Manchester United start the new year level on points with league leaders, Liverpool, after snagging a 2-1 victory against top-half rivals Aston Villa at Old Trafford Friday night. Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes goals canceled out a Bertrand Traoré goal to give the good guys the win.
When the lineups were released an hour before kickoff, the question was, “diamond midfield or Paul Pogba on the left-wing?” We quickly found that Pogba would indeed line up to the left of Fernandes in a 4-2-3-1, and, with Fred and Scott McTominay playing the pivots, United were quick to pressure Aston Villa in its own half for the first quarter of the match.
After creating half chances and seeing several attempts go above or wide of the Villa goal, United would allow Villa to grow into the game and start to control the midfield. Jack Grealish, as advertised, would bring danger in the wider areas while John McGinn was active in the center to give United problems.
United would weather the Villa assault as Eric Bailly and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were immense in defense while Pogba continued to play one of the best matches of this campaign. Finally, in the 40th minute, Pogba and Wan-Bissaka would prove pivotal in the build-up that would end in Martial breaking the deadlock.
A poor giveaway by Villa near the halfway line would see Pogba flick the ball above a charging McGinn — sending the Scot spinning — and Pogba would quickly play the ball out to Wan-Bissaka. The fullback played a give-and-go with Marcus Rashford and charged up the pitch. Wan-Bissaka saw Martial tracking in the center of the box and played a peach to the Frenchman who just needed to put his head on the ball.
Pogba is ridiculous and what a goal by Martial pic.twitter.com/iA1cLh4RrK— RiZzy (@RiZzyUTD) January 1, 2021
The first half would end with the scoreline reflecting the play on the field — if a little flattering to Villa who were lucky that United were not finishing chances earlier in the half. But what the first half reaffirmed was when Pogba is on it, he is ON it. Like Ash Ketchum’s Charizard who often is aloof when asked to do things, in the first half, Pogba showed up and out.
Paul Pogba's first-half vs Aston Villa:— utdreport (@utdreport) January 1, 2021
Most touches (39)
Most duels contested (13)
Most duels won (6)
Most aerial duels won (4)
Joint-most shots (3)
Villa would walk out of the dressing room at the half with renewed vigor, and, by the 55th minute, both United center backs would find themselves on yellow cards after Harry Maguire shoved Grealish during a counter-attack and Bailly committed to a potentially dangerous tackle.
Then, Villa would find its equalizer in the 58th minute following a United foul. Villa played the freekick quickly and Grealish played a curling ball from the left that bent around the flat-footed United backline and to the waiting feet of Traoré. The forward wasted no time firing a shot that beat a collapsing Maguire and David de Gea to find the back of the net.
VAR returned to form for the Reds not more than two minutes later as Pogba drew a penalty. Fernandes stepped up to the spot to do his signature stutter run before pinging a low-driven shot to the left post. Emi Martinez picked the correct side, but Fernandes’ attempt had too much pace and would find the net before Martinez could get a fingernail to it.
Following the converted penalty from Fernandes, United enjoyed a period of time where the Reds just shot at the Villa goal like it was target practice, however, to the chagrin of the Reds, none of them found the net. United’s best chance came when Luke Shaw played a low cross to Martial who laid the ball up on a silver platter for Pogba in the box, but Pogba would push his chance wide and cancel everyone’s “French Connection” tweets.
Renewed by the fact that the deficit was still only one, Villa pushed for an equalizer and nearly found it. Forcing worldie saves from de Gea, yellows from turned around United defenders, and time-wasting substitutions from the Reds, Villa nearly spoiled the party. However, United would survive the onslaught for the final 10-15 minutes of regulation as well as five minutes of stoppage to earn an incredibly important three points.
Looking ahead, Manchester United has two cup matches on the docket against Manchester City in the EFL Semifinal on Jan. 6 and against Watford in the FA Cup Third Round on Jan. 12 before returning to league play to face Burnley at Turf Moor on Jan. 12.
Then the big one awaits on Jan. 17...