Manchester United's 3-1 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Saturday didn't particularly stand out as the work of a brilliant tactical mastermind; it was a pretty routine victory in which the gulf in technical quality made it difficult to decipher the strategy from individual skill. However, there were nevertheless a handful of key areas in which United triumphed, and that explain how Louis van Gaal's side managed to dominate through the majority of the match. Without further ado, let's analyse!
Van Gaal stuck with the 4-2-3-1-style formation he's used throughout recent weeks, with Marcos Rojo's return to the centre of defence the only change from the win over Liverpool. Aston Villa lined up in a 4-4-2 as expected, with Andreas Weimann a like-for-like replacement for Scott Sinclair out on the left flank. Their defensive approach was the defining feature of the match; they sat with 11 players behind the ball in two banks of four until the dying minutes, allowing United to monopolise possession.
United's spare man
Gabriel Agbonlahor was Aston Villa's second striker, and spent much of the early part of the match dropping onto Michael Carrick in a bid to stop United playing out from the back. However, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera's movement and the hosts' high defensive line meant there were always passing lanes open, and it didn't take long for United to start dictating the tempo of the game.
From the off, United had an advantage in the centre of the field, where Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick outnumbered Fabian Delph and Carlos Sánchez. The visitors' task was made even more difficult by the marauding of Marcos Rojo from his nominal position in the centre of defence. Villa's wingers responded by spending much of the match very narrow, shuttling laterally across the pitch as United used their extra man to work the ball from flank to flank. United's long switches of play thus proved particularly effective, with Villa leaving space out wide for United to take advantage of.
The right side
Though both of United's goals came from the left, they were arguably at their most dangerous down the right. Presumably as a result of Villa's narrowness, Mata stayed uncharacteristically wide on his flank, and was always on hand to receive a long ball from the left. Antonio Valencia made frequent overlaps on his outside, while Ander Herrera drifted out to complete a triangle that made up United's most important attacking trio, particularly in the first half.
United's most important pass combinations were tellingly:
- Valencia to Mata (38)
- Herrera to Valencia (33)
- Mata to Herrera (32)
- Valencia to Herrera (31)
- Rojo to Blind (23)
- Mata to Valencia (22)
That brings us onto the main man, who could very reasonably claim to be United's most valuable outfielder at the moment. His passing was remarkably accurate throughout the entire game, completing all bar four of his 98 passes. Though plenty of those passes were short, he showed glimpses of his fine vision with cutting balls in behind the Villa defenders.
However, as against Liverpool it was his dynamism both on and off the ball that set him apart. In football there are plenty of excellent passers that don't move (nods to Andrea Pirlo, Marco Verratti, indeed Michael Carrick). Rather more rare are playmakers with the mobility of Herrera. Fascinatingly, in his post-match interview van Gaal described him as having developed into a "60 metre midfielder," seemingly using some of his wonderfully bizarre English to describe his box-to-box role within the team.
In this match, Herrera's constant buzzing saw him often escape his nominal marker Fabian Delph, whose task was complicated further when Mata made his rare ventures into the centre of the field.
Herrera's knack of popping up in dangerous positions at just the right moment earned him his couple of goals, and added a degree of unpredictability to a United attack that was so easy to read for so much of the first part of the season. It was only a couple of months ago that many were suggesting van Gaal would look to get rid of Herrera; he now must be the first name on the teamsheet.
United's mobile defence
United were once again good in the press, with Villa struggling to hold onto the ball for sustained periods at any time through the match. When they did counter, the most dangerous area for them to attack was the space vacated by Valencia and Daley Blind out wide. Christian Benteke often drifted out wide to try and bring the ball down, though the mobility of United's defence meant this threat was effectively negated. Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones both played excellently, and both full-backs were diligent in their scampering back to help out.
The drop in intensity
Once again the only real flaw in United's play was the drop in intensity within the second half, as referenced by van Gaal in his post-match interview. We stayed pretty composed on the ball, and with Villa continuing to stand off, it made sense to avoid taking too many risks when in possession. However, the manager wasn't happy with the drop-off in pressing towards the end of the match, which allowed Villa time to give us a few brief scares before Herrera killed things off in stoppage time. Still, if that's the biggest gripe we have, it was a pretty good day out.