For the second week in a row, Manchester United got the benefit of a decisive touch off an opposition defender to claim all three points courtesy of a narrow a 1-0 victory. Following Kyle Walker’s own goal against Tottenham on the Premier League’s opening weekend, at Aston Villa on Friday it was Ciaran Clark who helped an effort from Adnan Januzaj to find the back of the net and guide United to two wins out of two to begin the new campaign.
While this performance was more convincing against a diligent and organized Aston Villa side but one ultimately lacking a real goal threat for much of the contest, it was, as against Tottenham, a display that was solid rather than spectacular. Still, given the woeful start to last season that ultimately cost United any chance of making a run at the title, manager Louis van Gaal can take much solace from maximum points so far.
The two clean sheets will be a major relief, too, given that he has yet to add the center-back he seeks, while the saga over his No. 1 goalkeeper also drags on. As on the opening day, amid continued speculation over a transfer to Real Madrid, David de Gea was not in the squad. Instead, once more it was new signing Sergio Romero who took the gloves, and what little the Argentinean had to do he did it well.
While Van Gaal will want a resolution to that situation, he will also be keen to bolster an attack that again looked some way short of one that can lead the club back to the championship. Never the less, the decision the veteran Dutch coach made to add a spark to his team going forward paid handsome dividends on this occasion. Januzaj had not started a match for Manchester Untied in February, but, helped by a lovely Mata assists and the aid of a defender, the talented young Belgian’s 29th minute effort proved the difference to suggest he could be ready to reinvigorate a United career that had recently just lost its way.
A request by local police meant the encounter was the first Premier League match played on a Friday night in 11 years. Even rarer was a Villa home win against Manchester United, with the Midlands outfit having not gotten the better of England’s most successful club at Villa Park in 20 years. Rarely did that record look in danger of being ended.
Without exactly being free-flowing, it was Manchester United, through composed possession, that began to impose their will on the contest. The first sight of goal fell the way of the visitors, too. From Memphis Depay's in-swinging free-kick from the left, Villa allowed Morgan Schneiderlin to run in free at the back post, but the summer signing from Southampton couldn’t control his header as the ball bounced up off the surface.
With Wayne Rooney struggling to make an impact in the lone striker role, it was Juan Mata, Memphis and Januzaj, included in place of for former Villa man Ashley Young, that looked most likely to provide a breakthrough. Like his debut last week Memphis displayed some exciting touches that hinted at his undoubted potential, but was often wasteful with the ball at his feet. And, instead, after one of many long spells of possession, it was the combination of Mata and Januzaj that bore fruit. Coming into the center off the right flank, Mata was again United’s best creative outlet caught, and his incisive pass down the left side of the penalty area caught out Villa to find Januzaj. From there the 20-year-old showed his quality with a delightful turn to leave Micah Richards on his haunch, before a slice of fortune intervened to take the ball in off the far post.
After going behind, there remained little sign from opening play of a largely toothless Villa side seriously testing Romero in the United goal. But Van Gaal’s men could easily have given Villa a major lifeline when Matteo Darmian blatantly grabbed back Richards round the neck from a corner. Much to the frustration of the former Manchester City man, there was no movement from referee Mike Dean.
A more energetic start to the second half from the home side had Manchester United under some pressure for the first time in the match and led to another opportunity from a corner. This time Gabby Agbonlahor couldn’t do enough with a free header, allowing Romero to make a comfortable save.
Villa had begun the match with six summer signings in their lineup, and looked to get back into the match by adding a seventh off the bench in Rudy Gestede. The powerful striker had scored on his debut in a 1-0 win over Bournemouth last week, but never came close to getting on the scoresheet on this occasion. At least part of the credit for that must go to the opposition. It is already clear that United’s summer arrivals have given a solidity to the side that was often lacking last season. Schneiderlin again impressed to that end, as did Darmian. And at center-back, such is the rapidly improved leadership and resilience displayed by Chris Smalling, that he must feel like a new signing to Van Gaal.
United could have made the result more secure when Mata played through Memhis with 17 minutes remaining but the Dutch starlet couldn’t find the target to emphasize that he, like United, remain a work in progress.