Manchester United second-best once again as Aston Villa punish predictable failings

Manchester United 2-2 Aston Villa: Villa led before coming from behind to take a share of the points at Old Trafford

Mark Critchley
Old Trafford
Sunday 01 December 2019 19:35
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The greatest indictment of this latest disappointing Manchester United performance and result is that it was wholly predictable. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are often second-best to enterprising and adventurous visitors and so it was against Aston Villa, who left Old Trafford ruing two points lost as well as celebrating one gained.

Led by Jack Grealish, who opened the scoring brilliantly after 11 minutes, Dean Smith’s newly-promoted side once again showed that they have the talent and ability to stay clear of a relegation battle, even if they remain in the lower reaches of the Premier League table. An away win would not have been entirely undeserved.

Instead, a Tom Heaton own goal - forced by Marcus Rashford’s header - cancelled out Grealish’s opener shortly before half time. Victor Lindelof then briefly appeared to set United on course for an unlikely victory but Tyrone Mings restored parity only two minutes later to rightfully punish a lacklustre home display.

There was just one United change from last weekend’s draw away to Sheffield United. The fact that Phil Jones was the one to lose his place was perhaps not so surprising, but several others could count themselves lucky to be retained. Not one member of the starting line-up made the 6,000-mile round trip to Astana this week yet began as if jet-lagged.

Fred and Andreas Pereira, United’s central midfield pairing, were especially poor in the dismal showing at Bramall Lane but without either Scott McTominay or Paul Pogba available, they picked up where they left off. Once again, United lacked any sort of control or authority in the middle of the park and the result was an wildly open game.

Grealish was a nuisance, drawing several panicked fouls from Fred and Pereira in the opening exchanges with his unpredictable movement. Villa’s recent inconsistency can be largely explained by their captain’s absence. When he plays, he usually produces something special and so it was here.

It began with a brilliant burst from deep by Anwar El Ghazi, who injured himself in the process of delivering a cross to the far post. It ran all the way to the left flank, where Grealish collected the ball, stepped inside away from Pereira and expertly whipped the ball into the top right-hand corner.

De Gea did not attempt to reach the ball and simply watched it rise over him, as if accepting just how comprehensively he had been beaten. Villa later believed they had doubled their lead through Trezeguet, El Ghazi’s replacement, but more lax United defending went unpunished when Grealish was flagged offside. The visitors were in command but would be pegged back before the break.

It was an uncharacteristically rash spot of goalkeeping by Tom Heaton at the end of the half which cost them. Heaton rushed out to close down Rashford but made a mess of collecting the ball, forcing a United corner. It was played short and Pereira, dreadful up until point, found Rashford with an exquisite cross to the far post. His header hit the upright, brushed Heaton’s back and made its way over the goal-line.

United did not deserve to go in level but, after a slight improvement in performance at the start of the second half, another far-post header put them ahead. Wesley’s attempted clearance of a Fred cross was instead a perfect flick-on for Lindelof, who made enough space for himself to evade Frederic Guilbert, head back across Heaton and establish an improbable United lead.

Solskjaer appeared to have been granted a reprieve for another less-than-convincing performance but Villa’s response was nearly instant. Mings drifted away from United’s defence and volleyed beyond De Gea, though appeared to believe he was offside. The assistant disagreed and awarded the goal. Brandon Williams - the novice full-back well-beaten by El Ghazi for the first goal - had played Mings onside.

United were at least playing with more urgency now and would perhaps be celebrating three points if Martial had shown greater composure late on. After wrestling the ball away from Villa’s defence in a crowded six-yard box, he chipped over Heaton from point-blank range but also over the crossbar.

Yet any sort of victory would not have been reflective of United’s slapdash and underwhelming play. A smattering of faint boos met the final whistle, from a home crowd that has shown nothing but support for Solskjaer’s project so far. Any ire is often directed at those above the manager, regardless, but you wonder if it will be very long before those jeers start growing louder.

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