After the international break United got back to business with a home game against Aston Villa looking for a fifth league win in a row.


In: Rojo.
Out: Smalling.


  • United controlled this game without reaching the heights of their performances against Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
  • Generally United’s passing and movement was slower and more deliberate than of late; when they did quicken the pace they enjoyed their better moments.
  • Aston Villa came to defend and await opportunities to hit United on the break. United did not press Villa as aggressively as they have pressed others in recent weeks. Was this as a consequence of a concern not to fall into the Villa trap, not to be caught out by Villa’s quick forwards?
  • When United did push forward they regularly got four men high against Villa’s back line. This left space behind which Herrera, who had an excellent game, exploited well especially in taking his two goals.
  • United’s attacking play contrasted from left to right. On the left there was more direct running from Young and later Di Maria, whilst on the right more combination play involving Mata, Valencia and Herrera.
  • Three well taken goals, but plenty of other chances, often thwarted by last ditch Villa defending. For all United’s control and dominance of games they should take a larger proportion of their chances.


Within the first few minutes of the game United were denied a clear penalty. A ball over the top was knocked on and into the path of Rooney, he managed to get goal side of Ciaran Clark who grabbed Rooney around the neck. For whatever reason, the referee chose to wave play on.

shape first half  rooney-pen_3256453b

United started this game in roughly the same shape as in recent games, 4-3-3 in attack and 4-1-4-1 in defence, but the tempo of passing was slower and movement was more deliberate. There were a number of subtle strategic changes from the last two games; Mata was wider, hugging the touchline, Herrera was deeper and wider and Fellaini was higher, often level or ahead of Rooney. The United performance was not as accomplished but United controlled the game throughout.

Herrera - much of his play was in a wide position

Herrera – much of his play was in a wide position

Villa were very defensive in a 4-4-2 shape; they sat deep looking to hit United on the break through the pace of Benteke and Agbonlahor. Perhaps because of this United didn’t press high or as aggressively as they have in recent games; were they concerned not to get caught on the break? United’s general strategy throughout the first half was to attack with width. As previously stated Mata stayed very wide on the right, Young stayed wide on the left. Rooney stayed high in the middle and Fellaini pushed up alongside Rooney. What this meant was that United’s shape often resembled a 4-2-4 with the four front players pushing onto the Villa back four and attacking on a wide front. To compensate Villa’s midfield sat deep often forming a back line of seven rather than two banks of four.

When Villa did occasionally push forward United looked to catch them quickly by hitting a ball over the top behind the Villa central defenders. This tactic never quite came off, but the denied penalty chance was an early example of this tactic.

The contrast in United’s wide play between left and right was stark. On the left United were much more direct via Young’s direct running, supported by Blind. Blind was often slow to get the ball to Young but when he did Young consistently threatened the space behind Hutton who had such a difficult time he was replaced at half-time. On the right Mata does not have the pace of Young and so was not inclined to run at his fullback. He was supported by Valencia who seemed disinclined to push on and Herrera who moved wide. They played in triangles in an attempt to create space, but Villa looked more comfortable with this than Young’s running.

United dominated possession through the first half. Over the whole game they had 76% of the possession recording a total of 664 successful passes to Villa’s 162. United created a number of chances and half chances throughout the half but never quite did enough to make the breakthrough. This was principally because Villa were disciplined in defence whilst also making a number of last ditched interventions, but also because United’s play was slower and more cautious than of late. They didn’t really force the issue.


Then on 43 minutes United scored. The goal came from United’s direct play wide on the left which released Blind who looked up and pulled the ball back into the path of Herrera arriving just inside the box. He controlled the ball and shot home through a crowd of players. Boom!

Herrera - Boom!

Herrera – Boom!

This goal illustrated a key feature of the game which United hadn’t exploited up to this point. With United pushing four against four on the Villa defensive line there was often space behind around the edge of the Villa box. United had rarely exploited this with Herrera spending a lot of time wide combining with Valencia and Mata. When he arrived in this area he had time and space to control and shoot. This would happen again later in the game.

Half-time came with United leading 1-0; important because this changed the psychology of the contest. If United had sat down with a 0-0 score line at half-time they may have been frustrated, even dispirited in view of all the possession they have had. Villa might have taken great confidence from this. Now they couldn’t.


The pattern of the game was much the same after the half-time break, although Herrera was higher and Valencia seemed more inclined to push forward, often beyond Mata. The quality of delivery from both wings was a disappointment. These changes however meant that United’s attack was more balanced.

Villa didn’t show any greater attacking intent and nothing much changed in the game until the 70th minute when Van Gaal introduced Di Maria in place of Young. This was a like-for-like change in theory but Di Maria was much more flexible in his positioning, often cropping up in the centre.

A second change came on 77 minutes when Falcao replaced Fellaini. Falcao led the line with Rooney dropping into midfield. Fellaini had been less effective in this game than in recent performances. As previously described when United released a long ball forward it tended to be directed behind the Villa defence rather than being directed at Fellaini in a shorter position. Fellaini joined the forward line and with Villa defending deep both he and United’s other forward players had little time and space.

Villa handled Fellaini well. Whenever United delivered a high ball into the box they positioned a man in front of Fellaini to cut out the chest down and another man behind and/or goal side. Just before the ball was delivered the man behind would give Fellaini a nudge in the back. This was highly effective. To achieve this doubling up on Fellaini Villa relied on midfield players dropping into the defensive line to pick up other United players.

United scored three goals in this game and all by midfield players, (by the time Rooney scored he was deployed as a midfield player). This further illustrates the point that the space was on the edge of the Villa box. United’s second goal came again from a delivery from the left. On this occasion Di Maria delivered a cross which Rooney arriving just inside the box did well to control. The ball was high and slightly behind him but he deftly brought it down and then instantly volleyed home. Boom! Again the space was just inside the Villa box. 79 minutes 2-0.

Rooney 2-0

Rooney 2-0

United should have been comfortable now but conceded almost immediately. They were sloppy in conceding a corner and asleep as it was taken allowing Benteke time to shoot; the ball skimmed under De Gea, a rare goalkeeping error.

At 2-1 United now looked a little flustered as they entered the last ten minutes and Villa had their best spell in the game. Fortunately Jones and Rojo were defensively equal to this although their over passing on the edge of their own box when in possession caused a few awkward moments.

The game looked like it would end with a 2-1 score line, but then in injury time United scored again. Again this was a ball cut back into the area just inside the Villa box after Rooney who had won a contested drop ball had feed Mata. Mata’s ball pulled back was again met by Herrera who had time and space to shoot home. Boom! 3-1.

Herrera 3-1

Herrera 3-1


This was a comfortable rather than spectacular performance. United dominated possession and played within themselves. They did enough but took a long time to make the initial breakthrough.  What is worrying is the chance conversion rate. United are scoring plenty despite this because they are making so many chances, having 20 shots in this game. If they weren’t making quite so many (and a lot the chances were half-chances) this would be a greater concern. To be leading as one enters injury time at the end of the game by a single goal is a concern though when United have enjoyed 76% possession.

United 20 shots

United 20 shots

It is a delight to see the developing understanding between the midfield three and Mata. Carrick doesn’t get a mention above but his presence is important organizing and directing play. Van Gaal is consistently picking the same midfield and forward line now and this is benefiting the side.