Manchester United have finally lost at Villa Park, not that it counts. Ian Taylor, a scorer in Villa’s last home league win in 1995’s Alan Hansen Game, gleefully confirmed Ollie Watkins’ opener on Twitter until a possible nudge from his paymasters that there was a blackout on the result.
Both clubs agreed to withhold match details until their media arms televised the game at 10pm on Saturday evening – eight hours after the 2pm kick-off. Usually, a United pre-season fixture at 10pm UK time would be live and broadcast from a sun-kissed stadium on the East or West Coast. This was endemic of pandemic-era football.
A leaked United team surfaced just after kick-off that was widely adjudged to be accurate when it was anything but. With the scoreline unconfirmed by either club or any reliable media outlet, confirmation came just before midnight for those who patiently stayed up. It ended 1-0.
United, denuded of umpteen players, could not list the maximum amount of substitutes and all bar Lee Grant and Brandon Williams, 20 last week, were teenagers.
They were without their own matchday squad. Deep breath: David de Gea and Anthony Martial were on international duty earlier this week, Paul Pogba and Axel Tuanzebe are not fully fit, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo are training in their own bubble amid the possibility of transfers, Mason Greenwood is not scheduled to return to first-team training until early next week and Sergio Romero, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Fred, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata have been completely absent from pre-season training. Andreas Pereira has been at Carrington but was not in Brum.
Bruno Fernandes has not been at Carrington following international duty as his wife gave birth last week in Portugal, yet posted a picture of himself in training on Instagram on Saturday afternoon. Villa fielded their strongest XI possible as they await the arrival of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal.
The 18-year-old Anthony Elanga, one of the United substitutes, is the only attacker available to the depleted Under-23s and there is some confusion among the United coaching staff as to why James Garner, an unused substitute, is stalling on a Championship loan move. The reduction back to seven substitutes in the Premier League means many involved on Saturday will be at home next Saturday.
Scott McTominay, like Martial and De Gea, was involved in a midweek international and his propitious afternoon ended at half-time. He was the only removal at the interval and United can hardly afford any more injuries for next week’s visit of Crystal Palace.
The futility of the run-out was salvaged by a purposeful half from United that belied the 1-0 scoreline. Donny van de Beek, picked in the middle yet often found in the final third, made a positive impression and has a similarly demanding arrogance to Fernandes when he is without the ball, which he was almost always facing. Luke Shaw located him when Van de Beek embarked on a ninth-minute charge and received a high-five from his new teammate.
How Van de Beek operates with Pogba, more attack-minded than McTominay, will be poured over in the coming weeks and Solskjaer is maybe banking on an old-fashioned box-to-box pair where one stays and the other goes. Pogba has had little football over the last year but was relocated to a deeper role on United’s last pre-season tour.
Dean Henderson, sporting the new squad number 26 on his maiden first-team appearance nine years on from joining the United academy, pinged a measured pass to Diogo Dalot on the wing with his second touch. With De Gea absent for an unspecified reason, this was a timely opportunity for Henderson to showcase his merits and, if he is to oust De Gea, then his superior distribution may be telling.
“I thought Deano showed his authority back there and he plays as a proper Man United keeper, especially second-half,” Solskjaer said. “Donny was maybe the biggest plus outfield, he’s such a finder of space and creates time for himself with his timing and movement. I was very happy with his performance.”
The 23-year-old was faultless in his handling but powerless to thwart Watkins finishing a Villa counter-attack on 16 minutes, the £28million striker capitalising on Harry Maguire’s ball-watching to turn in. Maguire was on his heels again when Watkins skied a shot from Jack Grealish’s cross on the half-hour mark.
Also not on his toes was Odion Ighalo, nowhere to be seen for three inviting crosses in the first-half from either side. United are on the lookout for a back-up striker and the debate will rage on as to whether they should secure one this window or the next, with Ighalo’s loan up on January 30. Ighalo exhausted his usefulness last term once Marcus Rashford regained fitness and is still without a Premier League goal.
Rashford, playing up to his squad number as the 10, was equally guilty of not providing a penalty box presence and neither he nor Ighalo lasted the full 90. Jesse Lingard, playing off the right but moving infield, was tidier and tested Jed Steer with a side-footer in the 35th minute. Steer’s goal led a charmed life when Maguire, Ighalo and James scuffed efforts in a six-yard goalmouth scramble just prior to the interval.
McTominay’s withdrawal for Galbraith on his first senior outing significantly reduced the tempo and fellow teenagers Teden Mengi and Elanga came on. A Galbraith effort curled away from Steer’s upright but United were blunt without Martial, Greenwood and Fernandes.
They finally lost at Villa Park.
United: Henderson (Grant), Dalot (Williams), Fosu-Mensah, Maguire, Shaw, McTominay (Galbraith), Van de Beek, Lingard, Rashford (Elanga), James, Ighalo (Mengi)
Subs not used: Garner