Aston Villa don't tend to perform well against Manchester United. That isn't much of a secret. Their last home win over the Red Devils came on the opening day of the 1995-96 season, the lone United goal coming from David Beckham. That squad was anchored by Eric Cantona and captained by Steve Bruce, while Villa rode Paul McGrath, Ian Taylor and Dwight Yorke to a 4th place finish in the Premier League and a League Cup title. It's been awhile, in other words.
Last season wasn't any exception. United entered that game looking quite vulnerable and turned in a pretty uninspired performance, but Alex McLeish was unwilling to go forward and Phil Jones' 20th minute goal was more than enough. It was objectively one of the least entertaining games of the season, and the beginning of the end of my patience with that regime. That doesn't have much to do with this game, but there's a lesson that can be taken from it; you can sit back and try to hold on for a 0-0 all you want, but teams like United are so good that they can play like relative garbage and still nick a win more often than not.
Aston Villa put a very attacking team on the pitch against Sunderland, and they played their best game of the season. Clearly United is a little bit better than Sunderland, but the point remains; good stuff happened last weekend. Perhaps good stuff could continue to happen! These games are largely zero stakes, and sometimes throwing caution to the wind and going for it can yield positive results. Remember two years ago at Old Trafford? That never would have happened had Villa gone into that game with grinding out a result their primary goal. It's not that I have any real objection to playing bunker-and-counter, it's just that this team isn't really all that well constructed to do so. One of my biggest frustrations is teams playing against their strengths in deference to the opposition; more often than not, it comes back to bite you.
Look, Aston Villa isn't a good team right now, and United is one of the best in England if not the world. But Villa is talented, and on the occasions they've been good this year they's been really good. If this were an aging team just looking to hang on to safety and make it through a transitional period things might be different, but it isn't. This is a team that's going to have to get some major contributions from some young and inexperienced players in order to be at their best. They need to know that Paul Lambert believes that they can get it done in order to show the kind of confidence that will lead to consistently good performances. When this team is playing well, it's because they're trusting their instincts and moving the ball around quickly. When they struggle, it's because they look unsure of themselves. I don't think that's an accident, and being told that they're good enough to go out their against Manchester United and play the same kind of football they'd play against the Readings and Sunderlands of the world-even if it's a lie-might be the best approach. I don't know as much about the football, the squad, man motivation or stylish eyewear as Paul Lambert and no matter what happens I'm not about to second guess him. To the contrary, I feel like I'm picking up on the theme he's decided to run with; we're Aston Villa, and this is what we're going to do come hell or high water. It's not always going to work, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong decision.
I'm committed to what's going on at this club right now, and after last weekend I'm excited. And if Aston Villa come out and try to take this game to United and get blown apart, it's not going to change my mind. But if they come out tentatively, looking to play on the back foot and lacking aggression, it will be a disappointment. This team needs an identity and a philosophy, and it shouldn't be one that embraces a defeatist attitude. It's too early in the season for that. I want to know what this team is truly capable of, and this game could give us a pretty solid idea.