Prior to the game at Villa Park, Manchester City had fallen to Chelsea and as such failed to mathematically confirm their Premier League title. As such, a loss for Manchester United against Aston Villa would have confirmed it for them. This made the game a must win for United, to ensure they didn’t meekly hand the 20/21 Premier League title to their cross town rivals.
United were coming off the back of an aggregate victory against AS Roma in the Europa League yet were anticipating a serious bout of fixture congestion with the Villa game kicking it off. United also had the opportunity to virtually confirm Champions League football for next season against Villa with West Ham United having to win all four of their remaining games and building an additional 20 goal difference to equal Manchester United.
Safe to say there was a fair bit riding on this game.
Manchester United started off brightly, fashioning chances with silky linkup play on the left flank between Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba. Pogba has really grown into this left midfield role and is thriving in it with the additional attacking freedom it offers and the reduced defensive responsibility.
For all of their efforts, however, Manchester United failed to fashion a concrete goalscoring chance. It seemed as if the last pass was either poorly executed or met by no one in the box. Such is the difficulty of lacking Edinson Cavani’s presence. Most posited that had Cavani started, there was a fair possibility he’d have gotten on the end of the chances created to help United score the opener. (That’s purely a hypothetical though because, considering the awful fixture congestion the Premier League has saddled United with, Cavani being rested on the bench was a fair decision by Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
As is becoming something of a recurring theme, for all of United’s good play, they fell behind to a goal scored by Bertrand Traore in the 24th minute. It was a result of Fred passing to an under pressure McTominay who tried to be clever instead of simply clearing and Lindelöf perhaps not defending as aggressively as he could have in order to prevent the Burkina Faso native to get a powerful shot away which gave Villa the lead.
After conceding, United seemed to lose the verve they had begun the half with and the the half teetered to a close.
Pep Guardiola and his Cityzens must have had the champagne on ice after the first half.
Now, United were absolutely no stranger to coming back from behind in order to secure all 3 points in the 20/21 Premier League season. In fact, United have done so to win 30 points this season. Armed with that knowledge, United set off in the second half to salvage the victory.
It was an immediate resurgence as Paul Pogba expertly kept the ball away from Douglas Luiz in Villa’s box and a clumsy foul from the Brazilian gifted Bruno Fernandes yet another chance to hop-skip-score against Emiliano Martinez as he coolly converted the penalty to draw United level.
This is nothing new. In fact, Douglas Luiz also fouled Paul Pogba in the reverse fixture earlier this season to give United a penalty. Regardless of what Dean Smith says about the penalty after the game, he must be fuming with the Brazilian.
United took going level as tacit permission to probe Villa further in search for the goal that would put them ahead. Just four minutes later, Aaron Wan-Bissaka danced past Villa defenders on the right flank and made a good pass to Mason Greenwood. In sensational fashion, the young striker spun around Mings and fired a shot at the near post to score United’s second goal. The minimal backlift with which Mason is able to take powerful shots with gives him a massive advantage against keepers who aren’t actually positioned poorly. That’s an incredibly valuable trait to have and was crucial for United once again.Embed from Getty Images
The game settled down for a little while after that however United had a small scare when Villa appealed for handball against Mason Greenwood who was attempting to clear the ball from United’s box and start a counter attack. The issue was looked at by VAR for a fair bit of time however to the relief of the young forward, he was let off the hook by the VAR at Stockley Park.
In the 65th minute, Solskjær made the decision to bring on Edinson Cavani in place of Mason Greenwood. This was particularly exciting considering the Uruguayan’s hot form of late. It also signalled Solskjær’s appreciation for the fixture congestion that needed close minute management of players while bringing on a massive goalscoring threat in the hope a third goal could be scored and the result secured.
While most of the second half went United’s way, they were unfortunate to have Harry Maguire withdraw due to injury in the 73rd minute after an unfortunate and unintended collision with Villa’s El Ghazi. This marked Maguire’s first withdrawal in United’s Premier League season and concluded his streak of playing every possible minute in the Premier League for Manchester United. Maguire returned to the field in an attempt to carry on however was unable to and therefore was replaced by Eric Bailly in the 78th minute.
Villa made several offensive substitutions in order to bring the tie back under their control however Cavani had something else entirely in mind. In the 87th minute, Cavani latched onto a terrific cross from Marcus Rashford to head home and all but secure the three points for United.Embed from Getty Images
While that rounded off the goalscoring for the evening, Villa lost striker Ollie Watkins after he picked up a second yellow for simulation in the 89th minute, effectively ending Villa’s chances of scoring another goal in the dying embers of the game.
This was yet another barnstorming victory for Manchester United and result that effectively guaranteed them top 4 and thus Champions League football for the 21/22 season. In coming back from behind to win, Manchester United inadvertently equalled the number of wins from behind in a Premier League season, a remarkable feat.
Manchester United also further extended their away winning streak. It’s actually incredible to consider that Manchester United have not once lost an away game in the Premier League this season.
United’s Uruguayan striker, Edinson Cavani, after his wonderful header against Villa, also equalled the most goals as a substitute for Manchester United in the Premier League with 5. He’s now tied with United’s manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær!
However, as Luke Shaw mentioned post match, United need to stop having to comeback from behind as often as they have this season. While their ability to do so highlights their tenacity and fighting spirit, it is an unsustainable practice and something that should be avoided at all costs in the long term.
The run-in is now well and truly underway, with United having another game against 4th placed Leicester City on Tuesday and this time, they may not have the reassuring presence of their captain, Harry Maguire, to lead them out onto the field of play. It’s time for United’s fringe players to step up and deliver results that the squad and fans can be proud of at the twilight of the 2020/2021 season.