Manchester United host Aston Villa at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Saturday lunchtime. Normally, this would be on TV in the UK but the match has been moved to earlier in the day accommodating a concert at the Old Trafford cricket ground. If you’re in the US, you can blame The Courteneers.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United are once again aiming to bounce back after a 1-0 defeat to West Ham United in the EFL Cup. United fielded a completely changed eleven and crashed out of a competition which would have been useful to give playing time to several misfits who could be useful over the course of the season. Besides the opportunity to win a trophy, for what it would be worth to Solskjær. Villa also got knocked out on Wednesday but took Chelsea to penalties which will give them confidence ahead of their trip to Manchester.
United have three fixtures, all at home, before the international break with Villarreal in the Champions League group stage after Villa this weekend and Everton same time next Saturday. United need to win all three.
David de Gea
Dean Henderson had his first outing this season against the Hammers in the league cup and, while he and United lost, it was not all doom and gloom for the returning goalkeeper. Henderson was helpless for the goal and made a couple of smart saves. David de Gea will be back between the posts on Saturday and is enjoying a resurgence – but a battle with Henderson is looming and De Gea is only one duff performance away from falling out of favour again. Villarreal at home on Wednesday may be deemed too crucial and too soon to risk Henderson just yet and De Gea could feasibly keep his place until Atalanta on 20 October. Providing there are no slip-ups along the way for the Spaniard.
United’s first-choice back four all had a night off in midweek, with only Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the bench and not called upon. A welcome rest for Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw in particular, and United’s captain, Maguire, should return with renewed vigour to pick up his partnership with Raphaël Varane for the next three matches.
Varane has started well since joining in the summer and, if Maguire can raise his level after a post-summer dip, they can start to fulfil their potential as a formidable pair in central defence.
Jadon Sancho played the full 90 minutes against West Ham on Wednesday which points to the front four being the same as West Ham in the league last weekend. That means Paul Pogba starting as a wide left forward but being given the freedom to move back and infield. Cristiano Ronaldo will drift towards the empty space vacated by Pogba, also pulling Mason Greenwood with him more central from the right. Scott McTominay will get forward as will Luke Shaw.
This all suits Solskjær. The manager can play a holding midfield two of McTominay and Fred after suffering defeat in the previous game – a conservative comfort blanket pulled as recently as last weekend. Sancho can come off the bench. There is no Marcus Rashford yet and Edinson Cavani will probably first feature as a substitute given his extended absence. So no real headaches for Solskjær falling back on McFred.
At some stage, however, Solskjær is going to have to solve the central midfield issue with Pogba in it regardless of recent results. Otherwise, what was the point of buying Sancho? The games are not getting any easier in the coming weeks where it would be more justifiable to reach for this trick. As effective as Pogba can be from wide left, the collateral damage to the forwards in the squad is huge and unsustainable – exacerbated by Ronaldo.
Started over Sancho last weekend and Mason Greenwood will likely do so again on Saturday. Greenwood may have not scored since August at Wolves but his performances and contribution to the team remains valuable, as is his constant threat to the opposition. Greenwood will want to be on the scoresheet soon, though, never mind the teamsheet.
Ronaldo’s last game against Aston Villa will be remembered for 17-year-old Federico “Kiko” Macheda’s stunning injury-time off the bench debut winner. Macheda had scored four for the reserves in midweek against Newcastle and there was a bit of chat but little expectation of even seeing the player that day before the match. It was my first game back at Old Trafford after the takeover in 2005, a freebie in the posh seats kindly gifted by a guy I used to work with, and remains the last time I’ve been inside the ground. We originally had the pick of any United home match that season and went for Liverpool, naturally, but was later told none of the top tier fixtures were available to us. So we went with Villa in April, thankfully.
Anyway, Ronaldo that afternoon in 2009 was all shades of his personality. United, meanwhile, were on the ropes after prioritising their run in the Champions League and looked like they were running out of steam in the league with Liverpool close behind in second. United just needed to get over the line.
Imminently off to Madrid in the summer, Ronaldo was sulky, flappy, lost the ball numerous times on the wing without attempting to recover it, and generally looked like he couldn’t care less. Yet scored two of the three United goals. Typical.
United’s talisman in 2021 may be Bruno Fernandes – unable to rescue the Reds in 20 minutes in midweek – and they will be looking to Fernandes again to pull the strings. Ronaldo has played 14 times for United against Villa, winning 13, drawing one, and scoring nine goals. Hopefully much hasn’t changed in 12 years.