Aston Villa’s run of outs in the FA Cup extended to six on Monday evening, with an early Scott McTominay goal proving enough for the hosts to get over the line.
After Villa offered a dismal performance at Brentford to begin the year, the pressure was on for several players tonight with the January transfer window well and truly up and running. In the 8th minute, when McTominay took advantage of some poor defensive marking and headed home a pinpoint Fred cross, it seemed as though Wes Edens and Co. would be reaching for the chequebook at the half time break.
However, Villa sought to steady the ship, controlling the play, and creating chances for McGinn, Ramsey, Buendia and Watkins, who hit the bar off the back of some trademark hard running to shut down a poor touch from Lindelof. United were not out of the game, but their chances mostly consisted of long balls to Rashford and Greenwood; these counter attacks resulted mostly in long range efforts that never threatened Martinez.
The second half played out much the same as the first, albeit with a plethora of contentious decisions that will undoubtedly mar the post-game coverage.
Soon after the restart, Villa had the ball in the net by way of a scruffy Danny Ings finish, after some good work by Ezri Konsa at the back post. However, this goal was ruled out following a farcical VAR check, where Stockley Park spent four minutes trying to prove the ball touched Ollie Watkins’ foot (rendering the goal offside) before deciding that Edison Cavani (“El Matador”) running into Jacob Ramsey of his own accord was worthy of an offside decision.
It was a decision that aggrieved the travelling Villans, and put the wind in their sails. The second half was all Villa, with the contact attacks on David de Gea’s goal only occasionally separated by some more United chances on the break, which more often than not saw Greenwood tamely curl the ball at Martinez. Watkins put the ball home via a cutely chipped through ball by Ings, but this one was ruled out for a far more palatable offside call, after Ings made his initial run slightly too early.
In the 88th minute, Ezri Konsa was flattened off the ball by a flailing Luke Shaw arm during a corner, emerging with blood spouting out of his nose. Shaw was booked, but despite not appearing to be looking at the ball during the coming together, there was inexplicably no VAR check for a penalty.
The game was perhaps summed up perfect by substitute Anwar El Ghazi nicking the ball from Danny Ings in stoppage time, only to fire it into the second tier of Old Trafford. A goal proved elusive and Manchester United grimly clung on to progress to the 4th round.
Villa’s new signings will be crucial
The acquisition of Phillipe Coutinho and expected transfer of Lucas Digne were proven very necessary by today’s performance, as Villa were continuously unable to put the ball in the net, before being caught in a counter on the left-hand side. Matty Targett, although better later on, was a bit of a liability in the first half, with Greenwood’s poor shooting the only thing preventing his mistakes from leaking goals. Hopefully this will be mopped up by Digne’s strong defensive style, which can complement (and insure against) the roaming nature of Tyrone Mings’ play. Emi Buendia played another very solid game, finally showing some of the trickery that convinced Dean Smith to spend 30 million on him – hopefully with him and Coutinho in the side together their technical play can add another dimension to Villa’s attacks, creating more clear-cut chances for Ings and Watkins, who are so often forced to do their own work high up the pitch. Villa is definitely short a defensive mid; Douglas Luiz once again played well but it often feels as though his passing skills are wasted chasing the opponent as a number 6. With some impressive coups already, one can’t help but be excited to wonder who Stevie G will bring in to fill this role.
Manchester United in all sorts
Despite their victory, Manchester United served up a performance that was truly indicative of their recent form. Their backline was solid, but Shaw was lucky not to give away a penalty and Lindelof guilty of several basic mistakes that were very nearly costly. McTominay and Fred combined for the game’s only goal, before electing to compete to see who could give the ball away the most for the remaining 82 minutes. They comfortably got the ball up the pitch time and time again, but were let down by an uninspired Rashford and an uncreative Greenwood, with Cavani an isolated figure up top. They will of course be bolstered by Ronaldo’s return, but going forward they will have to figure out a playstyle that is less reliant on one of the game’s greats – arguably, Watford could run a similar set up and still score goals. Of course, what matters is that they won today, but entry to the fourth round of the FA Cup (a given for United fans) will do little to halt the growing concern amongst the supporter base. Ralf Rangnick will take over as director of football following this season, but the January transfer window will be crucial on how he is remembered as United gaffer.
I hate to kick off a tradition this way, but honestly how much more of VAR can we handle? I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said by thousands already, but when a system brought in to decide on clear and obvious errors is being used to systematically analyse every element of a goal until it can be ruled out, something has gone wrong. I’ve gone on enough twitter rants about the disallowed goal itself, so I’ll leave it out here, but I’m running out of patience with the VAR system altogether; how many times has it made decisions the fans are actually happy with?
I will say I was very impressed by Gerrard’s response to the matter (see below); his no nonsense approach of “we can’t change it so just move on” is very professional and reminiscent of an AFL coach, who generally offer far less whinging and moaning about the officiating than their Premier League counterparts. It improves the club’s image, and it makes me happy that our brigade of talented youth is being looked after by a cool head.
Steven Gerrard, speaking to BBC Sport:
"Very tough. We are out of the FA Cup and coming into this job I saw this competition as an opportunity to have a good run in it.”
The lads gave a lot in terms of performance but we need to learn and close the gap from a performance that was nearly good enough. We dominated for large parts but we were not ruthless enough.
"I've seen enough tonight in terms of the performance to know that I can get to where I want to get to but we need to learn and learn quickly. We need to be more ruthless moving forward, defending crosses we need to be tighter. We cannot be having people with free headers in our six yard box. It is quite clear what we need to iron out and we will do it in the short term."
On VAR: "How long have you got? The officials took three and a half minutes to settle that one. They have looked at two or three things in it.”
"When VAR is there, and they make a decision you have to accept it. There is nothing you can do to change it. The easy way out is to blame luck and the officials, we won't do that."
On rematch: "It is quite unique to play a team in the space of five or six days. The players have an opportunity to flip the mood, flip the feeling. I am sure they are frustrated. They played quite well and dominated large arts but with no rewards for the performance so they have an opportunity at Villa Park to straighten that out.
"I am not disappointed in the performance tonight just disappointed we didn't take our chances and conceded a sloppy goal."
Ralf Rangnick, speaking to BBC Sport
"I think we showed a reaction after the Wolves game, that is what everyone expected from us. We knew it would be very difficult against Villa. In the first half I thought we did well. It could have been 3-2 or 4-3 to us at half time.
"In the second half we were on the counterattack and we could have made more of those situations. We took the wrong decisions at times but when we changed to a diamond in midfield, we had more control.
"In the last 20 minutes we had more control. We fought well as a team together when it was important. In the end it was a good win. That was our goal, to proceed to the next round."
Scott McTominay: "He is an academy boy, his energy is amazing. He now also starts scoring goals and also with some leadership skills. I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple of years he would be the captain of this team."
Keeping a clean sheet: "We have to develop the team into a clean sheet team and that was another one today but still David de Gea was outstanding again for me today. I would have wanted him to have less saves in total, I think we had four or five shots on goal but again we can still improve even in that area."
VAR: "We had a look in the dugout and when I saw the situation for me it was clear - the player who blocked Edinson Cavani was offside in the very moment when the ball came in."
Where to next?
The two teams meet again on Saturday evening, this time at Villa Park in the Premier League. With the change in venue and the potential availability of Phillipe Coutinho, Gerrard’s men will hold a firm belief that they can reverse tonight’s result.