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Aston Villa vs Manchester United – Tactical Analysis And Game Review | What Went Wrong for the Red Devils?

Aston Villa vs Manchester United, Man United

Manchester United dropped a costly two points away from home on Saturday, drawing the game 2-2 against Aston Villa. Missing out on key players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire, Rangnick rolled out a 4-3-3 set-up. Anthony Elanga was given his first start of the season.

Aston Villa vs Manchester United
Image Obtained Via: Manchester Evening News

Shape in Possession:

In a slightly unfamiliar shape, Manchester United lacked clarity in possession against Aston Villa. This was the first time the Red Devils set up in a 4-3-3 this season.

Aston Villa defended in a narrow 4-3-3 shape. They aimed to stagger United in the build-up, and prevent passing lanes down the centre. Starting from wider positions, Buendia and Watkins left United’s full-backs unmarked. A compact midfield and narrow defensive line made it difficult for United to progress centrally.

Aston Villa vs Manchester United
Aston Villa’s narrow shape in defence

Manchester United countered this with a fairly simple adjustment. Villa’s narrow shape made it hard for them to cover the wings. The defence could not afford to step up due to Elanga and Greenwood’s narrow positioning. The wingers were instructed to remain narrow to cut off supply to the centre.

Rangnick attempted two tweaks to take advantage of Villa’s constraints:

  1. Nemanja Matic dropped in ahead of the centre-backs to pick the ball up. This provided United with a sense of security. Matic avoided taking risks in possession, and only 4 of his 33 carries were progressive. He had 4 progressive passes, the second-most in the team. The Serbian also completed all 6 of his attempted long passes.
  2. Bruno Fernandes dropped into the left-wing to receive the ball. This was accommodated by Alex Telles playing higher up the field. The left-wing became United’s primary source of attacks in the game. Over half of all United attacks originated from this flank.
Aston Villa vs Manchester United
United’s solution to Villa’s mid-block

Manchester United started in a strong fashion against Aston Villa. They managed to impose themselves well and exercise effective control. The Red Devils notched 5 shots within the half-hour mark. They also found the back of the net once. An interesting free-kick routine gave Bruno Fernandes space on the edge of the box to attempt a shot. Villa keeper Emi Martinez fluffed a rather straightforward save, and the ball rolled into the net.

United’s biggest struggle in the game was making effective use of width. Against a compact defensive set-up, Rangnick’s men lacked the creativity to carve out spaces from the centre. This left the wings as the primary outlet.

As mentioned above, Villa’s narrow structure made it difficult for Steven Gerrard’s men to defend the wings. However, United failed to take exploit this opportunity. They managed to land only 3 crosses into the box. Dalot and Telles combined registered just 3 key passes, with a combined value of just 0.1 xA.

Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga are not traditional wingers either. As their pass-map indicates, the duo failed to have any sort of impact in the final third. They accounted for 9 of United’s 13 shots, and 0.8 xG of United’s total 1.0. It was their contribution in the build-up phase that went lacking.

Greenwood (top) and Elanga (bottom) – Image Obtained Via

In the second half, Manchester United managed to add to their tally. A poor pass from Digne allowed Fred to break free and pick out Bruno. The Portuguese unleashed a fierce shot that went in off the crossbar. This effort marked United’s last attempt on target. Their only shot after this goal came in the 6th minute of stoppage time when Van Beek’s effort was blocked.

Shape Out Of Possession:

The approach taken by Manchester United in defence was very similar to Aston Villa. The front-line remained passive and allowed space for Konsa and Mings. United’s front 3 affected 32 pressures in the game, but only 7 of these came in the attacking third. As a team, only 14 of their 110 pressures occurred in the final third.

United’s narrow 4-3-3 Shape. Forwards remain passive allowing Mings and Konsa to advance, but with no real passing options

This approach worked very well in the first half. Struggling to build up against a narrow set-up, Villa were forced wide in possession. This allowed United to execute systematic side-overloads and regain possession. United’s back four and Matic won 11 of the 16 aerial duels they contested, and also made 35 recoveries.

Aston Villa vs Manchester United
An effective side-overload leaving Cash with no viable passin options from right-back

The structure paid off well, and the Red Devils put up a cohesive defensive display. The Villans ailed to register a shot in the first 32 minutes of the game. By the end of the first half, Gerrard’s men managed 4 shots, including 3 on the frame. United keeper David De Gea was forced to make routine, albeit important saves. At half-time, United were putting in a comfortable defensive performance, and the players seemed well in sync with one another.

Defensively, the wheels fell off for the Red Devils in the second half. Matic began to tire out as the game progressed. As the lone pivot, he began to leave a lot of spaces ahead of the centre-backs. Fred and Bruno Fernandes failed to cut off passing lanes effectively ahead of the Serbian.

Lack of communication between the mid-field trio creating an avenue for penetrative passes. Matic unable to cover two forwards dropping deep.

Buendia and Watkins took advantage of this and continuously dropped into the half-spaces. This allowed them to receive the ball on the turn, and engage United’s defenders 1v1.

Aston Villa made 2 changes, including bringing on Phillipe Coutinho. On loan from Barcelona, the Brazilian seemed keen to make a mark. Coutinho’s runs from deep, into the left half-spaces caused United a lot of problems. A good bit of interplay between the ex-Liverpool man and fellow substitute Chukwuemeka allowed Coutinho to find Ramsey in the box, who halved the deficit.

Less than 5 minutes later, the roles were reversed. Taking advantage of another defensive lapse, Jacob Ramsey found space and time in the box to pick out Coutinho who levelled the game. In the final 10 minutes, the introduction of Sancho, Lingard and Van de Beek failed to produce a decider. Coutinho and Hause drew saves from De Gea before the full-time whistle concluded another disappointing result for the Red Devils.

Lessons Learnt:

1. New Formation, Same Problems?

In a 4-3-3, Manchester United began brightly against Aston Villa. However, as the game progressed, several recurring problems seemed to surface. The most glaring issue was the lack of clarity in player roles. The right-wing was non-existent throughout the game. As Greenwood and Dalot failed to offer any presence in the final third.

United Team touch-map. No touches in the right-wing, as well as a low volume of touches on the left flank and zone 14 Image Obtained Via:

Telles often found himself in a more advanced position than Elanga, leaving the left-wing open to counter-attacks. Bruno and Fred played with a lot of positional freedom but failed to impose enough authority to control the game. Edinson Cavani was completely lost.

Aston Villa vs Manchester United
Edinson Cavani touch-map (attacing right to left). Image Obtained Via:

His touch-map resembles a defensive midfielder rather than a centre-forward. Through the 90 minutes, Cavani had no shots and created just one. He also had the least touches for any out-field starter.

2. A New Defensive MidFielder Needed, Urgently:

In the absence of McTominay, veteran Nemanja Matic started as the holding mid alongside two 8s. Matic struggled to keep up with the pace of the game and failed to assert himself in the middle of the park. This allowed Aston Villa to conveniently by-pass Manchester United in the midfield.

Once the hosts broke through United’s second line of press, they always looked likely to create some danger. Denis Zakaria has been linked with a move, but may not be the primary solution to all of United’s issues. With the transfer market open, filling the void at CDM should be one of their top priorities.

Denis Zakaria
Image Obtained Via: We All Follow United

3. Every Attack Does Not Decide The Game

The Red Devils were the better team for large stretches of the game. However, even in these phases, they struggled to take advantage of Villa’s vulnerabilities. Very often, poor choices in the opposition half, or a sense of urgency to take decisions killed off several promising attacks.

This was a problem even RB Leipzig faced under Rangnick. Every attack cannot lead to a goal, and every pass cannot be made in a forward direction. The players need to understand the importance of taking their time in making decisions. A right pass has more potential than a quick pass.

Manchester United Possession Losses. (Image Obtained Via:

4. Good Defence, Poor Defenders

United’s defensive structure was well planned out. Rangnick had set up well to defend against an enterprising Aston Villa after Manchester United huffed and puffed their way to a laborious 1-0 win in the FA Cup. However, individual errors cost the visitors a 2-goal lead and 2 points.

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Varane’s poor clearance and Fred’s wayward pass provided the Villans with simple goals. A lapse in concentration or a moment of poor awareness can cost United heavily in a frantic race for the top 4. In order to avoid dropping crucial points by basic mistakes, the players need to tune in and remain focused until the final whistle is blown.

A decent performance from the visitors, but United will feel like they have lost two points. However, with important fixtures coming in, the Red Devils have little time to retrospect and rectify their shortcomings. Back to the training ground….again.

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Adithya Ravi
Football enthusiast. Stat enthusiast

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