The week before we saw the Aston Villa flat 4-4-2 beaten by Swansea, outnumbered in the middle of the field and eventually burned on the wings with makeshift full-backs. This week? Exactly the same against a Manchester United side that ruthlessly exploited those weaknesses.
Villa were playing largely the same 4-4-2 as before, with Matthew Lowton coming back in at left-back, and Carlos Sánchez chosen to partner Fabian Delph in midfield. Elsewhere Andi Weimann came in on the left wing for Scott Sinclair. Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor remained as a front two hoping to take advantage of United’s centre backs being left exposed.
Manchester United were playing a 4-2-3-1 with Wayne Rooney as a lone striker, supported by Fellaini pushing up alongside him while Mata and Young drifted out to the wings, ahead of aggressive full-backs in Blind and Valencia. Carrick and Herrera formed the midfield pivot, with Rojo also pushing forward from the back-line.
First-half: Man United set up their orchestra in Villa’s bandstand
The pattern was set early as Villa could have conceded a penalty in the first 5 minutes when Ciaran Clark brought down Rooney in the box after Fellaini flicked on Valencia’s long ball. Manchester United’s threat in possession was clear – Fellaini and Rooney would occupy the centre-backs while Young and Mata drifted out wide to isolate the full-backs and Herrera and Carrick kept rotating the ball in the middle of the park. The real danger zone was down Villa’s right where Charles N’Zogbia was providing very little effective cover for Alan Hutton – United had several successful take-ons in dangerous areas.
Man United repeatedly took on and beat the Villa defence in dangerous areas, especially on the right flank. Image from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre.
Meanwhile Villa’s counter-attack was having very little joy against the United defence. In playing two strikers, Tim Sherwood was hoping that Agbonlahor and Benteke’s pace could expose Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. Unfortunately both were having a very good day, moving quickly across to shut down the Villa strikers before they could get a run at them. None of the Villa players had the weight of pass to play a through-ball and get them running at their own goal. Benteke was the main culprit, as he consistently received the ball and then laid it off to the congested midfield rather than looking to play it in behind, except for ineffective headers.
It took a while for United to make the breakthrough from their domination of possession. Too many times they took the easy option to float the ball to Fellaini, who wasn’t having a lot of joy in the air against Hutton and Clark. But eventually the pressure told. A clever bit of movement from Rooney dragged Okore out and forced Sánchez and Hutton to drop back to cover Young and Blind coming forwards. N’Zogbia was nowhere to be seen as Anders Herrera, United’s extra man in midfield, received the ball on the edge of the box in acres of space to lash it home. Villa had passively let United settle into their rhythm, assuming nothing would change before the break, and Rooney’s little improvisation was a stinging coda to the first-half.
Villa quickly started with their best moment of the match, as the Benteke-Agbonlahor connection finally clicked from Guzan’s goal-kick and Weimann cleverly overlapped and cut the ball back – but the Belgian fluffed his lines. It was exactly the kind of counter that Sherwood would have been looking for – pacy wingers making use of the space provided by the two forwards - but the two deep banks of four left the Villa wingers few opportunities to burst forward and the match quickly settled into its pre-break shape.
United struck up their rhythm again with Mata as the conductor, spraying balls across the pitch. Meanwhile Villa continued to shuffle sideways listlessly, the side with twenty-two left feet. Sánchez almost made the crucial misstep but got away with it. Agbonlahor and Weimann switched positions, and the Austrian’s bustle up front won a dangerous free-kick and was promptly substituted off for Joe Cole. Perhaps taking the hint, Wayne Rooney promptly half-volleyed a ball that came in from the left, the covering Delph too tired to do anything but look dejected afterwards.
Benteke’s bizarre 79th minute goal, from a fairly poor corner from Cole which was met with a woeful shot and even worse goalkeeping, added a touch of tension, but Abgonlahor couldn’t get past Jones on the break and the 'tame Joe Cole set-piece bizarrely leading to a goal’ trick only worked once. Then the contrast between the attitudes of the two sides was laid bare for all to see when an exhausted Fabian Delph lost out to Rooney after the drop-ball and Mata easily cut back the ball to Herrera, the ever-spare man to make the scoreline a more accurate reflection of the game.
Leandro Bacuna on for Alan Hutton (45m)- An injury forced substitution that did little to change the dynamic. Perhaps burned by the match against Swansea, he stayed back and made no attempt to connect with N’Zogbia and could do very little when moved forward into midfield as he had to defend.
Nathan Baker on for Charles N’Zogbia (60m) – Perhaps made to avoid having Bacuna isolated at right-back, Baker came on at left-back and Lowton came to his preferred right-back position, with Bacuna pushing forward into midfield. N’Zogbia had made very little impression and been poor defensively but with Villa sitting back so deep, there were few opportunities and Villa still gave away a goal from that flank. The net result was to waste a substitution when putting Baker on for Hutton in the first place would have had exactly the same effect.
Joe Cole on for Andreas Weimann (76m) – An odd decision, coming after Weimann provided two of Villa’s best moments in the second half. While he did get an assist, the ball had no right to find its way through to Benteke and his other set-pieces were dealt with easily. Carles Gil continues to sit on the bench.
Overall a set of poor substitutions that did very little to change the match. Again Sherwood seemed to make two substitutions to achieve what could easily have been done with one, and no attempt at all to change the shape of the side before conceding the goal. The 4-4-2 with wide wingers didn't work and both the starting wingers were substituted but there was no coherent Plan B.
Conclusion – Expected but still awful
Rationalising this match and the performance is easy. Villa always lost to United at Old Trafford, so why not sit deep and hope to hit them on the counter? After all we’re a pacy, counter-attacking side, it just might work this time...
Except it didn’t and it was never going to. We could have played that match 50 times and I would bet we´d lose it every single time. We got the lucky goal but we let in three. Manchester United had 77% of the possession and 20 shots. They completed 220 passes in our attacking third. All the Sherwood bluster only disguised that we went in for a draw at best.
Sherwood has to find another way to utilise the pace of the Villa attack without letting us be dominated in the centre of the park. Agbonlahor and Benteke might be able to score goals as a partnership up front but only at the cost of sacrificing the midfield against any side who can string together two passes. The substitutions were mystifying, especially the removal of Andi Weimann who was Villa’s best player in the second-half. And Villa are in deep relegation trouble again.