First-half thoughts: Villa's attack fails to click
The Abgonlahor-Ayew partnership didn't work: The big change to last week's use of a 4-3-3 in the Villa attack was the shift in Ayew's role, as when Villa had the ball he moved up from the right flank into a second striker position, drifting behind Gabby Abgonlahor in a 4-4-1-1. Unfortunately neither of the two were good enough at hold-up play to make the partnership work.
Ayew lost a number of headers from Guzan's goal-kicks, including the play which led to United's goal. Both were slow to release the ball, panicking and heading back towards their midfield when pressured. Abgonlahor had one particularly bad moment, ruining a potential counter-attack when he hit a wild ball past Bacuna who was free on the right. It was strange to see them both on the pitch while Libor Kozak and Rudy Gestede sat on the bench, either of whom would have provided a more natural target man.
Man United's pressure on the left wing breaks through: Much like Bournemouth did last week (analysis here), Van Gaal's team reacted to Villa's deep 4-5-1 defensive shape by playing cross-field balls to try and catch-out the high full-backs. Whereas Bournemouth played from their left to right, where Matt Ritchie failed to get past Jordan Amavi, United played from their right to left where Memphis Depay was facing Leandro Bacuna.
They played long balls to Depay, who cut inside Bacuna several times and also almost got a free header behind him, and also pressed Villa's right side in possession which forced a turnover from Westwood that obliged Guzan to make a last-ditch tackle on the edge of his box.
Finally, it led to the goal, when Januzaj burst past Gueye on the right and got the ball out to Depay on the left wing, who laid the ball off to Mata. In the end it was the centre-backs who were to blame as Micah Richards tried to play an offside trap which Ciaran Clark didn't follow and they couldn't recover to stop Januzaj receiving the through-ball and scoring. Villa couldn't handle the overload down that side, and Bacuna compared poorly with Amavi throughout.
Second-half thoughts: United contain one-dimensional attack
Amavi leads brief revival: As seems almost customary under Sherwood's Villa, the Claret and Blue came out more adventurously after the break, led down the left by Jordan Amavi. He began linking with Scott Sinclair who started dropping back and shuttling the ball well. They played a nice overlap leading to a cross that was wasted when Ayew and Abgonlahor had the same instinct to go for the front post.
That seemed to energise the rest of the side briefly, but tired legs and a lack of sharpness in Villa's passing play limited the threat. Ayew blasted wildly, Gabby managed a tame header for the only Villa shot on target and Gueye's shot was blocked at the edge of the box after too many square passes.
Gestede substitution fails, as Villa go one-dimensional: Finally Sherwood made the longed for substitution on 58 miinutes, bringing Rudy Gestede on as a target man and aerial threat, but the choice to take off Sinclair was a strange one. Villa's attack had been going down the left through him and Amavi. Without him, Villa struggled to shuttle the ball through the midfield as Gueye and Veretout tired.
Villa resorted to long balls and clipped crosses into Gestede, but he wasn't able to dominate the United defence as he did to Bournemouth and United were happy to sit back on the counter and should have doubled their lead when Mata found Memphis in behind Bacuna.
Rudy Gestede for Scott Sinclair (58 mins) - Bringing on Gestede made sense, but taking off Sinclair was a poor decision from Sherwood, when the winger had been growing into the match and bringing the ball forward well. One of Ayew or Abgonlahor deserved to come off and without Sinclair's trickery, Villa looked limited.
Carlos Sánchez for Jordan Veretout (77 mins) - Sánchez put in another good late game performance, winning the ball and moving it forward well, allowing Westwood and Gueye to push up. Veretout made very little impact and this is a sub that could've been made significantly earlier - Carles Gil or Jack Grealish would both seem to be preferable options at the moment to add a creative element.
Disappointing substitutions from Sherwood who made the wrong decision in taking off Sinclair and didn't seem willing to try and shake it up more after Gestede came on.
What we learned:
- Villa cannot start another match with Abgonlahor and Ayew as the main strikers. They are too similar, too poor in their hold-up play and too wasteful with chances to have both on at the same time. At the moment, Ayew probably deserves to stay in the team more, if only because he presses better and drops back to link up play more.
- Gestede is not enough of an answer to Villa's attacking struggles. Gil or Grealish coming back would be a big boost, but it was also noticeable how Sánchez staying back released the other midfielders. A 4-4-2 with a diamond, with Sánchez at the base and one of Gil or Grealish at the tip and Gestede partnering one of Ayew or Gabby would make a lot more sense.
- Villa still have a serious problem at right-back. Bacuna was exposed by Gradel at Bournemouth and by Memphis against Manchester United. Crystal Palace are a team who love to play with pacy wingers, and it would make sense to give the more defensively solid Alan Hutton his chance next week.