Ander Herrera scored twice to lead Manchester United to a 3-1 victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford and further strengthen their grasp on a top-four place. The Spanish midfielder continued his fine form by opening the scoring late in the first half with a clinical finish from Daley Blind’s pull back. And he produced another assured effort to seal his side’s win in injury time. In between United had taken their foot off the gas in a contest in which they always looked to have too much for their opponents. After Wayne Rooney spun in the box and lashed a superb short into the top corner with 11 minutes remaining, Villa unexpectedly and almost immediately struck back when Christian Benteke’s low shot was allowed to sneak under David de Gea. But Herrera’s second major contribution of another highly accomplished performance secured a fifth successive Premier League win for Louis van Gaal’s side.  

This latest victory takes United, temporarily at least, above local rivals Manchester City and into third place in the table. And, crucially, with Liverpool’s defeat to Arsenal earlier in the day, their buffer in the top four has been further enhanced, with the fifth-place Merseysiders now eight points back. It was wins over Tottenham and Liverpool in their past two outings that have guided United into this strong position. And while their performance on Saturday was not as convincing, particularly in the second half, they did enough to see off a Villa side that remain deep in relegation trouble.

Still, the vastly improved form of United in recent weeks was again in evidence, with Herrera at the heart of it. And the result may have been far more emphatic had the officials not missed what was a clear penalty and a sending off for Ciaran Clark after he pulled back Rooney by the neck when the United forward was through on goal just five minutes in.

United had begun brightly, with plenty of support for Van Gaal’s decision to stick to a winning team and ignore the claims of lucrative signings Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao for a starting berth. Ashley Young is one of those to benefit from Van Gaal’s meritocracy, and, against his former club, the winger was United’s most potent threat in the first half. While Rooney had failed to connect cleanly with an overhead from Valencia’s cross from the opposite flank, the pressure was increasingly beginning to tell down Villa’s right side as the first-half reached its conclusion.

Handicapped by an injury that hampered right-back Alan Hutton and the lack of defensive awareness of Charles N’Zogbia in front of him, Tim Sherwood’s side were struggling to cope with the threat. Inevitably they buckled two minutes before the interval. Young found Blind, who precisely pulled the ball back for Herrera, who was afforded the time to take a touch to set himself before striking left-footed past Guzan.

Young went close to adding a goal himself after the break when curling past the far post, while Marouane Fellaini failed to make the most of a headed chance. Still, despite United not being at their best in the second half, the result appeared to have been sealed with time to spare. Di Maria, not long on for Young, crossed behind Rooney, who did superbly to take a touch with his back to goal and turn and fire a spectacular shot into the net.

Yet there had already been signs of some sloppiness at the back when Benteke missed a chance early in the second half. And, a minute after going 2-0 in front, it reared its head once more. Benteke was allowed to get to a near-post corner first, but De Gea should still have comfortably kept out his low shot. Instead the United keeper, who has been his side’s most consistent player this season, made a rare error when allowing the effort to go under his grasp. Fortunately for the Spaniard, the mistake wasn’t to be a costly one. In the second minute of injury time, Rooney drove the team forward and found Juan Mata, who teed up Herrera to guide the ball and United home.