After a struggling 1-0 win over the Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, Manchester United travelled to Villa Park for a rare Friday night match against Aston Villa.
Villa fought out a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth, with Tim Sherwood playing a more aggressive brand of football but they rarely bothered United, as they notched up a second consecutive win.
Louis Van Gaal’s men were hardly entertaining and some tactical patterns are beginning to emerge yet again.
United came out with one change from the line-up against the Spurs. The backline remained the same, with Sergio Romero in goal, Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw on the flanks and Chris Smalling partnering Daley Blind as centre-back. The central midfield pairing was also unchanged, with Michael Carrick alongside Morgan Schneiderlin. The one change was Ashley Young being dropped to the bench, and Adnan Januzaj coming into the side behind Wayne Rooney. Memphis moved out to his preferred left wing role, while Juan Mata was deployed on the right.
- United continue to excel defensively
- Both Agbonlahor and Ayew offered very similar attributes up front, with considerable pace but little physicality or hold-up play, failing to trouble United’s centre-backs
- Villa started well, making it difficult for United to play the ball out of the back due to the work-rate of their forwards, but after 15-20 minutes they stopped defending with the same intensity
- Memphis looked more dangerous on the left, while Mata drifted across the pitch.
- Schneiderlin got forward more than the previous game, providing more connection between the defence and attack.
Manchester United started the game with Adnan Januzaj lined up as the number 10 behind Wayne Rooney. With the ball, Januzaj looked to play close to Rooney and work as a secondary striker. Early on in the game, Aston Villa caused United to struggle in the build-up. Both Agbonlahor and Ayew dropped deep to prevent Manchester United from passing into their midfielders. This frustrated United’s efforts to play out of the back and they were reduced to playing hopeful long balls forward that Aston Villa were able to sweep up fairly easily.
When United were able to get the ball into the midfield, Aston Villa made a point of denying any space for Januzaj in the middle of the pitch. The nearest player to Januzaj immediately pressured him whenever he got on the ball, ensuring that the young Belgian was unable to turn with the ball and play the ball forward.
This plan worked well for the Villains for the first 15 minutes, but then Villa tried to press United’s backline, and this opened up passing options. Aston Villa’s pressing was inefficient, and poorly coordinated. United were almost always left with an open man to relieve the press.
Against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United’s attack and defense was disconnected as both Schneiderlin and Carrick dropped deep to get on the ball, and Memphis stayed high up the pitch near Rooney. In this game, Schneiderlin did a much better job getting forward. He made several adventurous runs forward that linked the play better, and cause overloads for the Villa’s back line.
With Villa’s sloppy pressing, when the ball was played into Carrick or Schneiderlin, one of Aston Villa’s central midfielders stepped forward to apply pressure. This opened up space between the lines in the middle of the pitch. While Januzaj didn’t take advantage of this space, as he was normally further up the pitch to assist Wayne Rooney, Mata was able to get more into the game as he drifted across from his position on the right side of the pitch.
Juan Mata looked more suited to playing in the number 10 position, with his natural ability to find space. Additionally, he’s the type of needle player who looked a better fit in the middle of the pitch as opposed to Memphis. Juan Mata has the control and calmness to receive the ball in tight spaces, and play the ball forward quickly with the type of defense splitting passes that he demonstrated in the 29th minute to play in Januzaj for the only goal of the game. Memphis, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same close control ability as Mata, and he is at his best dribbling at speed at defenders. In the middle of the pitch, he struggles to find open pockets of space. Another problem is that he doesn’t get near enough opportunities to run with the ball at defenses, therefore ignoring one of his best attributes.
United’s new-found defensive solidity
One of the biggest improvements United have shown in the first two games this season has been in terms of defensive solidity, despite concerns over Daley Blind being deployed as centre-back, given his lack of pace and height. While the advantage of his passing ability in United’s back line is fairly obvious, he has also played well defensively, although the real key has been United’s compact shape when they’ve operated without the ball and their coordination when pressing up the pitch.
United have so far adopted a high line, and their pressure works best when they force the opponent out towards the touchline. When Villa’s centre-backs were in possession, Rooney and Januzaj pressed high almost immediately prevent the ball from going into the midfield, with Rooney angling his run as the ball moved to prevent an easy pass back , while the near-side winger closes off the fullback.
Januzaj and Schneiderlin were also excellent at eliminating the options of an easy pass towards the central midfielders, which meant Villa struggled against the pressure and were often left to try a long ball up the field.
The long ball strategy could have worked for Aston Villa, as both their forwards had great pace. However, instead of trying to play the ball behind the back line for Agbonlahor or Ayew to run onto, it was often directly straights towards them, which allowed United’s backline to enjoy a relatively trouble-free evening.
What next for United?
United looked better in this game than against Spurs. Their defence has looked very solid in both games so far this season, pressing as a unit with good compactness both vertically and horizontally.
With the ball, they looked better as well, even though they failed to create many chances. Memphis will settle in his preferred role out wide, while Adnan Januzaj was effective through the middle. Things could, admittedly, be even better with Juan Mata in the number 10 role, although Januzaj played well enough and Van Gaal has hinted the Belgian will have more chances to prove himself. The weak spot so far has been Wayne Rooney, who has struggled to have an influence on the game.