After a deflating loss to Wolverhampton Wanders in the Premier League last Monday and a week of reports regarding low morale and unrest in Ralf Rangnick’s dressing room, Manchester United earned a much-needed 1-0 win against Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa in the FA Cup Third Round at Old Trafford on Monday.
A sixth-minute header from midfielder Scott McTominay off of a pinpoint cross from midfield partner Fred separated the sides on the scoreboard, but the result could have went Villa’s way in the end of a tale of two different halves from the hosts.
Rangnick organized the Reds in a 4-2-3-1, the formation favored by former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, rather than his recently-scrutinized 4-2-2-2, with six changes made to the starting eleven that lost 1-0 to Wolves. The 63-year-old German confirmed that Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, and Phil Jones were sidelined due to “muscular problems,” per Manchester Evening News.
Opting to use Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood as wingers rather than attacking midfielders, separated by Bruno Fernandes as the No. 10 and Edinson Cavani as the No. 9, allowed United to cause problems in attack from kickoff. Combinations between Greenwood and right back Diogo Dalot down the right wing gave Villa left back Matt Targett headaches throughout the first half, and a play between the 20-year-old winger and Fred in the eighth minute set up Fred’s cross into McTominay at the top of the six-yard box to break the deadlock and ultimately seal the win. Luke Shaw also got forward while carrying the ball down the left wing, and he fancied his chances of scoring a couple times from distance.
United pressed well in the opening minutes of the contest in the new formation, but it didn’t take long for momentum to swing into the visitors’ favor following the goal. Two minutes after McTominay put the Reds ahead, Ollie Watkins nearly directed Tyrone Mings’ header into a gaping net off of a corner. United has consistently been criticized for poor set-piece defending, and Watkins’ chance was the first of many opportunities that nearly came haunt the hosts.
As the game went on, Villa started to combine well in the attacking third as they got numbers forward, whipped crosses into the box, and created a multiple chances for the back line and David De Gea to deal with. Watkins pounced on a poor touch Victor Lindelöf in the 29th minute, cut past the Swede in the box, and again nearly equalized as he hit the crossbar.
The hosts finished the half strongly, though, as Dalot, Fernandes, and Rashford combined well on multiple occasions as United looked to double their lead.
For a team once dubbed “Second Half FC” due to their frequent comeback performances in the second 45 minutes of games under former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United’s form significantly dropped off after a decent first half. Villa found themselves unfortunate not to score in the 50th minute, when Danny Ings’ goal-line header from John McGinn’s free kick was overturned by VAR for offsides—yet more poor man-marking on set pieces from Rangnick’s side.
Gerrard’s side had another goal reversed for offsides as United gave up possession, Ings chipped De Gea at the top of the box, and Watkins tapped the ball into the open net.
Villa, who enjoyed 57-percent of possession, retained the ball well as they controlled the midfield, pressed higher in the attacking third, and frustrated United on occasions. This allowed fullbacks Targett and Matty Cash joined the attack down the wings as well.
Shaw, Dalot, and Fred each received yellow cards for fouls as the Reds lacked possession, and Watkins saw another chance to tie the game curl just past De Gea’s right post in the 71st minute.
Greenwood and Rashford frustrated the Old Trafford faithful on a number of occasions as they held onto the ball for too long and opted to shoot instead of passing. Boos belted from the home supporters as Rashford failed to attack a loose ball that bounced off Martinez and into the middle of the box from a Greenwood effort in the 74th minute, which summed up the winger’s run of form in recent weeks since returning from injury.
Rangnick attempted to steady the ship as Donny van de Beek came on for Cavani in the 72nd minute and Jesse Lingard and Anthony Elanga replaced Rashford and Fernandes, respectively, in the last 10 minutes. United wasn’t able to truly utilize the fresh attacking legs, though, as they didn’t see much of the ball in their cameos.
Nevertheless, Rangnick will certainly take this win and the confidence it gives his team as they prepare to face Villa once again on Saturday at Villa Park in the league. Despite falling off in the second half, United took small steps forward to improving with Rangnick at the helm.