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Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board- United blasts Villa, but title-winning form?

Manchester United recovered from a disappointing performance in their loss to Wigan, and showed a better attack and finishing in dealing with a slipping Aston Villa side. United benefitted from a controversial penalty, but it had a minimal effect on the outcome as Villa’s defense was overwhelmed and their attack was one-dimensional and uninspired. Villa struggled all game with a Red Devils attack that was rejuvenated by the return of Paul Scholes, and a more even attack up front. United’s ease of control and success going forward, was what the team needed to recover from the Wigan game and prepare them for their next two challenging fixtures.

Manchester United vs Aston Villa

Old Trafford – April 15, 2012

Starting Formations-

Manchester United
Sir Alex Ferguson kept the same formation he used in the loss against Wigan, with 3 very notable changes. Phil Jones was dropped back to the bench, and the Brazilian Rafael retook his position at right-back. In the middle of the pitch, Ryan Giggs was returned to the bench as Paul Scholes got the start again alongside Michael Carrick in the hopes that his return to the lineup would restore a United attack that relies on controlling possession. Up front, Javier Hernandez was replaced by Danny Welbeck in the alternating game strategy that Sir Alex seems to be using up front, as this is the 6th straight game with a change at striker.

Aston Villa
Alex McLeish opted to go with a 4-5-1 instead of his usual 4-4-2, in hopes that the added man in the central midfield would be able to shut down Carrick and Scholes. In defense, McLeish kept his backline the same as he’s used the past the past 3 games, with Ireland international goalkeeper Shay Given in goal. Alan Hutton got the start at right-back while American Adam Lichaj got the start at left-back, with regular left-back Stephen Warnock missing another game due to an ankle injury. At center-back, James Collins got the start alongside Nathan Baker, who is filling in for Richard Dunne who has been sidelined with a broken collarbone.

Ciaran Clark started as the holding midfielder, with Gary Gardner and Stephen Ireland starting alongside of him. Out on the wings, Barry Bannon started on the right side while the 20-year old Austrian attacker Andreas Weimann started on the left side. Alone up front, Gabriel Agbonlahor was given the start instead of Emile Heskey who started the game on the bench.

Starting Formation

Key Points

  • Manchester United tries to put Wigan loss behind them
  • Ashley Young awarded controversial penalty
  • United’s attack more active, more movement off the ball creates chances
  • Aston Villa struggle on possession
  • Ciaran Clark’s removal for injury opens gap in Villa’s defense
  • United far more clinical with their finishing than in previous weeks


Manchester United started the game trying to put their experience at the DW Stadium a few days earlier behind them. They started the game with more energy and drive than they displayed against Wigan, putting pressure on Aston Villa when on defense and pushing forward on offense with pace.

Scholes and Carrick’s midfield control

With Paul Scholes back on the field in the central midfield, United was able to fall into their standard possession-based approach. They used Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in the center of the pitch, as a double-pivot, to control the ball and start United’s attacks. Paul Scholes could be found playing slightly deeper then Michael Carrick, and playing longer passes to shift the attack laterally from wing to wing. He also frequently played long diagonal balls towards the corners for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, to put pressure on Aston Villa’s defense.

Michael Carrick typically plays alongside Paul Scholes as they both tend to play deeper in the central midfield but Carrick is frequently used to play shorter passes out wide to the fullbacks, or forward to Wayne Rooney, while Paul Scholes is used to shuttle the ball quickly from wing to wing with long, accurate diagonal passes to the wingers. Today, against Villa, Michael Carrick was more adventurous with his passing as he managed to complete 9 of 10 long balls. With Michael Carrick playing longer passes diagonally onto the wingers, this allowed Paul Scholes to make attacking runs forward to the edge of the box. Michael Carrick typically plays shorter passes to advance the build-up and recycle possession, but his accuracy and success in playing more aggressive forward balls today allowed him to be more creative in fueling United’s attacks. With both midfielders having success playing long passes, this allowed the other to advance into a position nearer the box to apply more pressure onto Villa’s defense.

Aston Villa lose midfield despite 3v2 advantage

To counter United in the midfield, Aston Villa started 3 players in the middle of the pitch. Ciaran Clark played as the deep holding midfielder, with Gary Gardner and Stephen Ireland playing ahead of him on the right side and left side respectively. With this formation, Aston Villa should have had a 3v2 opportunity in the central midfield. With the overload, it should have been easy for Villa to close down United’s midfielders on the ball, and also have time and space to operate when on the attack. Unfortunately for Aston Villa, this did not happen.

When Aston Villa had the ball, Clark was unwilling to move forward to get involved on the attack. He would play almost as deep as the center-backs, which made him easy to mark by Wayne Rooney. With Clark’s unwillingness to advance in the midfield on the attack, and Rooney’s industry and effort that he puts into defense, United were able to keep Clark from sitting deep in Aston Villa’s midfield and controlling possession. Additionally, Paul Scholes did a fantastic job in covering Gardner, managing to win 2 of his 6 tackles, 8 of 10 ground duels and both of his aerial duels. His defensive quality is in stark contrast to the problems Ryan Giggs had on defense playing in central midfield against Wigan. Stephen Ireland was marked most of the day by Michael Carrick, who ensured that he was never able to move up and play with Gabriel Agbonlahor up front. Stephen Ireland was often fairly stationary, with poor movement off the ball which allowed Carrick to easily keep him quiet.

On defense, Aston Villa had even more problems in the central midfield. Instead of keeping Clark central, protecting the gap in front of Villa’s center-backs, Clark was frequently defending Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young out on the wings. By using Clark to challenge United’s wingers, Aston Villa could use their fullbacks as cover behind Clark in case he got bypassed, but this move resulted in a 2v2 matchup in the central midfield that United was able to manipulate. With Clark frequently deployed out on the wings, this left open the gap between Villa’s lines that Wayne Rooney likes to operate in. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck would also frequently drop deep into the midfield, but Villa’s center-backs were unwilling to leave their positions to mark them. This allowed Rooney and Welbeck to drop into the midfield and overload it, allowing them to link up play going forward and give extra time and space for Scholes and Carrick on the ball.

To cause additional problems, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes made successful runs forward throughout the game. In the 11th minute, United broke out on the attack with Valencia bringing the ball into the middle of the pitch. He passed it wide left to Ashley Young, who passed it onto an overlapping run by Paul Scholes inside the box. Fortunately for Aston Villa, James Collins was able to make a sliding block on the shot.

With Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck dropping into the central midfield to link up play, and Carrick and Scholes frequently making dangerous runs forward, Aston Villa struggled to close down this avenue of attack. To compound the problem, Jonny Evans showed an increasing confidence on the ball by bringing it forward out of the back. He’s been more willing to step up into the midfield when United are controlling possession, to turn up the pressure on a penned in defense. This leaves Villa getting overrun in the midfield and allows Carrick and Scholes time on the ball, which is a common theme when Manchester United dominates and are successful on the attack.

Villa’s one dimensional limited attack

In their season under Alex McLeish, Aston Villa has not been well known for attacking expansive football. They played with Gabriel Agbonlahor up front, getting occasional support from Stephen Ireland in the midfield. Most of Agbonlahor’s assistance came from the left side of the midfield, with the attacking threat from young Andreas Weimann. Several times during the game Weimann would come to the front of Villa’s attack while Agbonlahor would drift out to the left wing. Manchester United did a good job at covering the switches from Villa, ensuring that their striker’s movements didn’t allow him to create open spaces.

Aston Villa had difficulty creating any meaningful attacks during the game. When they managed to recover the ball, it was difficult to move the ball out of their own zone. Aston Villa players would often try to move the ball forward, but when they were challenged by United players they were left without support. Players off the ball were slow to move forward, and support the player with the ball. The player would often end up getting shuttled into a double-team, where United would quickly be able to force a turnover to start another United attack.

Villa should have had an advantage in the middle of the pitch, but almost all of their attacks came down the left side of the pitch through Andreas Weimann, Stephen Ireland, and Gabriel Agbonlahor. The attacks down the left side put pressure on Rafael at right-back for United, who isn’t known for his defensive prowess but he put in an excellent performance to keep Aston Villa from attacking successfully. Rafael is well known for his attacking abilities coming forward down the wing, but his work rate and decision-making on defense has sometimes been lacking. Against Villa, though, he was able to back-up his strong attacking instincts with good industry and effort coming back in defense, completing 8/8 tackles and making 1 interception.

With most of Villa’s attacks coming down the left side, Brian Bannon was increasingly left out of Villa’s attacks. Starting at right-back for Villa, Alan Hutton refused to support attacks down the right side and this left Bannon alone to try and deal with Patrice Evra, who’s defense at the start of the season was lacking but who’s found his form on defense over the past 2 months. Without Hutton supporting him, Bannon was also covered by Ashley Young, who does a wonderful job tracking back on defense.

Attack of the wings

United was able to start most of their attacks from the wings. Over the last 5 games, the majority of United’s attacks have been started on the right side with an in-form Antonio Valencia, backed up by Rafael coming forward from right-back. While these attacks have been successful, they have made United one-dimensional. Against Aston Villa, Ashley Young was able to ensure that United was able to play with width and that the attacks coming from United’s left side were just as dangerous as those from the right. Ashley Young normally plays fairly narrow on the left, tucking inside during attacks, but in this game he stayed out wide to attack Alan Hutton and spread out Villa’s defense.

An attack by Ashley Young brought about the first goal for United, as Welbeck passed the ball from the middle of the pitch back to Patrice Evra on the left side. Evra passed the ball forward to Ashley Young, along the left touchline, who then turned the ball up field and was easily able to pass Alan Hutton. As Young drove into the box from the left, Ciaran Clark stuck a leg out and Ashley Young caught the leg and took a dramatic tumble. Young did strike Clark’s leg, but whether he needed to fall to the ground in such a theatric manner is debatable. The referee Mark Palsey gave the penalty, much to Villa’s chagrin, and Wayne Rooney was able to slot it home after Shay Given guessed the wrong direction.

Rafael has gotten much attention recently for his forward runs in support of Valencia on the right side, but Patrice Evra had a great game coming forward from the left. Without Bannon offering much of an attacking threat for Villa, Patrice Evra was able to make frequent runs forward on United’s attacks. Ashley Young did a great job providing more width to United’s attacks, but it was Evra who provided United’s width all the way down to the by-line.

While Ashley Young’s attack in the first 8 minutes brought United a 1-0 lead, Patrice Evra was responsible for giving United a 2-0 lead just before halftime. Michael Carrick brought the ball forward in the center of the pitch after playing a wall pass with Wayne Rooney. Carrick passed the ball out wide left to Patrice Evra, who was given plenty of space by Alan Hutton. Evra brought it just into the box before playing a low cross in front of the goal. The ball slide across the 6 yard box as it went just in front of James Collins and then Nathan Baker stepped over it, apparently afraid of putting it into his own net, before Danny Welbeck was able to slide in and connect with it at the far post. Givens was sprawled out at the near post, having missed an attempt to deflect the cross, and Welbeck’s effort gave United a 2-0 lead just minutes before halftime.

Not a great game, but still 2 goals

After a fairly dreadful game in the loss against Wigan, many were expecting to see Wayne Rooney bounce back against Villa. Rooney started up front with Danny Welbeck, who he seems to have developed a good relationship with. He was able to get on the score sheet fairly early by converting Ashley Young’s questionable penalty, but his passing lacked accuracy. He frequently dropped into the midfield on the attack, trying to link up a deeper lying Carrick and Scholes with the wingers and Welbeck. He struggled in the final third, completing only 50% of his passing and his lack of accuracy was responsible for stopping several promising United attacks.

Rooney’s lax passing was especially evident in the second half. He was frequently played the ball near the top of the penalty area, but he gave the ball away too easily. A perfect example could be found in the 55th minute, after a period of possession by Villa, United launched forward with a counter-attack. Rooney picked the ball up from Evra and made a 40 yard run from United’s territory deep into Villa’s end of the field. With Welbeck close on his left, and Valencia streaking in on the right, Rooney tried to pass a ball by Villa’s left-back, Adam Lichaj, over to Valencia. Unfortunately, the quality of the pass was poor and Lichaj was easily able to intercept the ball and stop a potential counter-attack by the Red Devils.

His touch also appeared to let him down as the second half went on, as he was repeatedly played the ball but gave it away far too easily. Wayne Rooney’s problems didn’t go unnoticed by Sir Alex Ferguson, who appeared ready to take him off the pitch but before he could make the move, Rooney showed that while his passing may have been poor, he’s still dangerous with the ball at his feet. In the 73rd minute, Rooney was able to get his second goal of the game to give United a 3-0 lead.

It should be said that even though Rooney struggled during the game with his touch and his passes, he was still able to get his 23rd and 24th Premier League goals of the season. His determination and industry ensured that he may not have been at the top of his game; he was still able to have an effect on the game and ensure a United win. But Rooney has struggled recently, and United have two challenging fixtures coming up that will be considerably more difficult if his star striker struggles like he has recently.

Villa’s change spurs their attack, but leaves gaps

With a half hour left in the game, Ciaran Clark suffered a blow to the head in an aerial duel with Patrice Evra and he was taken off for Emile Heskey. This changed Villa’s shape, as Heskey was played up front with Weimann and Agbonlahor played out on the left wing as Villa changed from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2. Heskey had an immediate effect, as within a minute of his appearance, Agbonlahor played a cross into the box from the left that Heskey was able to head onto goal. De Gea was able to tap it over the bar, but this was a more dangerous attack from Villa than they had been able to muster in the first hour of the game.

With the changes, Villa tried to bring more width to their game and play crosses into the box.  With both United fullbacks playing forward aggressively, Villa hoped that playing the ball out wide would allow them to get the ball into spaces left open, but both Rafael and Evra worked hard to track back on defense and prevent Villa from getting space to operate in.

Bringing on Heskey helped fuel Villa’s attack, but it left their defense with some gaps. By putting 2 players forward, they took a player out of the central midfielder. The holding midfielder, Clark, was substituted off and nobody took his position on defense. This opened up a gap which United was able to exploit when Rooney put in the third goal. Welbeck dropped into Villa’s midfield to receive the ball. He passed it to Wayne Rooney at the top of the penalty area, who nutmegged Lichaj with a pass wide right to Valencia. Valencia avoided a sliding tackle by Nathan Baker and passed back to a completely unmarked Wayne Rooney near the penalty spot, in an area that Clark would have patrolled had he still been on the field. Rooney was able to receive the ball, and slotted it past a motionless Givens to the far post.

Changes in midfield

Down 3-0, Villa made another change taking out Stephen Ireland and replacing him with 19-year old attacking midfielder Samir Carruthers. The Irish under-19 year old made only his second appearance with Aston Villa, previously playing against Liverpool. He brought more life into the center of Villa’s attack, playing hard and attempting to find open space with his movement off the ball.  Unfortunately, by the time he came into the game the outcome was no longer in question.

United also made a change in the midfield, taking off Paul Scholes and bringing on Tom Cleverley. Ferguson hoped that a more attacking midfielder would be able to take advantage of the gap created when Clark was replaced. Cleverley often played at the top of the penalty area, between Villa’s lines. In this area, he got some decent shooting chances, including one in the last minute of stoppage time when Aston Villa tried to clear a Valencia cross, but it went no further than an unmarked Cleverley right on the edge of the penalty. Fortunately for Villa, his shot went out of play. He got a good shot on goal, but his main advantage in the gap was the position allowed him to play quick passes between Villa’s lines, trying to get Welbeck and Berbatov behind Villa’s defense.

Carruthers and Gardner were both lax in tracking back on defense to shut down the gap Cleverley operated in. They both seemed fixated on Michael Carrick, trying to close him down with the ball but this allowed Cleverley space in a more dangerous position. Cleverley had good effect on offense but he also worked hard to mark Carruthers on defense, to ensure that he was pressured when on the ball. Carruthers made some quality plays for Villa, but his lack of work on defense created spaces for United to operate in and this would eventually lead to United’s final goal of the game.

Stoppage Time Goal

Immediately after Rooney was able to give United the 3-0 lead, he was brought off for Dimitar Berbatov. Berbatov, who shared the Golden Boot last season with Carlos Tevez, made his first appearance for United since January. The Bulgarian had a great season last year, but this year he has spent long periods on the bench as Sir Alex Ferguson seems to prefer Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck instead. While he is likely to move on in the summer, he put in a good shift for United, showing his ability at holding up play, a quality first-touch, and close ball control.

The other substitution for the Red Devils was taking Ashley Young off at the hour mark and bringing on Nani, in his second appearance after missing time with an injury. Nani played well on the left wing, adding great movement to United’s attacks in the later stages of the game. Villa’s right-back, Alan Hutton, didn’t mark Nani very well and preferred to stay in tight on Villa’s center-backs. This could be seen in the 89th minute when Nani drove to the by-line and was able to pull the ball back into the center of the box for Berbatov, who’s shot was blocked and deflected out of play,

Nani’s movement off the ball created issues for Aston Villa’s defense. The best example of this was United’s 4th and final goal. After Villa headed clear a cross by Nani, the ball went to Rafael who headed the ball forward to the edge of the box for Danny Welbeck. Welbeck passed the ball 3 yards back to Jonny Evans, who chipped the ball forward over Villa’s defense and into the box for Nani to run onto. Nani got to the ball unmarked, and was easily able to put the ball past the Irish goalkeeper.


A 4-0 victory at Old Trafford against Aston Villa was just what Manchester United needed after their 1-0 loss against Wigan 4 days earlier. After a flat, uninspired performance at the DW Stadium, United seemed determine to show their critics that it is still their title to lose. After only completing 83% of 449 passes against Wigan, United came back and completed 87% of 547 passes. The Red Devils created 21 chances against Villa, compared with only 8 against Wigan. Not only did United create more chances, but they also did a better job at finishing their chances.

United's average player positions

In the past month, United has started to depend more and more on Valencia to start and create chances for United, but this has lead United to become one-dimensional and overly dependent on the right-side of their attack. Tonight, their attack was far more balanced with Ashley Young and Patrice Evra, and later Nani, staying wider on the left to stretch the visitor’s defense. The width of United’s attack and the strength of the attack down the left side was easy to see as 3 of United’s 4 goals originated from the left side.

Aston Villa seems unlikely to be relegated this year, but their play at Old Trafford had the distinct feel of a team who should be fearful of the drop in their future. Without Darren Bent, the Villagers attack lacked any bite. Agbonlahor was a poor choice to be the lone striker, as he struggled up front with marginal assistance. He seemed more comfortable when he dropped out on the left wing, playing in crosses in the later stages of the game.

Aston Villa's attack directions

Aston Villa was unlucky with the penalty called in the first 10 minutes, but at no point in the game did Aston Villa look like they could fight and get a result at Old Trafford. Alex McLeish has struggled at Aston Villa, and his strategy lacked any creativity and he neglected to make the necessary changes after Ciaran Clark was removed from the game with a head injury. He tried to play a more attacking brand of football once Emile Heskey entered the game, but he didn’t instruct either of the remaining central midfielders to take up Clark’s defensive responsibilities and this mistake eventually lead to the last 2 United goals.

With City regaining some form of late, winning 10-1 in their last two games, Manchester United needs to ensure they don’t have a repeat of their Wigan performance with 2 challenging games between Everton and a visit to Eastlands. If United can play with the same intensity and pace they did against Villa, United could be closing in on their 20th league title.

By Range Rooney (@RangeRooney)