Manchester United travelled to Villa Park to take on Aston Villa in a crucial Premier League clash, with top four possibly on the line.
Heading into the game, Villa were in fifth position, eight points adrift of United sixth.
Fresh off their dominant 3-0 win against West Ham last weekend, Erik ten Hag needed his players to deliver another big performance and extend the club’s winning run.
The Dutchman started Andre Onana in goal. With Lisandro Martinez injured, Ten Hag gave the nod to a centre-back partnership of Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire. Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw started in the full-back positions.
Casemiro was United’s deepest-lying midfielder and had the company of Kobbie Mainoo and Bruno Fernandes in the middle of the park.
Rasmus Hojlund led the line and was flanked by Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho on either side. Here are three things we learned from Manchester United’s 1-2 win against Aston Villa.
Below-par first half performance
It was never going to be easy for United at Villa Park, especially against Unai Emery’s men who have been flying this term.
However, United made it harder for themselves than it needed to be. The Red Devils were decent and seemed up the challenge in the opening stages of the game. They got their reward in the 17th minute when Hojlund found the back of the net, to make it five goals in as many Premier League clashes.
The young Dane was well-positioned to guide a headed assist from Maguire, beyond the reach of Emi Martinez.
Maguire beat his defenders to get on the end of a corner kick from Fernandes. He found Hojlund who made no mistake from close range.
It was downhill from there up until the interval. United were poor and Villa capitalised to steadily make their mark and grow their influence in the game.
Jacob Ramsey, John McGinn, Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz were impressive in the first half and helped Villa control proceedings.
Ramsey got in behind the United defence more than once and would have felt unlucky not to have scored at least once.
Even McGinn had a stunning shot that looked destined for goal saved by a diving Onana who did well to ensure he wasn’t outdone by the Scotland international. The United midfielders struggle to get close to Kamara and Luiz who seemed relaxed and just on top of things.
Leon Bailey on the wing was giving Shaw problems and even he had a shot but luckily for United, he couldn’t find the sufficient bend with his left foot to restore parity.
United’s defence was disjointed and at times, it needed the likes of Dalot and Varane to come up with crucial last-ditch tackles to maintain the team’s delicate lead.
Onana, despite making one or two big saves, was still largely unconvincing in the first half. He was really poor with the ball at his feet and in his distribution.
On a few occasions, the Cameroonian hesitated to come out of his area and left it to the defenders to clear the ball.
The attackers weren’t very involved either. Apart from the goal, Hojlund didn’t really offer much else and neither did his partners in Rashford and Garnacho.
Certainly, United were lucky to head down the tunnel a goal up. Ten Hag would not have been happy with what he saw.
Shaw injury fears
Ten Hag seemingly had to make a forced change during the break when he brought on Victor Lindelof for Shaw.
The Englishman has been far too injured this season and has missed multiple games in the campaign due to physical setbacks.
Fans will be eagerly waiting to find out what the situation with Shaw is, the nature of his injury and its full extent.
Understandably, there would be fears about a lengthy period on the sidelines considering the player’s extensive injury record, not only this season but in his United career in general.
His replacement, Lindelof, was not very good and Bailey appeared to fancy his chances against the Swede.
In the 54th minute, Lindelof almost United in a risky position when he seemed to be grabbing the shirt of Diego Carlos inside the Reds’ box. Fortunately, it didn’t lead to anything in Villa’s advantage.
With Lindelof – naturally a central defender – in the left-back position, the opposition seemed much more inclined and motivated to attack down that area of the pitch.
Villa got the equalizing goal in the 67th minute courtesy of Luiz who re-directed a ball from Diaby into the top-right corner. It was coming for United, whose poor performance carried on into the second period of the match.
Should Shaw be seriously injured, it would make Dalot the only fit senior full-back on the club’s payroll available to Ten Hag for selection.
The manager can’t afford to lose another defender considering Lisandro Martinez has also been ruled out of action for the foreseeable future.
Ten Hag changes won the match for United
With United struggling and relatively holding on for dear life, all eyes were on Ten Hag to see what he would do.
The United boss has this season often been accused of not being proactive enough and just letting matches go by passively.
Rashford was not providing much and rightfully so, was taken off by the Dutch coach. His replacement, Scott McTominay, would have certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Soon after Rashford was substituted, United looked slightly better and more organized.
Even better is that it was McTominay who put the 20-time English champions back in the lead with a brilliant bullet header.
He rose highest after a Dalot cross to head the ball into the back of the Villa net.
McTominay has now scored more goals in the Premier League this season than his previous three seasons combined.
In the dying embers of the match, Ten Hag chucked on Jonny Evans and Sofyan Amrabat to ensure Villa didn’t spring up any surprises.