For a moment Manchester City must have thought their title triumph would be confirmed. Their neighbours appeared to be wilting under the strain of a hectic schedule and inhospitable hosts. But for the ninth time in this season’s Premier League, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side staged a second-half turnaround.
City will have to wait; and so will Aston Villa, who still have not beaten United in the league at home since 1995.
Bertrand Traoré’s lovely strike in the first half raised Villa’s hopes, especially as their lead was fully deserved and United looked bedraggled. But Bruno Fernandes equalised from a penalty won by Paul Pogba early in the second half and, four minutes later, Marcus Greenwood shot United in front.
The visitors ran out as comfortable winners as Edinson Cavani came off the bench to make it 3-1. VIlla’s anger deepened when Ollie Watkins was sent off late on, with his second yellow card shown for supposed simulation.
There was also a worrisome note for United and England, as Harry Maguire had to depart with an injury in the 78th minute. Prior to that Maguire had not missed a minute of league action since joining United in August 2019.
Losing him here did nothing to dilute Solskjær’s concerns about United’s workload. This was the first of three league matches for them in five days, or six in a 17-day period culminating with the Europa League final.
At Villa Park things began gently. Solskjær made four changes to the side that started last Thursday’s defeat at Roma. Villa, other than rip into the visitors to test their freshness, looked strangely meek, allowing United to ease their way into the game and dominate the first five minutes.
Luke Shaw was encouraged to raid down the left several times, with United’s defenders afforded the time to serve him with long diagonal passes. Greenwood and Marcus Rashford each had half-chances to open the scoring.
Soon Villa roused themselves. It did not take much for them to make United look jaded and sloppy. Anwar El Ghazi signalled Villa’s growing menace by unloading their first shot, drilled wide from 20 yards.
As Villa pressed with new intensity, with Watkins leading from the front as ever, United’s poise crumbled. They bungled countless passes and were frequently caught in possession. John McGinn and Douglas Luiz gained control in midfield, too strong and sharp for Fred and Scott McTominay, while United’s creative players, especially Fernandes, merely drifted through the game.
Still, United could have taken the lead in the 21st minute when Shaw burst forward again. Rashford could not adjust his feet quickly enough to divert a cross by Greenwood into the net from six yards. That was nothing compared to the sluggishness that helped Villa to open the scoring moments later.
United lost possession three times in a matter of seconds before Traoré arrowed a wonderful shot into the net from an acute angle.
First Targett charged down a pass by Greenwood deep in United’s territory; then McGinn seized on the ball as McTominay and Fred dithered outside their own area, helping it on to Douglas Luiz; and then Victor Lindelöf managed only to nudge the ball into the path off Traoré after being given an opportunity to clear. An exemplary demonstration of decisiveness was immediately provided by Traoré, whose finish left Dean Henderson with no chance.
Villa were seldom in trouble for the remainder of the first half.
Solskjær knew what to do. After all, his team had got themselves into – and out of – similar situations many times already this season. The manager made no personnel changes during the interval and instead coaxed an improvement from the players who started.
They came out for the second period with renewed vim and intent. Mind you, they might have found themselves two goals down if El Ghazi had connected better with a shot from the edge of the area in the 50th minute after a counterattack led by Ross Barkley.
Moments later United were gifted a penalty, as Pogba manoeuvred his body between the ball and Luiz, who clunked into the Frenchman from behind, leaving the referee with a straightforward decision. Fernandes sent Emiliano Martínez the wrong way from the spot.
Villa needed to steady themselves. But they were far too soft four minutes later when Aaron Wan-Bissaka chugged down the right and supplied Greenwood at the right-hand side of the area. The 19-year-old made a confused bystander of Tyrone Mings as he turned nimbly past the England defender and cracked a low shot in at the near post.
The home side tried to retort swiftly and United endured a nervous wait on the hour as the VAR checked for a possible handball by Greenwood after a cross by El Ghazi.
Villa continued to stretch the visiting defence, whose exertions eventually took a toll, with Maguire limping off after a collision with El Ghazi. That injury could have repercussions for United and England.
But at least Cavani ensured a positive result for United here by nodding a cross by Wan-Bissaka into the net. Watkins was dismissed in the closing minutes after falling as Henderson challenged him for the ball; the goalkeeper made no contact with the striker but booking Watkins for a dive seemed an unduly harsh interpretation.