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Man Utd showed promise in Villa draw but can’t overcome their recurring fatal flaws

The Red Devils had a spell on top at Villa Park, but allowed the hosts back into the game late on.

There was a time in that first-half performance against Aston Villa when it seemed as if Ralf Rangnick may have finally found his winning formula at Manchester United.

Instead, the 2-2 scoreline at Villa Park highlighted how impossible Rangnick is finding it to overcome the long-standing issues which have plagued United this season.

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“In most parts of the games we were compact, we could defend in the mid-half of the midway block, but in those [final] 15 minutes we conceded two goals in four minutes,” the German conceded after the game, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

In the first 30 minutes at Villa Park, with Bruno Fernandes dropping deep, it made United more of a three in the centre and they operated in a 4-3-3 shape.

Bruno Fernandes enjoyed his first half at Villa Park. Credit: Getty.

It worked a treat as the Portuguese midfielder ensured the Red Devils kept the ball well and looked compact out of possession, while also pressing the opposition effectively. Nemanja Matic, operating at the base of midfield, also swept in behind and hoovered up any crumbs of a Villa attack.

Elsewhere, the direct dribbling and pace of Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga caused Villa problems in the wide areas. Between them, the pair had nine shots throughout the night, several of which tested Emiliano Martinez.

It was the Argentine whose pre-penalty shenanigans put off Fernandes in September’s win at Old Trafford, so how pleased must the latter have been after six minutes when his free-kick squirmed through the goalkeeper’s arms and into the back of the net?

But it was rich reward for United in an opening 35 minutes they dominated, as Rangnick highlighted post-match.

“I thought there were quite a few positives today,” he told journalists. “The first half, the first half-hour, we dominated on the ball and we kept them away from our own box and in the first 30 minutes we didn’t even concede a shot on our goal.”

Ralf Rangnick was left frustrated by Manchester United’s performance against Aston Villa. Credit: Getty.

But, as much as they may have had the upper hand in the early stages, the final 10 minutes of the first half was a prelude of what was to come, as Matty Cash and Lucas Digne found themselves in more advanced areas, while Emiliano Buendia and Jacob Ramsey began to see more of the ball in the centre.

In the second half, it was now United who found themselves being pressed on the ball and hurrying to make vital interceptions and clearances. Suddenly, Villa were pulling the strings and Matic, who seemed to be everywhere in the opening 45, couldn’t deal with Villa’s fluidity in the middle.

It’s a recurring issue for United this season, not only quashing opposition attacks, but failing to respond effectively when they are under pressure. This is, after all, is a United side who dealt so well with adversity last season and repeatedly came from behind to take points - their last trip to Villa Park being one of them. But too often this term, it’s been a case of closing your eyes, clinging on for dear life and just hoping everything will be ok.

And with 20 minutes left to play it seemed like this particular story would have a happy ending, after Fernandes rounded off a rare attack in the midst of the Villa onslaught.

It’s telling that even United’s second-half goal came from an opposition error, as Morgan Sanson’s poor pass was intercepted and slipped to Fernandes, who smashed it beyond Martinez for the second time.

Saturday’s encounter was a reminder of how good Fernandes can be, and his passing and finishing were sometimes reminiscent of that star who saved the club time and again in his first 12 months at Old Trafford.

But it was another of the Premier League’s creative greats who stole the headlines and dominated the post-match chat, as Philippe Coutinho’s Villa debut was marked with a game-changing late cameo.

On 77 minutes, good interplay between the Brazilian, Carney Chukwuemeka and Jacob Ramsey saw the ball arrive at the feet of the latter, and he duly tucked it past David De Gea.

Then just four minutes later the ex-Liverpool man gave the Villa faithful a moment to savour, as he slotted the ball into the back of the net from inside the six-yard box following Ramsey’s clinical pass.

This is a Villa team who have largely struggled to score goals and see out games of late, but United’s weak underbelly exposed itself again, and Steven Gerrard’s men took full advantage of it.

They could have sealed the three points had a few injury-time stoppages not slowed down the flow of proceedings, but in the end it was United who ended the stronger on an evening where, ultimately, it was probably a well-deserved point for both sides at Villa Park.

While Rangnick will take heart from certain elements of the game, the frustration will be that United continue to give sides the opportunity to take hold of proceedings.

They may be able to play well for a third of a match, but that simply isn’t good enough. How can United expect to really compete for a spot near the summit of the table given their incapacity to dictate games and play well for the majority of the 90 minutes?

Poor performances are costing United in the top-four race. Credit: Getty.

Even Rangnick acknowledged this after the game, saying: “But it’s about playing in that way, and as compact as we did in the first half-hour and in parts of the second half, but we have to do it for a longer period of time.

“Right now it feels like two lost points and almost feels like a defeat, to be honest, after being 2-0 up.”

It may well feel like a loss against the sort of opposition a top-four side should overcome, but for now United are still in the hunt for Champions League football. Yet, if they have any genuine hope of attaining a place in Europe’s top competition, the Red Devils must start to immediately eradicate those game-defining errors.