Aston Villa faced the league leaders with a positive game plan, a big change on the negative style that Aston Villa fans were forced to suffer through last season under Alex McLeish. They looked to play solid defense, pressing United’s midfield and denying space for Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney, while striking quickly on the counter-attack. Manchester United struggled throughout the first half, unable to find their rhythm, and ended up down by two goals with just over 30 minutes to turn the result around. A clever substitution and formation change by Sir Alex Ferguson fuelled another epic comeback from the Red Devils, ensuring that they would go to sleep that night 4 points clear at the top of the table.
Manchester United vs. Aston Villa
Villa Park – November 10th 2012
Manchester United (4-2-3-1)
Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a couple changes over the squad that defeated Arsenal a week earlier. Against Arsenal, Manchester United played a 4-4-1-1, but expecting to dominate possession, his side came out in a 4-2-3-1, with his wingers stationed higher up the pitch in an effort to spread Villa’s defense.
Making his second appearance of the season, Chris Smalling got the start at center-back alongside Rio Ferdinand, while Jonny Evans sat the game out after picking up a groin injury in Champion’s League action mid-week. Aside from that change, Sir Alex Ferguson made only one other change. Operating under the assumption that Aston Villa would defend deep, and allow his central midfielders to operate ahead of Villa’s midfield line; Fergie started Paul Scholes in the central midfield beside Michael Carrick. Ahead of Carrick and Scholes Ashley Young got the start on the left wing against his old club, while Antonio Valencia got the start on the right wing. Wayne Rooney started behind Robin Van Persie, playing as the trequartista again due to Shinji Kagawa still out injured.
Aston Villa (4-4-1-1)
Paul Lambert’s side came out in a 4-4-1-1, with only one change on the squad that won 1-0 over Sunderland. With his first choice left back, Joe Bennett out injured, and the backup, American Eric Lichaj, serving a one game suspension, 22-year old Enda Stevens was given his first Premier League start. In goal, Brad Guzan has now supplanted Shay Givens as Aston Villa’s number one goalkeeper. Captain Ron Vlaar lined up beside Ciaran Clark at center-back. Opposite of Enda Stevens, was Matthew Lowton, who has started every league game for the Villans this season at right-back.
The central midfield consisted of Ashley Westwood, whose entire focus was defense, as he rarely journeyed up the pitch on the attack and instead made sure that the center-backs always had some cover in front of them. Next to Westwood was Barry Bannan, and he was utilized in a more box-to-box role, helping Westwood on defense but also going up the pitch on the attack, helping to link up the defense and the attack.
At left-wing was Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose pace presents a challenge for any fullback he lines up against. On the right-wing was 21-year old Austrian international Andreas Weimann. Up front was Christian Benteke, who was acquired over the summer from Genk. Lining up behind Benteke was Stephen Ireland, playing further up the pitch this season than he did for Alex McLeish last season.
- Manchester United controlled possession throughout the game
- Aston Villa came out with a positive game plan, pressing up the pitch, keeping the defense and midfield lines compact to congest the middle of the pitch and not allow space between the lines for Rooney and Van Persie.
- Aston Villa presented an extremely dangerous goal scoring threat on the counter-attack.
- The introduction of Javier Hernandez, and a switch to a 4-2-4, allowed Manchester United to create numerous scoring chances and recover from a 2 goal deficit.
- Enda Stevens put in an excellent first league start, stifling the threat from Antonio Valencia throughout the match.
Aston Villa comes out strong
Many people would assume that Aston Villa would come into this game with the plan of sitting deep on defense, get 10 men behind the ball, and try to get a goal late against the run of play. In this fixture a year ago, when Alex McLeish managed Aston Villa, this was exactly the plan he deployed against Manchester United in one of the most negative teams in recent memory. What a difference a year makes.
Managed by Paul Lambert, who had success last season at Norwich, Aston Villa came out with an ambitious game plan. They intended on pressuring Manchester United up the pitch, not allowing Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in the midfield time and space with the ball. They were willing to concede possession, but they were intent on not allowing Manchester United time or space with the ball in dangerous positions. When they did get the ball, they intended on counter-attacking quickly. With a strong aerial threat in Christian Benteke up front, who’s also very capable of holding up the ball, they had the means to fulfill their game plan.
The best defense is a good defense
Defensively, there were several parts of Aston Villa’s strategy that proved key in their success. The first was Villa’s successful ability to apply pressure up the pitch. Paul Lambert’s side didn’t apply pressure on the ball when the Red Devil’s defensive line had it. It was only when the ball was played forward that they pressed. Christian Benteke’s responsibility was to mainly stay up the pitch for the quick counter-attack. Stephen Ireland was used to pressure Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, trying to deny them time on the ball to play their long passes. Initially, Ireland stationed himself between the two of them, denying them each other as a passing option and forcing them to play more risky passes down the pitch. As the game went along, Ireland’s strategy changed as he determined that Paul Scholes was the more dangerous passing option, and he then switching to marking him fairly closely, trying to deny him the ball.
Another key to Aston Villa’s defense was the positioning of their defensive line. They kept their backline of 4 close to the midfield line of 4, trying to eliminate the space between the lines that both Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie use so effectively. Keeping these lines together denies this space. In another effort to deny this space, their defense was set very narrow. They kept their fullbacks in close, and were willing to give up space out wide for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to operate in, so they could deny gaps and space in the middle of the pitch for Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
This proved to be a very effective strategy for the first half, for while Manchester United was able to attempt 6 shots, compared with only 3 for Aston Villa, only 2 of United’s shots came from within the 18-yard box.
Even though Aston Villa was willing to allow space out wide, Antonio Valencia was unable to provide much of an impact in this game. This is largely down to the play of 22-year old Enda Stevens. He put in a truly impressive performance with 4 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 4 clearances while limiting Antonio Valencia to only 3 successful crosses out of 12 attempted. He did an impressive job against the Ecuadorian, considering he was marking him 1 on 1 throughout the game as Aston Villa defended narrow.
Aston Villa’s attack
Aston Villa played excellent defense throughout the first half, keeping a high powered Red Devil attack quiet. But Aston Villa didn’t just park the bus. They had a very effective threat going forward. Manchester United had more than 60% possession throughout the game, but Villa was the more dangerous scoring threat throughout the first 50 minutes of this game.
Bannan and Westwood provided little help through the middle of the pitch, so Aston Villa’s attack depended on the two wide players and the front players. Gabriel Agbonlahor played very high up the pitch on the left side, with his function to stay out wide and use his pace to run at the fullback. They also hoped to use his pace to get behind Rafael on the counter-attack, as Rafael has a tendency to get too high up the pitch on the attack, leaving a space behind him that Aston Villa was able to take advantage of for their first goal.
On the right side, Andreas Weimann didn’t play as high up the pitch, but he also played more inside. He executed several well timed runs during the game that were able to get in the right channel and behind United’s defense. Patrice Evra struggled with Weimann’s pace, and this had dire consequences for the Red Devils.
Operating in a free role behind the striker, Stephen Ireland has flourished. Defensively, he was able to limit the damage that Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes could inflict, while on the attack he did well to support Christian Benteke. He was able to settle in the gaps between United’s lines, and link up with Benteke when he held up the ball.
Christian Benteke was very good up front. His aerial ability, winning 10 of 17 aerial duels, combined with his ability to hold up the play was very effective for Aston Villa. He was repeatedly able to win the aerial duels, and then retain the ball until Ireland and Weimann could get forward to provide passing outlets.
The speed of Aston Villa’s attack and the strength of Christian Benteke were on display for Aston Villa’s first goal. After some incredible effort by Christian Benteke to setup an Andreas Weimann goal, Aston Villa was able to grab a 1-0 lead in first half stoppage time. It started with Villa taking the ball away from United in Villa’s penalty area. Andreas Weimann collected the ball and flicked it forward for Christian Benteke, who was marked closely by Chris Smalling. In an amazing run from nearly midfield to the byline, battling and outmuscling Smalling the entire way, until Benteke shoulder charges Smalling to the ground. Unmarked, he comes into the box and cuts the ball back to the top of the 18 yard box to an unmarked Weimann, who’s able to hammer the ball into the net just above David De Gea.
Manchester United came into this game expecting Aston Villa to sit deep and defend, but this was a mistake. Sir Alex Ferguson decided to start Paul Scholes in the midfield alongside Michael Carrick, with the intention of having them sit in front of Aston Villa’s midfield line, encountering little pressure, and controlling the ball and moving it around the pitch to find openings in the Villans defense. Unfortunately, this isn’t what happened. Aston Villa pressed up the pitch, and this denied the time that Scholes and Carrick thought they would have.
Another issue in United’s midfield selection came from Michael Carrick deferring to Paul Scholes. When he plays along Scholes, his passing becomes shorter and less effective. He prefers to give the ball the Paul Scholes, and allow him to play the longer probing balls that open up the opposition’s defense.
The wide players, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, were given space to operate by Aston Villa. Typically, Ashley Young tends to play very narrow on the left side, as he is always looking to come inside and link up play with the striker, but he played much wider in this game. Aston Villa’s defensive strategy allowed space out wide that United tried to take advantage of, with both Valencia & Young staying wide and receiving the ball to try and unlock the defense.
The majority of Manchester United’s attack came down the right side, but they struggled to create chances. Both Valencia, and Rafael, saw plenty of the ball in wide areas but they were unable to create effective chances in the final third. They were frequently forced to play the ball backward.
Manchester United not only struggled offensively, but they struggled on defense as well. With a central midfield pairing of Scholes and Carrick, they lacked pace and struggled to get back on defense as quickly as Aston Villa was able to attack. In addition, with Rafael pressing so high up the pitch to overload the right wing with Valencia, this left openings behind him for the counter attack.
The deficiencies of United’s defense and midfield problems became evident on Villa’s second goal. This goal was not on a lightning quick counter attack, but United’s back four was left with little cover as Scholes & Carrick were both late getting back to cover defensively.
5 minutes after the restart, Aston Villa was able to take a 2 goal lead. Ashley Westwood played a ball forward towards Christian Benteke. He dummied the pass, and it went to Stephen Ireland. He slid the ball wide past Rafael to an unmarked Gabriel Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor dribbled the ball into the penalty area. He was able to pull the ball back across the goal mouth, between De Gea & Chris Smalling, before finding Andreas Weimann who tapped it in for his second of the game.
The Red Devil Empire Strikes Back
The turning point in this game came at halftime, when Sir Alex Ferguson made two important chances. With the majority of Manchester United’s attacks coming down the right side, Fergie took out a largely ineffective Ashley Young and replaced him with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. With this personnel change, Manchester United changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-4, with Wayne Rooney playing on the left wing, Robin Van Persie and Chicharito as the strikers, and Antonio Valencia on the right wing.
While Aston Villa scored another goal after this change, this is the change that enabled Manchester United to revitalize a moribund attack while also stopping the constant dangerous counter attacks. This formation allowed Manchester United to press Aston Villa higher up the pitch, and this caused Aston Villa to struggle getting the ball forward. Unable to get out of their own zone, Manchester United was able to pile on the pressure.
On the attack, Chicharito’s addition caused a problem for Villa’s defensive setup. Playing off the shoulder of the final man, constantly trying to get in behind Aston Villa’s defense, he was able to stretch them out vertically. This caused the distance between their defensive and midfield line to grow, creating gaps that Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie was able to exploit.
Manchester United’s first goal proved a great example of Paul Scholes long range passing, and Chicharito’s ability to stretch the defense. Just inside his own half of the field, Paul Scholes is able to play a picture perfect ball over the top of Villa’s defense to Chicharito. Chicharito is able to get control of the ball, fight off Ciaran Clark before he dinks the ball between the keeper’s legs and it rolls into the net.
While Manchester United’s attacks in the second half were much more effective than anything they attempted in the first half, but Aston Villa also did their bit to help the Red Devils. Even though they had a 2 goal lead, Villa didn’t change their strategy. The kept pushing forward on the counter-attack, but this left them exposed defensively, especially with Hernandez stretching their defense vertically, and United’s 4-man front line stretching it width wise.
The Red Devils were able to tie the game with less than 30 minutes to go, after Wayne Rooney played a quality ball behind Villa’s left back for Rafael. The Brazilian right-back lobbed a cross over the box to the back post where Chicharito caught it on the half volley, and it deflected off Ron Vlaar before getting in the goal.
As the game was winding down, Paul Lambert replaced 3 of his attacking players with defensive players, but by that point it was too late. With only 3 minutes left, Karim El Ahmadi committed a silly foul on Anderson near the edge of the penalty area. Robin Van Persie delivered a picture perfect cross that Chicharito merely ducked and nodded it into the goal to claim all 3 points for the Red Devils.
Aston Villa played a phenomenal game, and Paul Lambert deserves a lot of credit for his strategy. He played positive, aggressive football and were able to shut down a dangerous Manchester United attack for more than a half, while also presenting a dangerous counter-attacking threat that scored 2 goals.
Manchester United struggled against Aston Villa’s defense, but they also weren’t helped by frequent wayward passes from Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, and Antonio Valencia. In addition to sloppy passing, United struggled with slow ball movement. Scholes and Carrick would slow the tempo of the game down, which allowed Aston Villa to organize their defense. Slow ball movement, and tenacious Villa defense made it extremely difficult for United to get any type of goal threat.
The second half was largely a story of smart substitutions and formation changes. Rooney and Van Persie struggled through most of the game to get the ball in the final third. It wasn’t until the introduction of Chicharito, and his threats to get behind Villa’s defense, that the space finally opened up for Van Persie and Rooney to operate in.
This was an important 3 points, though it is worrying that they went down by 2 to begin with.
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By RangeRooney Follow @RangeRooney