It might be a bit of a stretch to state that we are going to view an irresistible force meet an immovable object here tonight but since the return of football, Manchester United have certainly played with the kind of skill and swagger that has been missing from their game for large parts of the season. Conversely, Aston Villa have tightened up at the back since the restart and as predicted in a previous post, they look likely to fight until the bitter end.

The home side will feel that their performance against the reigning champions at Anfield last time out was worthy of something as they blunted one of the most potent attacks in Europe for much of the 90mins but football is a cruel game and despite Villa's work ethic that has been evident in games against Liverpool, Wolves and Chelsea they have come away empty-handed from all those fixtures.

Prior to lockdown, Villa had the worse record of conceding goals on the counter-attack in the Premier League (7 in total) and simultaneously one of the worst records of scoring on the break (1 in total) this season. It's evident from their 5 matches so far that they have tried to overhaul their tactics, particularly against sides of superior quality, and sit their midfield much deeper to ensure they are not over-committed going forward while looking to spring out on the break themselves. If you were going to be critical of this change in tactic it would be that it has probably come too late to alter Villa's fate.

Villa's average positions against Chelsea (red) and Liverpool (blue)

United started after the break with the likes of Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba on the bench but after a fairly uninspiring first hour against Spurs they changed their shape and have stuck with it ever since. As the graphic below suggests, without Daniel James in the front 3, United have generally been much narrower in attack.

United's average positions against Spurs (blue) and Bournemouth (red). Daniel James (21) and Marcus Rashford (10) played as wide forwards against Spurs but since Mason Greenwood (26) came into the side, United have played with a much narrower attack

Their attacks therefore either tend to come through the middle of the pitch or down the left where Rashford is willing to stay a little wider and Shaw plays as a more advanced full-back than Wan-Bissaka. In fact, even when Wan-Bissaka does get into advanced positions sides this year have often been happy to leave him as the spare man in attack, confident that his delivery and attacking threat doesn't match his defensive prowess.

If Villa can set-up in the same way that they did against Liverpool then I think that they can once again be successful in at least limiting this United attack that is averaging 3 goals a game since football returned. Certainly, if the above graphics are anything to go by then the midfield area is going to be very congested and difficult for either side to play through.

At the same time, with Watford's win over Norwich earlier in the week, the home side really can't afford to lose any more ground. If United are able to continue scoring early in games (they have scored inside 30mins in each of their last 3 victories) then Villa will be forced to come out and play a little more and once again leave themselves vulnerable at the back.

United have had the luxury of picking the same starting 11 in each of their last 3 league matches but with games coming thick and fast it remains to be seen whether Solskjaer might choose to rotate for the trip to Villa Park. If he does, then the recent FA Cup tie against Norwich is evidence that United still lack the kind of depth that the clubs at the very top of the league possess as they laboured to an extra-time win over the side bottom of the table. 3 points tonight puts United within touching distances of Leicester in 4th place so a win is crucial but I think that even if they do get off to a fast start they may ease off later in the game and turn to the sub bench in a bid to save their first XI's legs for later in the month.

United's brilliance up front, is also papering over some cracks that remain in defence. They conceded 2 fairly soft goals against Bournemouth last time out that at least kept Eddie Howe's side interested despite the final scoreline. United will almost certainly dominate possession today but even against a side like Villa (2 goals in 5 games) don't bet that they won't offer up some chances. I think Villa can once again be successful in limiting the opposition scoring but United's frailty at the back is why I'm not going for under 2.5 goals in this match.

Prediction: Under 3.5 goals @1.51 or better


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