There were always going to be bumps along the road, but Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at Villa Park yesterday felt like a step backwards and Erik ten Hag might well be rueing some decisions of his own.
The Red Devils, who were looking to extend their unbeaten run to ten games across all competitions, never got going and looked a tired outfit that couldn’t match the energy and tempo set from a buoyant Villains side.
With Unai Emery taking his first game in charge of Villa, Ten Hag was always going to be expecting a fast start from the home side, but somehow United were caught cold and were 2-0 down and chasing the game after 11 minutes.
The Red Devils threatened a comeback on the stroke of half-time following Luke Shaw’s deflected effort, but it only took Villa four minutes into the second half to restore their two-goal lead and the twenty-time league champions never really threatened to get back into the match.
Like his players, Ten Hag will be wondering whether there’s anything he could have done differently in his first managerial meeting against Emery.
Here are three decisions United in Focus feel Ten Hag might be rueing following the defeat to Aston Villa.
Should have taken Victor Lindelof off
United’s number two has impressed alongside Lisandro Martinez when he has come into the side for the injured Raphael Varane, but Sweden’s national team captain wasn’t at all comfortable playing against Ollie Watkins.
The England international bullied the former Benfica man and dragged the Swede into areas he didn’t want to go.
With United chasing the game and Lindelof having an off day, Ten Hag could have brought the 28-year-old off and brought Fred or Scott McTominay on with Casemiro dropping into centre-back.
McTominay also has experience of playing at centre-back for Scotland.
Starting Donny van de Beek
Ten Hag handed United’s number 34 his first Premier League start for the Reds since the last day of the 2020-21 campaign.
It was a plan that backfired as the 25-year-old remained on the periphery of proceedings and the game seemingly passed him by.
With Aston Villa winning a lot of turnovers and breaking on United, Christian Eriksen doesn’t possess the recovery pace or defensive nouse to stop counter-attacks.
Had Fred or McTominay started alongside Casemiro in a two-man pivot, Eriksen could have played in the Bruno Fernandes role instead of Van de Beek.
Should have left Luke Shaw and Alejandro Garnacho on
When Ten Hag did his triple substitution on the hour mark, United didn’t really have any clear shape or partnership on either flank.
Anthony Martial marked his return and looked a bit lost with Cristiano Ronaldo occupying the number nine position.
Shaw and Garnacho linked up okay down United’s left, and the young Argentine did manage to isolate Matty Cash one-v-one on occasions, but too often he would dribble inside back into traffic.
But when Shaw and the former Atletico Madrid youngster went off, United’s threat down the left-hand side practically evaporated.
Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford, who both underwhelmed, deserved to be replaced ahead of our Argentinian wonderkid.