The Aston Villa stopper who could tame Marouane Fellaini at Old Trafford
The re-introduction of Marouane Fellaini as an advanced targetman, Wayne Rooney as a centre-forward, Ashley Young as a left winger, Michael Carrick as a holding midfielder, and now Juan Mata as playmaker are clear indications of Manchester United's gradual regression towards Ferguson-era football. And since Louis van Gaal's shift to a more direct approach has begun to flourish, an aerially dominant United will give stand-in Aston Villa captain Ciaran Clark – quietly emerging this season – a tough battle at Old Trafford.
Recent United performances have been characterised by quick transitions to the flanks via long passes to Fellaini and bombarding the penalty area with crosses, as Van Gaal's possession-centric philosophy is shifted 30 yards up the pitch. And now that the swashbuckling United of old is back, Villa will need to ensure that they sit deep to avoid being exposed by the speed of distribution to Fellaini.
An obvious pattern of Fellaini-centric attacks has emerged recently.
A disciplined display will be needed from all 11 Villa players to achieve a result, but considering United's aerial threat – only increasing as their evolution (or devolution) continues – it's Clark who can have the biggest influence. United have scored 10 headed goals this season (the fourth-highest in the league).
This aerial proficiency has increased with the change in tactic; as well as scoring three headed goals in their last five games, United attempted 37 crosses (up from a season average of 21) against Sunderland – their last home match against a bottom-half side. Furthermore, in the win at Liverpool, United had a 75% long pass accuracy (excluding David de Gea's kicks), with Fellaini winning 11 of his 15 aerial duels.
Alongside Fellaini, Rooney's constant movement and intelligent link-up play up front has instigated this change and helped United – all of a sudden – look as if they know what they are doing. Excellent in the air and having scored two headed goals in the last month, his match-up with Clark will be very interesting.
As these Stats Zone screens indicate, Rooney offers far more to the team than Robin van Persie.
Villa's Republic of Ireland international has made fantastic progress this season; it is worth pointing out that in terms of technical ability (79.8% pass accuracy), aerial power (3.3 duels won per match) and leadership skills, the 25-year-old's performances mimic those of Gary Cahill at this age – a fellow Villa graduate.
Another strong performance on Saturday could make Van Gaal think twice about which Aston Villa centre-back he could sign in the summer; Clark or the more experienced Dutchman Ron Vlaar.
Clark's performances have been immaculate for some time now.