Manchester United to look to their left flank again as Aston Villa close up
Few teams reflect their manager’s idiosyncrasies as wholeheartedly as this Aston Villa team. Charging across the pitch with reckless abandon, Villa performances are as manic and passionate as Tim Sherwood himself. Playing the first home match of the season as huge underdogs - fighting the wealth and power of Manchester United - could suit the fearlessness of Villa’s approach.
At Old Trafford last season Villa recorded just 23% possession, retreating desperately and slumping to a comprehensive 3-1 defeat. But across Manchester at the Etihad Stadium they managed 55%, losing 3-2.
The most likely tactical pattern is United dominating possession but Villa counter-attacking with frenzied, kamikaze force; as the ball pings wildly up and down the pitch, it is Rudy Gestede, the Midlanders' match-winner at Bournemouth last week, and Ashley Young that will pose the greatest threat to each goal.
Off the ball, Villa will sit within a compact shell of bodies to limit space and ensure Man United's possession is largely harmless. Assuming Sherwood’s defence is well organised, this should lead to Louis van Gaal repeating the strategic model employed against a Tottenham Hotspur side that similarly restricted space in the centre of the pitch. 48% of their attacks came down the left on the opening day, with Young hugging the touchline, Luke Shaw providing pace on the overlap and Memphis Depay persistently drifting over to link with Young. Van Gaal operates in a lopsided 4-2-3-1 that sees Juan Mata drift infield (drawing opponents towards the centre) and Young operate as a traditional winger (lurking in the space that opens up as the play is sucked inwards). Spurs saw this tactic feature heavily, and with right-back Leandro Bacuna a weaker target than left-back Jordan Amavi, Villa must also be prepared to face this system.
Such was the extent of the threat, Kyle Walker retreated after his own goal and stopped providing an outlet for Spurs; he may have prevented Young from dominating, but the goal threat all-but disappeared.
The head-to-head battles are many. Bacuna versus Young is vital, but Shaw versus Villa’s right midfielder is equally important (Sherwood would be wise to field Alan Hutton at right-back and push Bacuna further forward), while summer signing Idrissa Gueye must track Depay closely.
Do not be surprised if Sherwood plays with significantly less caution than Tottenham did last week. Gestede is likely to start in order to exploit the tameness of Daley Blind, while Gabby Agbonlahor’s directness will be used to feed off Gestede’s knock-downs and exploit the space behind Shaw.
Manchester United’s possession-based approach should see them push Villa back, but in Gestede and Agbonlahor Villa possess the strength, speed and above all bravery to outmanoeuvre the opposition.
In front of a Villa Park crowd buzzing with anticipation, the odds are heavily in United’s favour. Sherwood, a whirlwind of fearless passion, most probably prefers it that way.