I am aware that this probably sounds absurd. As Manchester United revelled in their role as a rejuvenated attacking force against Bournemouth on July 4, the rest of the Premier League looked on with fear and envy. United’s daunting forward line struck a nostalgic chord, reminiscent of the club’s heyday.
Even the Villa fans that have delved to new depths in search of positivity, proclaiming goal difference to be the potential saviour that could propel the club above the looming dotted line, feel a sense of dread ahead of Thursday’s game.
However, despite a glut of beautiful goals, the overall performance of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side should leave Villa with a glimmer of hope. Their prowess in front of goal may have hit the headlines, but it relegated their defensive frailties to mere footnotes in match reports.
Bournemouth are a very bad football team. There is no other way to describe them. Yet, they scored twice against a team tipped, by some, to be capable of winning major honours. There have been many valid criticisms levelled at Villa, but Dean Smith’s side possesses the necessary tools to expose this United defence.
Eddie Howe’s team, despite their flaws, had a clear blueprint to attack Manchester United. Time and again in the first half, through balls were played down Bournemouth’s left-wing, in between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof, to leave Junior Stanislas one-on-one with the centre-back.
Wan-Bissaka is renowned as one of the Premier League’s most effective defenders, in terms of tackles and individual duels, but Solskjær’s insistence on playing his full-backs further forward negated the right-back’s defensive talents.
Using their forwards to start a high press, within the opening ten minutes Bournemouth had mounted multiple counterattacks from inside United’s own half. Their ability to quickly regain possession in midfield, leaving United’s full-back positions unoccupied, was exploited through Lewis Cook’s pinpoint passing from deep.
Solskjær replaced Lindelof with Eric Bailly at half-time in an attempt to counteract the issue, but it was simply a misappropriation of blame. Though the intensity of Bournemouth’s press waned in the second half as they fell further behind, the same problems remained. Stanislas’ replacement, Arnaut Danjuma, was pitched between Wan-Bissaka and Bailly when he had a goal disallowed for offside on 51 minutes.
Looking to Villa’s tactics, splitting United’s defence requires combining two of the team’s star qualities: Douglas Luiz’s passing and Jack Grealish’s dribbling.
Luiz is more than capable of surpassing Lewis Cook’s passing ability. If John McGinn and other Villa midfielders are able to harry Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić, Luiz’s instinctive through balls from the base of midfield will leave the wingers one-on-one with Manchester United’s centre-halves.
Cue Jack Grealish. Though Villa’s talisman has finally returned from his left-wing wilderness to a more central position, United’s positional weaknesses are perfectly poised to hand Grealish the starring role, once again.
Villa fans scarcely need a reminder of his goal at Old Trafford. The issues that made that goal possible have only been accentuated by the arrival of Bruno Fernandes and United’s new-found attacking verve.
Complimenting Villa’s hopes of a victory is the form of David De Gea. The United keeper has come under increased scrutiny since the Premier League’s restart, initially following his performance against Spurs last month. Formerly considered the world’s best, De Gea is slowly ebbing further away from his peak.
Bournemouth’s opening goal was scored at his near post. The goalkeeper’s positioning, like those of his defenders in response to Adam Smith’s initial cross, left United vulnerable. Junior Stanislas curled the ball in from an acute angle, made possible by De Gea, to give the Cherries the lead, inside 15 minutes.
And he did not learn from his mistake. A minute into the second half, a blocked shot from Lewis Cook found its way to Arnaut Danjuma, who attempted to replicate Stanislas’ earlier effort, after De Gea once again left his right post exposed.
Though positional errors have occasionally been levied at De Gea, his task was compounded by Solskjær’s insistence on taking short goal kicks and passing out from defence. In a ‘Dean Smith’s Brentford’ type tactic, Eddie Howe used Josh King and Dominic Solanke to close down the two centre backs, with support also coming from the rest of midfield, to form a highly successful press that their opponents struggled to navigate.
Though there were times United’s defenders conspired to slip away, the team were put under constant pressure and their ill-suitedness to this short-passing style was surmised by the move that led to Bournemouth’s penalty.
With Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood switching positions, ponderous passing across the backline resulted in Bailly playing the ball to Matić, 30 yards from goal. United’s lack of intensity allowed three Bournemouth players to press the holding midfielder, whose lobbed return pass under duress led to Bailly’s handball.
Enough has been written about United’s dazzling front three, supplied by two world-class midfielders in Pogba and Fernandes. Villa fans are already too aware of the threat that Solskjær’s team poses. Any hopes of a positive result automatically rest on the type of defensive solidity showcased in the Liverpool game – except, it must be maintained for the whole 90 minutes.
Like Alex wrote in this week’s xV, Villa also need to win games. To attack teams and pose a threat. A return to the pressing tactics that the side deployed earlier in the the season, with a counter-attacking edge, should be the blueprint.
The odds are stacked against Aston Villa. This is a chance for the team to show their rivals that they are still fighting.