Villa lose to Manchester United as Dave Woodhall watches.
One of the certainties in life is that you never see a poor bookie, which is why Villa being pre-match favourites to win at Old Trafford was another indication of how much progress the team has made in 2023. Admittedly those odds owed as much to the farcical situation that’s been surrounding Manchester United plc this season as anything we’ve done, but it’s still impressive to realise that however much the media have been ignoring us, the people whose livelihoods depend on judging football teams reckon that we’re on the right track.
Unai Emery certainly though so, resisting wholesale changes for the Boxing Day game and keeping a fair display of talent on the bench. He, and the bookies, looked as though they’d got it right when Villa went two up inside half an hour. After 21 minutes John McGinn’s inswinging free kick was missed by everyone and crept over the line. Five minutes later McGinn’s corner was headed back across goal by Clement Lengelet for Leander Dendonker to flick home with the aplomb of a top striker.
Two-nil up, we never give away anything once we’ve gone ahead and the opposition can’t score. That should be it – game over and Merry Christmas, but for one small problem. We’re playing Manchester United and we’ve been in this position so many times even the Premier League league stattos have lost count.
I don’t know what the odds were on a Villa win at half-time but I doubt there was a single Villa supporter who would have put so much as a penny on it. None with any sense or a memory lasting longer than twelve months, anyway. I know this is Unai Emery’s Villa and we’re different now but still… Five minutes after half-time and we pick up another injury when Lucas Digne goes down. Ten minutes later and Diego Carlos, not for the first time, gave the ball away and United were back in the game. From then on the rest of the match played out its inevitable path. A catalogue of misplaced passes, ineffective tackling and slack marking gave the scoreline a familiar look.
With the benefit of hindsight this one was coming. Villa have been starting to flag in the past couple of games; the physical effort of playing twice a week is taking its toll even without the injures that have been occurring throughout the season while those two big home wins would have taken a mental toll as well. There are several players who could do with being rested; even Douglas Luiz has slipped from his usual immaculate performances but there are few areas of the team where we could bring in fresh legs without noticing. At least the transfer window is opening next week and although the boss hasn’t said much about adding to what he’s already got, he must surely have not expected to lose so many players, so regularly.
But what was really annoying was how even taking everything into account it could have been so different. Leon Bailey forced a quality save at 2-1 while John McGinn’s goalbound shot was somehow deflected away with the scores level. That’s the difference between going home happy and knowing you’ve seen it all before. Perhaps the bookies aren’t so rich, after all.