After just 49 seconds, Manchester United took an early lead versus Aston Villa at Old Trafford after Wayne Rooney blistered a shot by Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel. United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar launched a 65 yard strike with incredible precision, which was met by an equally class first-touch by the goal-scorer Rooney. To book end the half, Nani delivered a magnificent curling-cross to Rooney who calmly finished to deservingly put United up 2-0 at half. Near the hour mark, Villa were able to pull one back after Stewart Downing pounced on a loose ball and found Darren Bent with a low-cross that the 24-million pound striker was able to put away. Just five minutes later, United skipper Nemanja Vidic knocked down a cross to Rooney, who calmly laid the ball back to Vidic and the Serbian cracked home a shot to the far post. The Premier League leaders were on their way and earned three points with a 3-1 victory over Aston Villa.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
The Red Devils came out in a '4-4-2' shape. There was nothing particularly interesting or new about it, and United supporters have seen this shape often. Rio Ferdinand returned from a nagging groin injury to partner Vidic at center-back. John O'Shea once again filled in at right-back for Rafael who suffered a concussion one week ago at Blackpool. Michael Carrick played as a deep-lying playmaker right in front of the center-backs. Darren Fletcher partnered Carrick in the middle, but played slightly higher up the pitch in a box-to-box role. Ryan Giggs played a wide role out left, but consistently drifted inward as he so often does. Nani played as the wide player on the right and positioned himself quite high up the pitch. Dimitar Berbatov paired up top with Rooney. Berba drifted at times to the left side in the attack when Giggs cut inside. Wazza was coming deep for the ball to link play, and he also drifted to the right at times. Richard Dunne was dragged out of position at by Rooney on a few occasions.
The Villans played in a 4-1-4-1' shape, which also closely resembled a '4-2-3-1.' Stiliyan Petrov played very deep as a holding midfielder, just in front of his center-backs. Jean Makoun played higher in a box-to-box role and he was involved in linking play (85 passes completed). Ashley Young began the match higher up the pitch and roamed often from his initial central positions. Downing started the match out wide on the left, and Marc Albrighton out wide to the right. However, Downing and Albrighton switched sides during the match. Bent played as the lone frontman. It all looked something like this...
More after the jump....
* What an absolute class long-ball by van der Sar. That rocket had more precision than a dud North Korean missile. van der Sar has been described in the past as a 'sweeper-keeper,' that might be insulting... he might be a deep-lying playmaker in goalkeeper's shirt with his ability to distribute from the back. Even Paul Scholes would tip his ginger cap to the Dutchman. Brilliant display all around on that goal... class first touch by Rooney and then a world class wonder strike. An absolutely beautiful goal. It only took 49 seconds for United to expose the lack of pace from Dunne.
* It was evident in the first 10 minutes that Villa were already on their heels. The attacking four of Rooney, Berbatov, Nani, and Giggs were so incredibly fluid. Their understanding with one another and their ability to link can be breathtaking at times.
* Theoretically, Villa should have had an advantage in the center of the pitch because of a 3 vs 2 advantage there. However, Young was playing so high up the pitch that we wasn't contributing at all defensively when United were in possession. Thus, Carrick and Fletcher had time on the ball and both were quickly getting the ball out to the attacking players. The possession numbers are deceiving because when Villa would win the ball back, it was often deep in their own territory because United were taking the game to them. United were attempting a number of creative passes and when they lost possession, they were able to quickly get it back. Fletcher was having an early impact on the match with his energy and ball-winning ability until that cut over his eye forced his substitution.
* When Villa did gain possession, it was often non-threatening as they weren't able to come up with the creativity to break down the organized defense of United in the final third of the attack. Makoun did well to link play and keep possession, but nobody on Villa could penetrate the United defense near the goal. Fletcher's ball-winning and Carrick's ability to read the game and intercept passes were disruptive and helped the back four. Ferdinand being back undoubtedly was important, as he is sound positionally and communicates well. When Chris Smalling struggles, it's usually because of his positioning and it forces Vidic to cover more space.
* Dunne had a nightmare first half... not much more needs to be said about his night.
* O'Shea wasn't getting forward much from his right-back position, as it seemed like he was instructed to stay deep and not let Villa terrorize United on the flanks.
* Young's role played out as expected, as he was free to float around the pitch. He roamed high and wide looking for space to create. This often causes teams trouble because his free movement causes confusion to the defense as to who is supposed to mark him... this can result in defenders being drawn out of position and space for Villa's other attacking players to move into. However, United stayed well organized and Rio's return eased my concerns with this. When Young did receive the ball, he was closed down quickly and wasn't the creative force Villa needed this half.
*EDIT* Here's a chalkboard of Young's passes during the game. As you see from here, most of passes were attempted away from his initial position in the middle of the pitch. He tried to create after he drifted wide. However, keep in mind that towards the end of the match, he was playing wide on the left when Houllier subbed on more attacking players.
* Rooney's energy, movement off the ball, link-up play, and touch were all superb. He's shown flashes of it all the past two months... but tonight, with his continual assault of Friedel's goal, was the total package of Rooney that everyone has been waiting for. I've argued vehemently that he's still been playing well, but tonight he was absolutely dominant. Tonight's version of Wazza is the one that is among the best footballers in the world.
* Anderson came on for Fletcher in the 34th minute, after a nasty cut over the Scot's eye. It looked like Ricky Hatton (not Ricky Fatton) caught him with an uppercut. Anderson was decent defensively, but wasn't able to link play as effectively as Fletcher had been.
* One thing was clearly evident, Villa's wingers weren't having nearly the influence on this match as they did versus United in their previous matchup. In November, it could have been argued that the two best players on the pitch were Albrighton and Downing. Tonight, Albrighton really struggled. Downing had his moments but he didn't consistently terrorize the United defense as he did at Villa Park. Manager Gerard Houllier had the two wingers switch sides but this didn't change anything.
* No changes at half. Personnel and general shape remained the same to start the new half.
* With a 2 goal lead, United appeared to be sitting back a bit more and trying to strike on the counter. They were compact and organized, and it didn't appear that Villa would be able to penetrate their defense. When United is in sync, it can be quite impressive how quickly and precise they can strike on the counter-attack. They began the half looking dangerous and it seemed like a matter of time before they would get their 3rd goal.
* Petrov struggled in the match and he was really getting worked by the United attackers throughout the evening. In addition to his accurate passing, Makoun was effective in defense because he continually applied pressure on Anderson.
* Houllier recently praised Kyle Walker in the press, and the young right-back showed flashes of his potential. He was really getting up the pitch and showed good pace going forward. However, he was shaky at times in defense, including on the Vidic goal.
* Cieran Clark struggled in the match, and Nani pretty much had his way with him. The only person able to slow down the Portuguese international... was Nani himself at times. However, he had a very solid match and he was consistently threatening all game long, Villa didn't have an answer for him.
* Just as I was thinking United were going to run away with the game, they blundered and Downing made the most of it. Downing is a very solid winger and he played a quality ball to Bent who slotted the ball home. A nervous energy came over the crowd at Old Trafford after Villa pulled one back.
* We've all seen Vidic score goals on headers, but wow.... that strike was striker quality. That's the kind of thunderous finish that Roman Abramovich just paid 50-million pounds for. Vida did his usual in winning the knock-down in the box for Rooney, but after poor marking by Walker in the box, Rooney laid it off for Vidic's goal to seal the match.
* Villa made a few positive substitutions in the last 20 minutes of the match, and threatened a few times. Villa closed out the match with two center-forwards (Emile Heskey, Bent) with Agbonlahor, Downing, and Young playing off of them. Makoun was making delayed runs forward into the attack as well. Despite Villa's attempt at sending forward 5-6 attackers, United were able to hold them off for a 3-1 victory.
* MISC THOUGHTS:
* A very solid victory for United versus a Villa side that appears to be much improved. United looked fluid in the attack, Rooney looked dominant, the defense was solid... a much sharper and better quality performance than what we saw versus Blackpool and Southampton. Quite simply, this team is drastically better at Old Trafford than they are away from it.
* An entertaining match for the most part, a free-flowing game as there wasn't too much congestion in the center of the pitch.
* Tactically, a pretty boring game and there really isn't too much to analyze. Both teams came out pretty much as expected with personnel and tactics... and not much was changed during the match except towards the very end when Villa was chasing goals.... all pretty standard stuff.
* Friedel was sensational in goal for Villa, he saved the midlands club from a thrashing on the scoreboard.
* Young didn't have the greatest of matches, but I continue to be very impressed by him.
* If Rooney begins to start scoring goals again, and nothing else around him collapses, I don't see how we aren't Premier League champions at season's end. That sounds arrogant but it's the simple truth. A magnificent all-around performance by Wazza.... my "man of the match."
* Another vintage display from Giggs.... with Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia returning this month, we won't have to have the legend log as many minutes on those 37 year old legs. However, with his recent superb form, its going to be very difficult for Park to get his spot back on the 1st team. With the crowded and difficult fixture list coming up, everyone should get playing time though. It'll be interesting to see who Sir Alex prefers in the match at Marseille and versus Manchester City on February 12th. I prefer Giggs versus 'Citeh,' as the noisy neighbors will likely play a '8-1-1' formation at Old Trafford and play for the 0-0 draw. Giggs' creative ability will be needed to break down that compact defense.
* Solid performance from Carrick, good to see him back healthy. When playing well, he does the little things that go unnoticed and make United go. He linked play with intelligent simple passes and he reads the game well when defending. A typical Carrick performance.
* Bent was as advertised. As Aaron from 7500 To Holte previewed for us in our pre-match Q&A, Bent didn't really do much.... except put the ball in the back of the net on his scoring chance. He seems to be a perfect fit for that Villa club.