Manchester United moved back into Champions League contention with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Sunday.
Rasmus Hojlund put United into the lead in the first-half, converting after a header down from Harry Maguire. Villa improved considerably after the break and it was no surprise when Douglas Luiz scored in the 67th minute to level the game.
But United scored a dramatic late winner as Scott McTominay latched onto a cross from the right side to head past Emiliano Martinez in the Villa goal. The result has put United within five points of Villa in fifth — and six from Spurs in fourth.
Here, The Athletic’s Jacob Tanswell and Carl Anka analyse Sunday’s game.
Is this the best way to use McTominay?
“Ten Hag says McTominay has the “smell” for things inside the box, but for the Scotland international’s runs to be effective, he must arrive late and when opposition defences are preoccupied with the movement of others. He’s a Premier League-quality midfielder and a welcome presence in the dressing room but may need a move to flourish as a starter.”
That was our assessment at the end of the January transfer window of McTominay’s place in the United squad. Ten Hag has been clever, moving the 27-year-old into more of an attacking role where he finishes moves rather than contributing in possession, but it was a trick that looked to have a limited shelf life.
Yet when it works, it really works. McTominay’s thumping header in the 86th minute was his seventh goal in Premier League this season. No United player has more. Arguably, no other United player has McTominay’s attacking freedom either. He’s a single-use player that’s gone on to have plenty of match-defining moments in 2023-24.
Why did Emery make his changes?
Emery’s preference is rarely to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to substitutions, usually maintaining the same shape and structure. But on Sunday, he sensed the opportune moment to stamp down on his side’s authority — initially.
Villa had success down the left flank but a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Emery wanted greater balance from the opposite flank, targeting Victor Lindelof, who had come on for Shaw and was moonlighting at left-back. In part due to a knee issue for Boubacar Kamara, Emery decided to replace Villa’s deepest midfielder with Moussa Diaby in the 65th minute, with John McGinn — who had been playing as a support striker to Ollie Watkins — moving into a double pivot alongside Douglas Luiz.
Diaby moved into the inside right forward position, overloading Lindelof’s side two-against-one with Leon Bailey holding width. The pair’s directness increased Villa’s transitional threat and rallied The Holte End.
After Douglas Luiz equalised two minutes later and Villa attempted to capitalise on the shift in momentum, Emery, as is his inclination, called for Youri Tielemans to replace Bailey, wanting a return to control over the chaos. Both substitutions were indicative of Villa’s mindset at the time. There may be regret in retrospect in bringing Bailey off so soon after equalising — as Emery’s side lost the initiative, and ultimately, the game.
How did Villa’s left side perform?
Largely due to injury to Jacob Ramsey, this was only the second time this season that Unai Emery had selected his first-choice midfield four. They were structured in Villa’s customary box-shape.
Despite trailing at the break, Villa were impressive going forward with Ramsey’s movements instrumental. The 22-year-old was operating as Villa’s left No 10, with John McGinn drifting inside from the opposite flank, and found promising pockets of space behind Kobbie Mainoo. Deeper team-mates were intent on finding him after Hojlund put United in front, causing Diego Dalot, who had battled well, to have a decision to make — either follow Ramsey inside or hold his position.
Ramsey’s movement inside freed up space for Alex Moreno to overlap, with Emery, stationed just behind him, screaming at the Spaniard to keep making the same runs outside of Ramsey. The pair combined to good effect, with Ramsey having Villa’s best chances before the break, while also initiating the attack for Ollie Watkins one-on-one chance against Andre Onana in the 25th minute. In total, 40 per cent of Villa’s attacks in the first half came through the left flank, with Ramsey key to most creative patterns inside the left half space.
Did Dalot step up to that challenge?
Dalot has had an odd United career before Ten Hag’s arrival — a right-back with no outstanding skills but enough talent to “do a job” when called upon.
The glass-half-full perception of the Portuguese defender was that he was a blank slate on whom Ten Hag could imprint his ideas. The glass-half-empty scenario had many wondering if Ten Hag would consider Dalot a jack of all trades or a master of none — someone who would fall to the bench.
Somehow, both possibilities transpired in 2022-23. Dalot was much improved in the first half of last season before suffering an injury and dip in form towards the tail end of the campaign that saw Wan Bissaka play himself back into contention.
The common understanding is Dalot is a superior attacking right-back to Wan Bissaka, but lacks his defensive intensity and quality in one-versus-one duels. That appears to be changing in recent weeks, with Dalot adding authoritative tackles and blocks to his defensive repertoire.
Against an Aston Villa side that attacked down United’s right with combinations from Jacob Ramsey and an overlapping Alberto Moreno, Dalot had his work cut out for him. By the half-time whistle, he’d been called upon to make two interceptions and a late clearance.
It was a sign of the 24-year-old’s good form that Ten Hag elected to keep him at right-back in the second half, rather than move him over to cover the injured Luke Shaw in the second. Dalot should be well ahead of Wan-Bissaka in the full-back hierarchy. He seems to have taken that next step, and should now be the starting right-back for as long as possible.
Who said what afterwards?
We will bring you comments from both Unai Emery and Erik ten Hag after their post-match press conferences.
What next for Villa?
Saturday, February 17: Fulham (A), Premier League, 3pm GMT, 10am ET
Villa have won four of their last five meetings with Fulham since being reunited in the top flight in 2020.
What next for Man Utd?
Sunday, February 18: Luton Town (A), Premier League, 4.30pm GMT, 11.30am ET
A solitary Victor Lindelof gave United three points in the reverse fixture in November but Rob Edwards’ side are much improved since then.
(Top photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)