Alex Keble proposes a tough test for Louis van Gaal's men at Villa Park – but says they also have the right man to punish the hosts...
Manchester United are beginning to understand the positional complexity of Louis van Gaal's 3-5-2 formation as they slowly grind into gear; against Liverpool, their wing-backs successfully exploited the space in wide areas that United's midfield narrowness creates.
A trio of central midfielders behind two traditional strikers draws the opposition into congested central areas of the pitch, leaving room for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young – whose unconventional positioning and movement is difficult to track – to charge down the touchline from deep.
United's midfielders and strikers play predominantly in central areas, squeezing the pitch and opening up space for wing-backs to push on.
Unsurprisingly, this tactical system requires opposition openness to succeed – and against Aston Villa, whose deep and compact defensive set-up means they are rarely drawn out of position, United will not be able to pull them around the pitch.
In stark contrast to Liverpool's chaotic defensive strategy, Villa are extremely well disciplined, narrowing the pitch with a tight 4-5-1 that happily absorbs pressure from deep positions. Getting behind full-backs Alan Hutton and Aly Cissokho is extremely difficult.
In matches against Southampton and Man City (who both took 80 minutes to break Villa down), Villa enjoyed only 35.1% and 30.8% possession. Paul Lambert is happy for his side to sit deep and ensure the ball is always played in front of them.
Against sides that concede more possession, United are less capable of creating goalscoring opportunities; with their current tactical strategy, they flourish when able to make longer passes and play on the counter-attack.
These screengrabs highlight United's frustration when facing deeper defensive lines and creative success when facing more open teams.
Consequently, the Reds will be relying on a less explosive, more intricate approach in order to pick the lock and break down Villa's brick wall. If any one player is likely to be able to do this, it's Wayne Rooney.
A vastly underappreciated footballer, the England captain has flourished in a deeper playmaking role under Van Gaal, orchestrating the tempo with his dominant playing style and technical ability. It will be up to him to pull the strings and find a killer pass.
Rooney's natural hunger to be in possession makes him an ideal deep-lying playmaker; against Villa, his ability to thread a pass will be his most valuable asset.