Struggling sides can make for the most difficult of opponents, playing against a side desperate to kick start their season as well as having to battle one’s own complacency due to confidence. If one goes into a match expecting the other side to roll over for an easy 3-0 victory, then one can often be in for a shock.
And so it was, Manchester United fans travelled to Villa Park for the evening kick off on Saturday, to face Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa. Given their standing in the league, fans would have been forgiven for feeling slightly confident going into the game, although with the unpredictable nature in which United have played their games in recent weeks, one could also find themselves expecting the unexpected. With silence preceding kick off in light of Remembrance Day the following day, United lined up with David De Gea in goal, with Chris Smalling and RIo Ferdinand the preferred partnership in central defence. Rafael and Patrice Evra occupied the right and left back spots respectively. In midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick lined up centrally, with Valencia and Young occupying the wings. Up front saw Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie leading the line.
The story of the first half was that of frustration for the visitors, dominating possession but getting careless going forward, frequently giving the ball away and unable to create a meaningful chance to test VIlla’s goalkeeper. Although not getting much possession, the home side looked proved problematic for United’s defences, with pace on the flanks and Stephen Ireland working well in midfield. Despite the possession difference, Villa looked the more dangerous side going forward, with United’s wide players failing to provide decent service and clear opportunities proving scarce. With half time looming, it would have been safe to predict the infamous “hairdryer treatment” would be used by Sir Alex Ferguson, and that belief was made certain, when Benteke beat Smalling easily to play a ball to Weimann who side-footed emphatically from the edge of the box to give his side a 1-0 lead going into the break.
Second half, and a change. The ineffective Ashley Young was replaced by Javier Hernandez, in the hope the young Mexican could spur some life into the United attack and mount a comeback. However, 5 minutes in, and United’s troubles doubled, as Ireland played in Agbonlahor, who played a low cross into the 6 yard area for Weimann to hammer home from close range and give Villa a 2-0 lead and send the home fans into a euphoric mood.
In the immediate aftermath, United found themselves on the defensive, having to hold off a confident home side, with Agbonlahor threatening down the left. United needed a goal fast to get back into the game, and the lifeline was duly provided when, just before the hour mark, Paul Scholes lofted a ball forward, with Hernandez staying onside to surge forward to get on the end of it, clumsily controlling the ball and improvising well under pressure to finish well and nutmeg the goalkeeper to pull his side back into the contest and bring the match to 2-1.
It would only take a few minutes for the game to even out, as Rafael was played down the right by Rooney, with the Brazilian whipping a ball in, with Hernandez lurking at the far post, he volleyed at goal, with the ball taking a fortunate deflection to beat the ‘keeper and bring the game back to 2-2. Replays showed it was more likely an own goal, but the Mexican had no hesitation in claiming it as his own.
Reminders that the game was still open remained, Weimann came agonisingly close to getting a hat trick, forcing De Gea into a good save. United themselves were becoming more confident going forward. As the pressure grew more changes came, Scholes making way for Cleverley. The corner after this change, taken by Rooney found Van Persie, who smashed his header against the bar. Minutes later, another bit of play found the Dutchman out on the right, and taking a step in, curled a left foot effort at goal only to rattle the same bit of cross bar again.
With time running out, Wayne Rooney departed for Anderson, with the striker looking to be carrying an injury. As the minutes drew closer to 90 minutes, one wondered where a winner might come from, if it would at all. With 3 minutes left to play, Anderson won a foul 40 yards out, towards the right. Van Persie stepped up, and whipped in a ball that found a gap for Javier Hernandez to dive to get his head to it and beat the defence and the goalkeeper to finish into the corner and claim a late winner at the death.
Despite late pressure from Villa, Sir Alex’s United side held on to the final whistle to take the game, 2-3 in a thrilling encounter in which substitute Hernandez provided the heroics and the match ball as the striker walked away with it, regardless of whether or not the hat trick would be awarded to him.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Cannot be accused of being boring….
Although comeback victories such as this and the annoyance of going behind two goals and needing to mount a comeback in the second half, one cannot deny how entertaining matches such as this can be, for the neutral and for the fan of whichever side wins. If United had lost, it is unlikely such matches would be looked on quite so favourably, instead bemoaning their side’s inability to start adequately and giving themselves so much to do later on in the game. Admittedly such games are more enjoyable, despite the frustration, than a more “mundane” 1-0 win, in a sense, provided the there was good football on show, and at Villa Park it could be argued both sides provided a good show in an open match. United were poor in the first half in finishing attacks and despite lacking possession Villa threatened going forward.
An enjoyable spectacle, although perhaps more clean sheets may be welcome.
2) Hernandez proving vital once again
At half time, Hernandez was called upon to resurrect United’s match and provide another option up front. Despite going 2-0 down early on, it was through Hernandez that United were to come away with 3 points on this occasion. His movement and pace up front was pivotal in getting into scoring positions and, with a bit of fortune, picked up what he believes to be a second half hat trick in what was his best Solskjaer impression.
The striker is currently on strong form, with Sir Alex believing fans are seeing the benefit of the Mexican having the Summer off and avoiding playing in the olympics. Since then, he has appeared refreshed and has catapulted himself back into the fram at Old Trafford after a start to the season where Welbeck, Rooney and Va Persie found themselves preferred as starters.
3) Valencia’s inconsistencies
It’s interesting that inconsistency can be met with very different reactions, as is the case at United with their right wingers, currently. With Nani, a player capable of flair and one who appears far more extroverted comes in for a lot of criticism with the way in which he can produce the finest football one week, and the next end up frustrating fans with poor decisions and a wasteful attitude.
With Valencia, there is a likeable, more traditional wingers, less inclined for trickery and the spectacular, instead focussing on the job at hand and working for the team. But really, the talented Ecuadorian has also been rather inconsistent at times this season, arguably. After covering at right back midweek, he was back in his regular plea at Villa Park, in a performance that was not up to the standard to which one would expect. He seemed hesitant on the ball, unwilling to really test down the right and uncharacteristically putting in poor crosses. Rafael overlapping appeared more effective over the course of the match. One may believe that his role at right back the game before could throw him off, and it is hoped that that is the case and that he can rediscover top form as we head into the winter schedule.
4) Defensive vulnerabilities not to be ignored
On this occasion, as has been the case in other games, defensive issues have shown, but with the efforts of those up front more than making up for it. One cannot help but get the feeling whenever United are under pressure at the back, a panic appears and there is far more difficulty clearing the lines than their should be. In fairness to Villa’s attacking men, they showed pace and threatened with good passing and their play that resulted in their goals was well executed. One particular example, is the way in which the final minutes of the match became a far more tense affair after taking the lead, when the ball could have been kept better and time drawn out more effectively. It would be fair to say Smalling is still settling back into the side after his long injury lay off, and it may take time to adjust as both he and Ferdinand looked unsettled at times. Rafael got exposed down Villa’s left and many would point to Evra in the first half for not knowing how to handle the threat down his flank.
That said, David De Gea appears to be benefiting from more regular starts, growing more confident and continues to develop his decision making, coming for crosses with more authority than before, getting strong punches behind the ball when he goes for them.
5) United never know they are beaten…. but why does it take so long to get going?
For all the entertainment and the emotional roller coaster that Saturday’s win provided, one cannot help but ask the question: why must it take going 2 goals down, to spur the side back into life?
The first half, despite all the possession, was one of carelessness and waste from the visitors. There lacked a certain sharpness going forward that allowed Villa to snatch a goal with well worked play just before half time. It is not a one off event either, it has been a regular sight for United to go behind this season, only to wake from their slumber and mount a sterling comeback. While this makes for interesting matches, one cannot help but worry that this will prove costly when it matters, It happened against Tottenham, and if it were to happen against other sides, particularly the top four, it may be safe to say the chances to get back into the game would prove elusive.
That said, one cannot doubt the spirit instilled in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. For all the complaint about certain areas of the team, one cannot deny that his side never knows when it is beaten. The right attitude is fundamental to his line up and has shown through time and again in the way United continue to fight to the very end of every match. The saying could well be true that “United never lose, they just run out of time”.