It was business as usual for Manchester United last night. In winning at Villa Park, they did what they usually do on a ground where they have not lost a Premier League match since August 1995. Yet of all the victories they have collected in this corner of Birmingham over the past two decades, few can have felt so underwhelming.
After all the anticipation about the Friday night lights, United laboured to a 1-0 victory in a match where their football lacked fluency and urgency, just as it had against Tottenham on the opening day. Happily for Louis van Gaal, though, amid the myriad misplaced passes, Adnan Januzaj’s first-half goal was enough to secure their second win of the campaign.
In fairness, it would have been more had Memphis Depay not missed a clear late opportunity but Van Gaal will wish for a more convincing display when United host Club Brugge in their Champions League play-off tie at Old Trafford next Tuesday.
The Dutchman admitted that “we had too many unnecessary ball losses” but while he argued that United started and finished the match in control, it was a performance that provided more questions than answers for the Old Trafford side. Wayne Rooney had an off-night and United mustered only two attempts on target, though Van Gaal declined to comment on the question of whether United will be adding to their attacking roster before the window closes. “I have answered that question already many, many times,” he said.
Aston Villa vs Manchester United player ratings
Aston Villa vs Manchester United player ratings
1/22 Aston Villa: Brad Guzan - 5
Came off his line well to snuff out Depay and was rarely called upon.
2/22 Leandro Bacuna - 5
Struggled to contain United's attacks down the left flank.
3/22 Micah Richards - 5
A couple of rash challenges, but then also some impressive interceptions. It will be interesting to see him finally get a run of games.
4/22 Ciaran Clark - 5
Played the ball long far too often. More composure is needed.
5/22 Jordan Amavi - 7
Promising when he did get forward. All too rare. Impressive night for the 21-year-old.
6/22 Jordan Veretout - 5
The most memorable thing he did was kick out at Januzaj after a challenge in the first half.
7/22 Idrissa Gueye - 6
Arguably the best player on the park early on, undid his hard work by letting Januzaj get in for the goal.
8/22 Ashley Westwood - 5
Passed well enough but could not provide a cutting edge.
9/22 Jordan Ayew - 5
Forced to live off scraps but did not make the most of his rare chances.
10/22 Gabriel Agbonlahor - 5
Plenty of effort but little product.
11/22 Scott Sinclair - 5
Looked dangerous on the ball, but his decision making in key areas was lacking.
12/22 Man Utd: Sergio Romero - 6
Had a shocker in the warm up, but largely untested in the main event. Solid hands when called upon.
13/22 Matteo Darmian - 6
Another impressive display. The Italian has probably made the best start of any of United's new boys.
14/22 Chris Smalling - 7
The Englishman has done something right over summer as he seems far more assured this season than he ever has.
15/22 Daley Blind - 6
Solid enough, decent in possession, but yet to convince in the centre of defence. He should not be seen as a long-term option.
16/22 Luke Shaw - 6
The England international made a couple of excellent tackles early on, and pushed forward to help United spread the play in attack.
17/22 Michael Carrick - 6
Produced a collector's item; a misplaced pass, but was composed throughout.
18/22 Morgan Schneiderlin - 6
The Frenchman seemed settled. Could have done better with a header at the back post, but his overall performance was good.
19/22 Juan Mata - 6
The Spaniard's superb pass set up the opening goal. Few players possess such exquisite vision. Poor defensively.
20/22 Adnan Januzaj - 6
His inclusion was vindicated with a well taken goal, courtesy of a kind deflection.
21/22 Memphis Depay - 5
The 21-year-old could not be accused of a lack of effort, but not much came off for him. Yet to spark into life.
22/22 Wayne Rooney - 4
Never sparked into life. More is to be expected now that Rooney is the side's attacking spearhead.
Thankfully for Van Gaal, he did not face any awkward questions about his new goalkeeper Sergio Romero, given the Argentinian had only one shot to save en route to his second successive clean sheet. One of Villa manager Tim Sherwood’s priorities this season must be to improve their home form, after just five victories at Villa Park in 2014/15, yet his rebuilt side struggled to test the United backline last night.
The resigned mood at the close certainly contrasted with the buzz of anticipation before kick-off as the home crowd welcomed Sherwood’s 10 acquisition of a busy summer, the Barcelona-schooled winger Adama Traore. Sherwood said he wished Traore could have been involved here. “The attacking force wasn’t there tonight, largely down to personnel. We are missing some flair players in [Carles] Gil, [Jack] Grealish and the boy Adama who might give us a cutting edge.”
This is the first time Sherwood has had a close season to shape a squad as a manager in the Premier League and he had five home debutants in this starting XI in Micah Richards, Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Veretout, Jordan Ayew and Jordan Amavi – four of them recruits from Ligue 1.
Another of Sherwood’s summer intake, Rudy Gestede, his matchwinner at Bournemouth last weekend, was only fit enough to make the bench and in a low-key start there was plenty of evidence that Villa are a team still finding an understanding. The only real glimmer of an opening for the home side was provided by Idrissa Gueye who found space in the D of the United box but his attempt to thread a ball to Ayew was intercepted by Chris Smalling.
Moments later, Depaye had a shot deflected behind at the other end as the game stuttered into life but it was the surprise starter in the visitors’ lineup who hit the decisive goal after 29 minutes.
If David de Gea’s exclusion from the United 18 for the second week running was as expected, the same could not be said of Januzaj’s first start since February in the place of Ashley Young. The Belgian joined Luke Shaw on a pre-season boot camp in Dubai in a bid to hit the ground running this term but despite a goal against Barcelona in California, did not even make the bench for United’s opening win over Tottenham. Yet here he was in a second-striker role behind Rooney and he rewarded Van Gaal’s decision with his first league goal for 16 months.
The Belgian international was involved at the start and finish of the move. He began it by holding off Idrissa Gueye and carrying the ball into Villa territory. As the ball was shifted to the left, Januzaj moved into the box and when Juan Mata’s lovely threaded pass reached him, showed a cool head to sidestep Micah Richards and score with a shot that took a deflection off Ciaran Clark and bounced in off the far post.
“It was a wonderful goal Adnan could score, but you have to do more than just score a goal,” said Van Gaal, who explained his later decision to withdraw both Januzaj and Michael Carrick on the hour was pre-planned.
If Richards was left on his backside for that goal, he might have earned Villa an opportunity to equalise from the penalty spot when Matteo Darmian grabbed him around the neck as Ashley Westwood’s corner came in, but referee Mike Dean ignored his pleas.
Friday night games will be a regular feature on the Premier League landscape from next season – this one-off was the result of an English Defence League march in Walsall on Saturday – but they are not entirely a novelty at Villa Park. Back on a freezing Friday in January 1984, Ian Rush hit a brilliant hat-trick in a 3-1 Liverpool win here, featuring Cinzano ads behind the goals and match summariser Bobby Charlton sat shivering in a leather coat beside Jimmy Hill in a makeshift outdoor TV studio.
Nobody on the Villa Park pitch came anywhere near producing the quality that Rush showed that night though in fairness to Villa they upped the tempo at the start of the second half. Ayew surged into shooting range but shot over, yet Villa’s momentum had slowed by the time Sherwood unleashed Gestede, a replacement for Scott Sinclair, after 59 minutes.
United were back in control and should have killed the game off with 18 minutes remaining as Mata played his second killer pass of the night to send Depay clear on goal but the Dutchman rolled his shot wide of the far post.Reuse content