In arguably the weekend’s marquee match, undefeated Manchester United traveled to Birmingham to take on undefeated at home Aston Villa to open Premier League play on Saturday. The match itself placed 10th against 2nd in the league while it saw United coming off one of their best team performances of the season, Wednesday’s Manchester derby.
Aston Villa are in the midst of an injury crisis which witnessed the Villans without the services of John Carew, Emile Heskey, Stiliyan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell, among others. For all their absentees, Villa were by far the better team in what ended up a scoreless first half. Numerous balls into the box, both from Marc Albrighton on the right and Stewart Downing on the left, were flown into United’s penalty area yet Villa lacked the height and attacking gusto needed to head home.
Manchester United failed to really test Brad Friedel in the first half through a two-man strike force of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. The game’s second half witnessed a resurgent Villa and a United side that continued to lack any real spark in attack, until late on.
For the neutral, the match would have been an entertaining and open contest that ended with both sides sharing a point. Villa hit both the crossbar and the post in the second half before finally finding the breakthrough when Ashley Young converted a well deserved penalty.
Villa’s second of the day was the result of a spot on counter attack when Marc Albrighton deservedly finished after playing well throughout the match. While Villa continued to boss the match, United remained lackluster until Sir Alex Ferguson elected to pull his two starting strikers in favor of Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan who both provided the spark United needed to take control of the match late on.
Without further ado, here are five observations from what ended up a great Premier League match.
- Aston Villa have more than a few incredibly promising young players. Villa looked most dangerous in the match when the ball was at the feet of Marc Albrighton on the right side of midfield. Time after time Villa utilized the crossing abilities of Albrighton to provide service that was only lacking a target man such as John Carew or Emile Heskey to head home Albrighton’s crosses. For Villa, young Scot Barry Bannan was impressive in the center of midfield with his accurate passing and vision. Although not dominant, Bannan produced a few moments of quality that lends a lot of belief to his potential.
- United’s Nani is the epitome of a player who drifts in and out of form. When United lack the services of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, they desperately need Nani to be at his creative best. On Saturday, he wasn’t. In fact, he was far from the Nani who so brilliantly uses his pace both down the right flank and cutting into the center of the pitch to create the space he needs to shoot, pass or cross to United’s strikers. Going forward, it was painfully obvious that United were without a few of their key attacking players as time after time their attacks would break down in the final third.
- When Manchester United fail to create width, they struggle. I suppose this could be said about most clubs on most days, but whether it’s Nani on the right, Giggs on the left or Evra overlapping United’s left sided midfielder, United need to create width on the flanks as opposed to forcing play so narrowly down the center of the pitch. It’s far too easy for clubs to clog the middle, sit back and defend. While it could easily be said that United missed Scholes, Giggs and Rooney, creative players the likes of Nani and Dimitar Berbatov are good enough to provide such a spark, they just weren’t on the day.
- Stewart Downing had quite the game for Aston Villa. The former England winger gave Wes Brown fits all day long bombing down the left side of midfield. He produced a cross to marvel at midway through the second half that Marc Albrighton should have headed home. Downing’s pace and inventiveness will appear in the nightmares of Wes Brown who had a difficult time dealing with Downing’s creativity.
- Sir Alex Ferguson still knows how to effectively implement his substitutes. In a move not seen that often, Ferguson pulled both of his starting forwards at the same time in the 73rd minute and replaced them with Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan. The move turned out to be the much needed change United needed as they ran riot over Villa for the final 15 minutes. Macheda scored United’s opener with a blistering strike and Obertan attacked with pace and purpose and could have easily won the game for United if it wasn’t for Brad Friedel’s face saving Obertan’s late shot.
As exciting as the game was for the neutral, both sets of supporters will likely feel slightly disappointed. Villa thought the three points belonged to them while United fans will view the draw as yet another two points dropped.