young or battling Villa’s young players higher up the pitch, and Young should have made more of the space he found himself in – his use of the ball was poor. In turn, Carrick was less of an impact on the game than he was in midweek, as here he had more defensive duties. It was 4-4-2 v 4-4-2, the game was stretched, and the midfielders weren’t connecting with the attackers.
The most promising attacking player was Stewart Downing, who was putting some good crosses into the box. Park played very centrally, and in turn Marc Albrighton moved into a narrow position when he didn’t have the ball. Patrice Evra was surprisingly quiet in an attacking sense.
Second half switch
The first significant action of the game – in tactical and entertainment terms – came on 58 minutes when Sir Alex Ferguson switched to a 4-2-3-1 system. This meant Park playing more permanently in the centre, Nani going across to the left and Hernandez shifting out to the right. In theory this made sense – United were having such problems with the interplay between the midfield and the forwards that moving to a shape where they could get the ball forward more gradually was the right approach.
However, as United moved up the pitch into this shape, they seemed to leave more space in behind, and this played into the hands of Villa’s pacey front four. Transitions instantly became a lot more promising for the home side and they found it easier to get the ball forward quickly.
Both their goals came from direct play and outpacing United at the back. First, Young’s first-time ball from the centre of the pitch saw Agbonlahor skin Vidic, before laying it back across to Young, who was fouled by Brown. He converted the penalty himself.
Just four minutes later another quick counter saw United exposed – this time it was Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton that combined for a wonderful goal, and United looked beaten. Downing’s crossing Chalkboard shows a lot of unsuccessful crosses (which is a slightly harsh reflection of his performance) but the sheer number of balls he puts into the box is very impressive.
United responded by pumping crosses into the box themselves – Rio Ferdinand met one and hammered a shot that was cleared off the line – on 79 minutes this was, amazingly, the first time United had got a shot on target. Substitute Federico Macheda squeezed a shot into the top corner from the edge of the box to get United back in it, before Vidic’s header, his third of this season – from a similar position to Ferdinand’s effort – made it 2-2.
United’s intention to simply hang crosses into the box was confirmed when Ferguson replaced Park Ji-Sung with young centre-back Chris Smalling. Smalling went upfront as an additional centre-forward, though the bigger threat came from fellow substitute Gabriel Obertan’s pace. Smalling’s introduction upfront suggests that (notwithstanding injuries), United still don’t have enough variety in attacking positions.
Villa had far more chances than United in this game, and overall played much better football. In addition to the two goals they hit the woodwork twice in the second half, whilst Albrighton missed a simple header from an excellent Downing cross. They were helped by United pushing forward more, which left space in behind, where the pace of their attacking players was more obvious.
United’s unbeaten record this season now contains more draws than victories. The negatives today came all over the pitch. They defended poorly – possibly too high up the pitch for the players they were facing – and conceded too many chances. Their midfield failed to get the better of two very inexperienced Villa players in the centre, and didn’t create enough chances themselves. The forward two both had awful games – Hernandez can be excused the odd poor performance considering his excellent start to his United career, but Berbatov looked off the pace, and his one effort on goal was a miserable scuffed toe-poke.
Picking up points when playing poorly is notoriously the key for successful sides, but equally that rule implies that ‘playing poorly’ is in the odd game here and there, not a consistent run of underwhelming performances.Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United: Villa move into commanding position but United hit back