Aston Villa recorded their first win over Manchester United (and at Old Trafford) since their 0-1 victory in December 2009 thanks to a Kortney Hause header in the 88th minute.
The fact that Dean Smith selected the defender (who would have been difficult to drop following an excellent display against Chelsea) was the first hint that the 3-5-2 formation could be one that is favoured going forwards. With Tuanzebe ineligible (against his parent club) Smith could easily have selected Buendia (or El Ghazi/Young/Traore – decent options now…) and changed back to the 4-3-3 formation that he favoured earlier on in the season.
The following is my take on how Aston Villa was set up tactically and some of the positives and negatives that happened as a consequence.
Out of Possession – High Press
Much like away at Chelsea (in the league), Aston Villa pressed high – and extremely aggressively – and went toe to toe with Manchester United. This was evident from minute one and lasted the entirety of the match.
Was it successful? To an extent.
In the first half, Manchester United found it fairly easy to break the initial press, via a switch of play (usually right to left, from Greenwood or Wan-Bissaka).
This is minute one (from a Manchester United throw-in) and the home team create a decent half-chance for Bruno Fernandes.
And this was the story of large parts of the first half. Manchester United broke the initial press and found it relatively easy to enter the final third but Aston Villa usually managed to have enough numbers back to defend the box and get bodies around the shooter.
Here is the second minute of the match and Aston Villa press high again.
Aston Villa pressed man for man in midfield as Watkins and Ings pressed Maguire and Varane. Depending on which side of the pitch the ball was, Cash/Targett pressed the Manchester United full-back and the opposite wing-back was positioned slightly deeper (but still ready to press).
Aston Villa often pressed as a 5/6 keeping the three CBs and Douglas Luiz back.
Here you can see that Manchester United again beat the initial press, and have the chance to attack down their left-hand side, but Fred’s pass is overhit and Hause does a good job of defending against Ronaldo.
Next, on minute three, Manchester United have another chance to attack, this time on transition.
You get the idea. And this is why Manchester United managed 27 shots on goal but not many clear cut chances. They broke forward well and reached the edge of Aston Villa’s penalty area but found it very difficult to break down Aston Villa’s back 7 (Martinez, the back 5 and Luiz). And Aston Villa deserves great credit for that.
One thing that happened quite regularly is that one of Aston Villa’s centre backs detached themselves from the rest of the back five and pressed high up the pitch (Hause on Ronaldo) and Douglas Luiz stayed deeper to mark Fernandes.
Here Douglas Luiz does well to play offside against the Portuguese international.
When pressing high, Aston Villa forced Manchester United to build play down their right-hand side, as they viewed Varane and (in particular) Wan-Bissaka to be weaker on the ball than Maguire and Shaw. Here you can see the set-up when defending goal kicks.
The plan was to trap them down this side, regain possession and counter from there. Aston Villa did force restarts (throw-ins/free-kicks) early on but didn’t have many attacking transitions. In the above example, Greenwood again switches the play to Shaw and Manchester United end up at the edge of Aston Villa’s penalty area.
Once more Aston Villa have plenty of numbers back and deny Manchester United an opportunity.
As a supporter of either club, it would have been an entertaining watch. Manchester United fans would have felt that they were regularly in dangerous attack positions and were one good cross, pass, shot away from scoring, whilst Aston Villa fans would have felt that they were one press away from a dangerous counter-attack. And that they were in control when defending their own penalty area. And both views would be fairly accurate.
As the first half developed Aston Villa won back possession, higher up the pitch, more regularly but often then lost possession 2-3 seconds later leading to another Manchester United attack. This was the start of an incredible end to end match, especially for the first 25 minutes of the second half.
Above is Aston Villa pressing high. They have the situation that they would have hoped for with Wan-Bissaka in possession and trapped.
Aston Villa regain possession (following an attempted switch/long ball) and attack but Manchester United quickly regain possession, and Greenwood has one of Manchester United’s best chances of the match.
If there was one phase of play that summed up the first half then it would probably be the below (and the perfect camera angle to highlight it).
Aston Villa are encouraging the ball to be played into Wan-Bissaka, via Varane. McGinn and Ramsey are man for man with Fred and McTominay and Aston Villa’s front 2 are pressing Maguire/Varane and pressing from the blindside. Targett is pressing the full-back, as the ball is on his side and Aston Villa are pressing as a five and defending as a five.
Manchester United still manage to switch the play to Shaw and eventually Fernandes tries to cross for Ronaldo, at the back post. Once again Aston Villa sees out the danger fairly comfortably.
Aston Villa started the second half very well (on top for the first 10 minutes) and their pressing seemed to be a lot more effective. They won the ball back higher up the pitch which led to some dangerous situations. McGinn – who showed fantastic energy throughout – does well here to initially win the ball back and nearly plays Watkins in behind (offside).
Here they force De Gea into another poor pass (I will mention the first in Aston Villa’s build-up section).
From around the 60th minute onwards, the second half was incredibly end to end and it seemed that whoever won the 50-50 duel in midfield would go on to attack the opposition’s box. One of the key moments of the half was undoubtedly the ‘foul’ by Maguire on John McGinn that went unpunished.
If a red card is given here, which would have been fully justified, then you would expect Aston Villa to go on and dominate the rest of the second half.
As it was the game continued to be end to end and Aston Villa had some good chances when they regained possession and broke forwards.
Above is a chance for Watkins following excellent play from Douglas Luiz.
And below is the Ramsey slip/chance following an excellent interception by Cash and bursting forward run from McGinn (both had very good matches).
From around the 60th to the 80th minute Aston Villa had some difficulties defending down their left-hand side, with both Mings and Targett making a poor decision and getting done by balls in behind. At this point, there were some tired legs/minds as Villa had pressed relentlessly for an hour.
Mings often had to make the decision whether to stay in position or press high, and he generally chose the layer And as Targett’s recovery runs were slowing down this did lead to some half-decent opportunities for the home side.
In Possession – Playing short to eventually play long
Now I have outlined Aston Villa’s plan out of possession, let’s take a look at their plan with the ball.
They generally played short from Martinez (if possible) and split to make a back 4 (Cash, Konsa, Hause and Mings). McGinn dropped alongside Douglas Luiz to make a 2 in midfield. Villa generally built play down their right-hand side, with Cash, and played long balls towards Watkins and Ings.
And it was a very similar move that led to one of Aston Villa’s biggest chance in the first half through Ollie Watkins.
Konsa plays the ball to Cash, who in turn plays long into the channel towards Ings. Maguire intercepts the pass and immediately is under pressure. The defender plays a poor back pass to David de Gea, who in turn passes the ball to Watkins.
This type of play suited Villa well. By splitting and playing short it encouraged Manchester United to press which meant that Watkins and Ings were often 2v2 against Maguire and Varane. Villa often went long and lost possession but it didn’t really matter as they were happy to press and try and win the ball back higher up the pitch.
Aston Villa’s other big chance of the first half was of course the far post miss from Matt Targett. Once more Matty Cash was involved (who I have been very impressed by this season).
Hause switches the play to Cash and Luke Shaw gambles and runs underneath the ball. Following a one-two with McGinn, Cash drills the ball across the floor and Targett shoots over from 3-4 yards out.
If Aston Villa were unable to play short from the back then Martinez often hit longer balls towards Mings (especially in the first half) and Aston Villa got some joy with this tactic.
The same can be said here.
And the short pass to Cash followed by a long ball to the centre forwards almost led to another chance for Watkins early in the second half.
Set Pieces – Aston Villa continue to look a threat
From throw-ins Aston Villa took them quickly when possible and looked to switch the play.
And in the last couple of matches, they have also worked short throw-ins when it looks like Cash might throw one into the box.
Douglas Luiz has shown to have excellent delivery and almost created a good chance for Mings.
From attacking corners Konsa looked to isolate himself at the back post (he was picked up by Wan-Bissaka) and he had a good opportunity from Aston Villa’s first corner.
Hause does an excellent job of pinning Harry Maguire (who is positioned zonally on the middle of the 6-yard box) so Konsa can get a free run on Ronaldo at the back post. Watkins pins De Gea ensuring that the goalkeeper can not come from the cross.
As you can see from the image above, the delivery and position of Aston Villa’s players have taken 8 (9 including De Gea) Manchester United players out of the game. If Konsa can lose Wan-Bissaka (which he does) it is a 1v1 against Ronaldo at the far post (thanks to the excellent delivery from Luiz).
That was the general set-up from most corners but sometimes the delivery was aimed towards the near post with Mings looking to get across and flick the ball on (a corner Villa have tried multiple times this season). Mings nearly got on the end of one just before the goal but this time at the far post.
So, let’s look at the match-winning goal from Hause (who followed on from the Chelsea match to have another very good game).
Cavani (recently introduced) is now marking Hause and the CB gets in front of Pogba/Lindelof at the near post and beats the Uruguayan to the ball. Again Konsa and Mings are at the far post. The near-post flick on (in-swinging delivery) has been a very effective corner for Aston Villa this season and one I expect them to continue to use.
In summary, Aston Villa went to Manchester United and looked to take the game to the home side. They pressed them high at every opportunity and put them under pressure from longer passes and set pieces. And this is the team that it looks like Aston Villa are turning into. A team that, with the help of an additional CB, defends for its life and looks to get the ball forwards and into the opposition’s box as quickly as possible. I think they attack best from broken play (i.e when they do not have to build play through the lines but rather focus on regaining possession and attacking from there) and the tactic of playing short to then play long led to some very dangerous moments.
Manchester United did break Aston Villa’s press on a number of occasions but very rarely did they then go on to penetrate the back 5.
If the last 3-4 matches are anything to go by then Aston Villa should be a very entertaining watch this season and create plenty of opportunities. If they can add a little bit more control to matches, and find a way of breaking teams down by playing through the thirds, then they could be on course for a very good season. The fact that Dean Smith replaced Ramey with Archer with 5 minutes to go says a lot about their attacking intent (and their increasing trust in youth).