Manchester United are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup after an early Scott McTominay goal was enough to beat Steven Gerard’s Aston Villa – though the former Liverpool man would have felt his side’s domination of the early second half was more than enough to earn a more positive result.
It’s been a week of tentative accountability. Fred, and then Rashford, took to social media to declare their commitment to the club. Maguire was next, via the club’s website, saying what he couldn’t avoid referencing – standards have not been good enough.
Maguire was not present as leader this evening, perhaps nursing insult on top of injury after the latest Roy Keane barb, but there were plenty of United players needing to stand up and be counted.
The tone has probably changed in the last week, if not for all, then for some – the angry remonstrations about a lack of effort are all well and good, but there is a growing acceptance that too many of these United players could try their hardest and they wouldn’t be good enough to feature in a league winning side. Frame the question this way – which of the home players tonight would a City or Liverpool take, and not have them be the weak link in their own side?
Two chief players in that conversation have been Fred and McTominay. Many were expecting Aston Villa to dominate that area – so they needed a statement. Well, they delivered one very early – from the second phase of a corner, Fred crossed, and McTominay headed in to give the hosts an early lead.
Villa responded well – Watkins and Ings had clear openings either side of De Gea’s goal within a few minutes of going behind. McGinn then had a chance from distance after Fred lost possession.
United’s next major chance came in the 28th minute – Fernandes deliberated a little too long, forcing Cavani wide to take his shot which was comfortably saved.
Moments later, Lindelof made a horrendous error, miscontrolling the ball and allowing Watkins to steal in and get a chance. He hit the bar – the Swede could breathe. A couple of minutes after that, Ramsey had an effort deflected just wide.
Rangnick could have no cause to question his team’s attitude in the first half – there was more bite, more of the press, but the question has always been whether United can afford to be at less than full strength if they have ambitions of controlling a game against any Premier League team. And even at full strength, they’ve struggled.
Fernandes played a clever ball to Rashford right on half-time but a sign of the forward’s low confidence – he deliberated a little too long to get a cross to Greenwood.
Villa had the ball in the net through Ings early in the second half after a melee at a free-kick – it took Michael Oliver and VAR almost four minutes to rule it out, with Cavani deemed to have been fouled in the build up. Before the hour mark, remarkably, the visitors had another disallowed goal – Ings ruled offside before Watkins tapped in after a defensive mess. A let-off – but the warnings were there alright, as Gerrard’s side dominated the play and constantly looked as though they might make the breakthrough.
After absorbing pressure for the entire second half, Greenwood broke clear and drew a save from the goalkeeper with 16 minutes left – a more alert or upbeat Rashford might have kept pace and been on the spot to tap in the rebound.
Villa’s momentum had been stunted, though, and despite a generous six minutes of stoppage time, the last ten to fifteen minutes were fairly flat – which was as comfortable as Rangnick would have liked it, even if the performance overall was not.
United are through to face Middlesbrough. It was a positive result in a results business but where the spotlight is on performances it was once again an unconvincing exhibition in terms of quality.
De Gea 7
Van De Beek 5