Regardless of what the outcome would be there was the aura of a new dawn on the horizon on Tuesday at Old Trafford.
Manchester United fans were in festive spirits after the 25 percent sale of the club to Sir Jim Ratcliffe, which will see INEOS take over full sporting control, was formally announced on Christmas Eve.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS will still need to go through the Premier League’s approval process. Though that process is expected to take another month, INEOS Director of Sport Sir Dave Brailsford was present at Old Trafford to take in his first match since the takeover was made official by the club.
Perhaps it was merely a coincidence, or perhaps the presence of his future boss inspired United manager Erik Ten Hag to try something he hasn’t done nearly enough of this season; do some actual coaching and try to utilize the squad’s strengths to win a match.
Ten Hag didn’t have some grand plan for Unai Emery’s Aston Villa side who entered the match third in the table. Rather it was as simple as going back to basics.
The past four matches saw Ten Hag select an attack built around Scott McTominay’s ability to make runs into the box and the directness of teenage winger Alejandro Garnacho. Accommodating this meant sacrificing service to the club’s £60m striker Rasmus Hojlund, moving their most creative player Bruno Fernandes to a deeper midfield position, and leaving their best all round attacker on the bench entirely.
United won just one of those four games, scoring two goals and conceding six, including a 3-0 loss at home to Bournemouth.
After weeks of talking about knowing where the problems were and having to adjust, Ten Hag finally made adjustments. The adjustments were simple, play your best players... in their best positions.
The return of Christian Eriksen saw Scott McTominay dropped to the bench and Fernandes pushed back up to the no. 10 position. Alejandro Garnacho - who is second in the Premier League in shots per 90, but 63rd in shots on target per 90, and 127th in xG per shot - was moved out to the right, either to try and garner more creativity from him, or because Ten Hag realized these performances weren’t good enough to keep Marcus Rashford out of the team. Rashford was restored to the left wing.
We’ll never know if Aaron Wan-Bissaka would have gotten the call over Diogo Dalot at right back but the unavailability of Luke Shaw meant Wan-Bissaka kept his place. Perhaps it was just luck that put him there but it was a crucial boost for United.
Obviously however. Things were not smooth at the start for United. The buildup play was still slow, and devoid of good options.
United were pressing high but continued to do that thing where they just leave the wide man and make it easy to break the press.
Even if it may have accidentally worked on occasion.
The man-marking in midfield that Erik Ten Hag claims United don’t do was still prevalent as we see Wan-Bissaka following his man inside to form almost a midfield partnership with Kobbie Mainoo.
There doesn’t look to be anything wrong with this setup. United are staying compact in the middle of the pitch, but out of the frame is left back Lucas Digne who was left completely free, something that almost came back to hurt United a few seconds later, when Varane was pulled out of the defensive line, but a poor interchange between Ollie Watkins and Jacob Ramsey bailed United out.
When it comes to defending players 1v1, there’s no one better than Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Having that elite ability in the team allows you to do other things tactically - knowing that you don’t have to offer support to your right back. That can include things like moving the less defensively aware Garnacho over to the right wing, and knowing you’ll be ok if he accidentally doesn’t track the run of his man while Wan-Bissaka is pushed higher up the pitch.
But it’s exactly situations like that that allow you to play to your strengths. United can invite challenges down that left flank, knowing Wan-Bissaka will take care of it. They can invite Villa to get players forward, which leaves the door open for United to hit them on the counter attack.
Just four seconds after the above sequence, United were launching Garnacho free down the right wing.
The first half was far from an easy watch. Villa scored twice from set pieces, both of which should have been prevented. United were better defensively, conceding just four shots from open play for an xG of 0.2. Villa weren’t particularly good, but these days against United you don’t have to be. You just have to be decently organized, and Villa were.
The Villains high line seemed to completely flummox United. They couldn’t move the ball through the thirds. They couldn’t get the ball into Villa’s box. At the half hour mark United had just one shot - a long range effort from Christian Eriksen. It was the 10th time in the past 12 games that United have gone at least 20 minutes without creating a shot from open play.
Once Villa went 2-0 up the game seemed tailor made for Manchester United. All the space was behind Villa’s back line. Villa were almost asking for balls to be played in behind, which is exactly the strength of these United players, but it almost seemed as if the muscle memory had eluded them.
A notable example is this ball from Bruno to Rashford. In previous years we’d probably see Rashford take this in stride and blow past the defender towards the goal, allowing him to get central and finish with his right foot. This time, he lets up just a little bit, giving the defender enough time to get back and into position, forcing to beat him and shoot from a weak angle with his left foot.
United seemed completely unprepared for what is Villa’s M.O. The offside trap.
United were flagged offside six times in the first half Tuesday - the most in a half of any Premier League match this season. It seemed like none of the coaches had prepared the players for this and told them to curve their runs, or to look to make runs from deep. The irony of it all is after Scott McTominay started nine consecutive Premier League matches, he was dropped for this one where his runs from deep would be most useful.
United were rightfully booed off the pitch at halftime. In a season full of bad performances, this was among the worst.
But there weren’t wholesale changes at halftime. Rather for arguably the first time this season, Ten Hag made some tactical adjustments at halftime and did some coaching. Most importantly, he allowed United’s players to play to their strengths.
Within two minutes of the restart United’s quick passing lead to Bruno playing Rashford in behind the Villa defense. Rashford’s first touch was try to play it even further behind across the field to Garnacho. Garnacho rounded the keeper and fired the ball into the net to get United back in it.
But the excitement was short lived when VAR determined that Garnacho was offside by the smallest of margins.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if not outright assuming that Rashford even passing this ball rather than taking it himself was down to a lack of confidence given his form this season.
But within a few minutes it became apparent this was something Rashford had been told to look for at halftime as a clear pattern started to emerge.
In the first half United tended to attack vertically, with long balls going straight over the top, and United being flagged for offside. If United weren’t going to start curving their runs the next best thing is to curve the balls. Instead of playing vertically, they started looking to go from right to left or vice versa.
At the center of this was Bruno Fernandes. Restored to his number 10 position he was now in position to launch more counter attacks via well placed through balls. More importantly, pushing him back higher up the pitch meant that defensively he was now responsible for marking a deeper Aston Villa player, in this case defensive midfielder Douglas Luiz.
For United, that has the benefit of deploying Bruno’s defensive work rate higher up the pitch, where he can disrupt Villa’s buildup as they try to work the ball to Luiz.
Just 13 minutes into the second half, United put it all together. Bruno intercepts the pass and can launch a quick transition. Bruno plays a through ball in towards Rashford who once again has his head up looking for the runner coming from the opposite wing.
On his first touch Rashford plays the ball across the box and it’s basically a tap in for Garnacho.
Similar to what happened to a younger Rashford, putting Garnacho on the right really opened things up for him. Garnacho looked as dangerous as he’s ever been as his game looked much simpler. By taking Garnacho off the left they took him out of a position where he needs to open up his body to finish chances…
…to one where he can beat a man to the outside and still be in a much more natural shooting position.
He still had the ability to beat players on the dribble, he still was able to get shots, and at one point he even tried playing a ball across for Hojlund.
It’d be foolish to make any long term statements on the back of just one game. Garnacho’s future may in fact (ok it probably does) lie on the left wing but a spell on the right wing could get him to start thinking about adding that bit of creativity to his game that he badly needs.
Entering this match Rashford, Antony, and Garnacho had combined for just two non-penalty goals in the Premier League and the last United attacker to score at Old Trafford was Jadon Sancho back in May. A big reason for that is Ten Hag’s system has the wingers staying very wide, while the fullbacks play more narrow and attack the dangerous spaces.
That results in dribblers either lacking overlapping support from fullbacks, or the narrow fullbacks blatantly getting in the way so the wingers don’t have anywhere to go.
It’s an incredibly bad way to utilize the skillsets of Rashford, Garnacho, and even Antony. On Tuesday, guess who started popping up in the middle of the pitch?
And with Garnacho in the middle of the pitch, seconds later he was in a dangerous position to capitalize on a deflected ball and smash and equalizer in for United.
After their first and second goals United conceded a pair of chances within seconds of the kickoff but other than that, Villa hardly offered any threat in the second half. United managed to grab more control of the game by ceding possession, going from having 49.2 percent of the ball in the first half to just 41.4 percent in the second half. They did this by (finally) shoring up their press.
To say United’s press has been good this year would be a matter of how you define good. United entered Tuesday’s game second in the league in high turnovers and second in shots created from high turnovers. They’ve had eight games with 10 or more high turnovers.
From that perspective United’s high press has been good. However when United’s press doesn’t create a turnover, it’s been very easy to exploit and leads to high quality chances going the other way.
On Tuesday, Ten Hag finally shored this up by having his fullback actually push high and provide some support to United’s forwards as they press. Here Wan-Bissaka being pushed up higher eliminates all the options for Alex Moreno who is forced to just chip the ball away where it’s easily gathered by Eriksen.
Here again you can see Wan-Bissaka providing support and no forward options for Villa.
Their only option is to play around the back, where eventually United win the ball back.
A thrilling win with goals scored by a 19 and 20 year old. A rousing comeback in front of the Stretford End with a winner scored by a player who wants nothing more than to perform at Old Trafford. Eight different Carrington graduates made appearances. This is what Manchester United are supposed to be.
It is the dawn of a new horizon off the pitch, but only time will tell if it’s the same on the pitch. United played the type of football they’re best at Tuesday night, but you can’t disregard the caveat that Villa allowed them to do so. There was naivety from Villa for continuing to play such a high line once they went 2-0 up, giving United space to attack in behind.
In previous seasons United were able to create transition opportunities even when their opponents weren’t allowing them too. They haven’t done that this season and they’re next test will be to see how Erik Ten Hag reacts against a team that isn’t letting them get all that space behind followed by winning an away game against a top nine team.
For now United take the three points and the hope that their manager will continue to allow their top players to round into form.
Playing to your strengths. Playing your best players in their best positions. Sometimes it really is that simple.