A frustrating defeat at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day means Villa leave Manchester with no points.
2021 begins with Villa’s second away loss of the season, but all is not lost as we witnessed yet another gutsy and high energy performance from Dean Smith’s men. Other than Mings’ readmittance to the team, we remained unchanged from the last couple of games, which makes this performance even more admirable following a week of congested and tricky fixtures.
Line up –
Villa were slow out of the blocks, looking slightly off the pace compared to a United team that had made a few changes and were thriving off the back of recent good form. Going into the game with the best away form in the league, Aston Villa would’ve had the confidence that they could beat any team, and their subsequent growth into the game showed that this mentality remained strong. This game suited Villa’s counter attacking style very well, with numerous United attacks (and good chances) being quickly countered by Villa. However, United really shone with the speed of their play and movement off the ball, as they were able to intercept and quickly transition in to the final third with ease. Pogba missed a few brilliant opportunities in the first half, and had he been on his A-game, could have seriously caused issued.
With good spells from both sides, we saw Villa really grow in to the game. A few wasted opportunities from set pieces left much to be desired – particularly a wild free kick from Traoré in a dangerous area. As the half-time whistle edged closer, a few individual errors led to a close-range header from Martial slipping past Martinez in goal – a very frustrating one to concede. Inability to win headers, Targett falling out of position and then a failed clearance from Mings meant that United’s number 9 bagged his second goal of the season and Villa fell behind at the break. Punishment is never far around the corner against a team such as Manchester United, who know how to capitalise on momentary lapses in their opponent’s concentration.
Half-time enabled Villa a chance to reassemble before another hard shift in the second 45. They started brightly, with an Ollie Watkins header drawing a great save from De Gea. This was probably his best chance on the night, as the striker didn’t really get close to scoring at any other point. Several other good passages followed until Villa won a free kick out on the wing. They capitalised on a quick cross into the box with Grealish passing it through to Traoré, who tidied the ball away neatly into the back of the net. Game on.
The equal score line celebrations were quickly nullified as Douglas Luiz conceded a penalty to Paul Pogba. VAR controversy ensued, with the replay showing that Pogba tripped himself on his own calf, with very little pressure or challenge from Luiz. The referee gave it and it was not overturned, meaning Bruno Fernandes could do what he does best – hop, skip, jump and score. Once again the game and the excellent performances from both sides had been somewhat overshadowed by VAR. This is a decision that will likely split fans, with some seeing enough contact for Pogba to go down, and others believing it was a dive.
This was arguably an undeserved lead for United, who Villa had been suppressing well in front of goal. Both keepers were having good performances, and chances at both ends reflected a much more even scoreline than the one on display. Villa were still in the game, creating plenty and managing any fast attacks from United. Once again, the final pass and touch was missing for Villa on the night. Matty Cash had a brilliant attempt saved late on, and a Mings header from a cross went just wide of the post. A last minute block from Bailly was a two-point saver for United, as Keinan Davis had the ball ready at his feet to equalise in the dying seconds of the game.
Villa put on a very solid display against the red devils, causing them real problems at both ends of the field. A cheap penalty was the decider on the night, and will likely be a source of great frustration for everyone involved with the club. The cliché remains, however, that there are plenty of positives to take from this performance. Though it does not commence 2021 in the way we would have hoped, it shows significant improvements in the quality of this squad. Despite playing three games in short succession, everyone put in a real shift and demonstrated why Villa are such a difficult team to beat this season. A couple of slippy moments mean we leave empty-handed, but our disappointment in not gaining any points shows how far we have come.
A tough month of fixtures lies ahead, so more of the same determination and more threat in front of goal is needed.
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