Manchester United might look back on Scott McTominay’s thumping header as the turning point, as the moment they began to reel Aston Villa in on the journey to Champions League qualification.
It may prove to be a season-defining victory, and as ominous - for both clubs – as Man Utd’s comeback in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
What could have been an 11-point gap is now only five.
Villa were the better team for long spells of the match, taking more shots, by 23 to 17, holding more possession, with 56 per cent, and recording a higher Expected Goals (xG), by 2.45 to 1.90.
All they lacked was a killer touch and composure for the final pass. Without it they were condemned to another defeat.
That’s just two wins from their last seven Premier League matches now. Villa are stuck in a rut.
Man Utd, in stark contrast, are on fire. Rasmus Hojlund became the second-youngest player in Premier League history, after Nicolas Anelka, to score in five consecutive appearances as Erik ten Hag’s side continued the narrative of youthful revival.
Here’s how Man Utd won at Villa Park on Sunday to boost their hopes of a top-four finish.
Man Utd dominate aerially
We will get onto the tactical intricacies of the game in a moment, but the blunter truth is simply that Man Utd dominated in the air at both ends and in both halves, bookending the contest with goals scored through old-school battling.
United won 70 per cent of the aerial duels, reflecting their overwhelming dominance off the ground.
He won three duels in a row, the third of which nodded the ball into the path of Hojlund to score the opener.
Perhaps Villa should have acted sooner to prevent Maguire from getting his own way, although in fairness, the aerial battles mattered little after that opener, right up until the final minutes, that is, when McTominay’s bullet header won the match.
It isn’t talked about enough, but Villa’s tricky spell of form is almost entirely the consequence of defensive injuries.
Villa can’t capitalise on midfield spaces
For most of the game, Jacob Ramsey dominated the left half-space, expertly capitalising on Man Utd’s predictable weakness in the middle. But Villa couldn’t make it pay.
Then, after Diogo Dalot was repositioned to shut Ramsey down, Moussa Diaby came off the bench to help Villa pull off the same trick on the other side - only for a surprising Unai Emery substitution to swing momentum again.
Ramsey’s return is a huge boost for Villa. He is superb at ghosting off the left wing to pick up interesting positions between the lines, and on Sunday, Casemiro and Kobbie Mainoo were overworked, struggling to cope with how Ramsey helped Villa form a box shape in midfield.
Bruno Fernandes and Hojlund were blocking the centre-backs and Casemiro and Mainoo were preoccupied by Kamara and Douglas Luiz, leaving Ramsey (circled in black) free. These images below, just five seconds apart, show the danger.
Without Fernandes dropping back, a two-man United midfield just couldn’t cope with the Villa shape, and it was only sloppy passing around the penalty area from Ramsey that prevented the hosts from taking a lead.
It was by far the biggest tactical note of the first half, but in the second Ten Hag had clearly instructed Dalot to get tight to Ramsey in open play, even if that meant wandering all the way out into central midfield. It was a fairly effective way of stopping the Villa attack.
Emery responded by throwing on Diaby as a second striker and, dropping to the right, he had precisely the same impact as Ramsey, finding holes on the outside of that two-man midfield.
Diaby (circled in black) picked the ball up in that right pocket and, combining with Leon Bailey, won the corner from which Villa scored their equaliser.
Surprise Bailey sub shifts momentum away from Villa
Villa suddenly had the energy, the tactical advantage and a baying crowd to go and get the second goal – but then Emery made a change that not only slowed Villa down, but also opened the door for a United winner.
Bailey, so dangerous when one-on-one with Victor Lindelof and quickly linking well with Diaby, was taken off for Youri Tielemans, with Villa repacking midfield and shifting Diaby out to the right wing.
It seemed to send a message of caution to the Villa players, which is perhaps why the game felt so tense at 1-1, eventually lulling Villa into a static pose from which Man Utd broke out and scored.
In the build up to McTominay’s goal, Villa were in a hunched pose for too long, meaning they invited pressure and were on the back foot when the cross eventually came in.
Their punishment is a four-point swing in the battle for a Champions League spot and perhaps a sleepless night.
You get the nagging sense that Villa will live to regret two defeats to United that could have gone the other way.