In the end, Unai Emery offered the cut-and-dry of it.
“We created more chances than them,” he said, taking longer than usual for his post-match press conference. “We deserved it more than them. We did not concede a lot of chances — they were clinical.”
Emery’s words cut through the complexities of Aston Villa’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, offering a more concise explanation.
“Clinical” is a term often used to describe a team’s attacking incision, but the same applies to defending and the image of Matty Cash with his face down on the turf as Scott McTominay narrowly avoided stepping on his sprawling arms in celebration told the full story.
Cash was in part the victim of circumstance and in part at fault for McTominay’s winner, failing to win the header but, equally, left in an uncompromising position.
Diogo Dalot’s whipped cross was put into an area rather than one specific player, but McTominay had the edge on Cash. Villa’s full-back found himself alone at the back post, communication cut off with his closest team-mate Diego Carlos and mindful of Alejandro Garnacho lurking behind, having been caught earlier in the half from a cross in a similar position.
McTominay had the run, jump and height advantage on Cash, who was left to fend for himself after Diego Carlos was caught square and unable to see the danger beyond him.
The goal bore a worrying resemblance to Nicolas Jackson’s header in Wednesday’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, seizing on the hesitancy between Carlos and Cash.
Cash remained on the floor for 20 seconds after McTominay’s header, pulling his socks towards his knees before gradually hauling himself up. The image was one of despair yet demonstrative of the difference between both sides in either box; one ruthless in their decision-making, the other a whole lot more cautious.
Between the two boxes and United’s two goals, bookmarked in the first and final quarter of an hour, Villa’s disappointment was tinged by the sense they were the better team.
Crucially, Villa were second best in the defining moments.
They registered 23 efforts to United’s 17, completed over 100 more passes and had twice as many shots on target (10-5). Emery, unprompted, declared the performance as the second-best of the season behind the 1-0 victory against Manchester City and among the best since he took charge. Villa had their seventh-highest expected goals figure (xG) of the season (2.65) and their highest this calendar year.
Chance creation marked a return to more free-flowing times at home, with Jacob Ramsey free-wheeling in the left No 10 role. Ramsey picked pockets of space intelligently and Alex Moreno was being barked at by Emery to keep overlapping down the left flank. Together, they provided the desired response after Rasmus Hojlund’s opener — aside from an equaliser — with Ramsey either shooting or conjuring goalscoring opportunities for team-mates. Ollie Watkins’s one-on-one chance was fashioned from Ramsey driving from the left.
“I am very proud of our work,” said Emery. “We have won a lot of matches at home creating fewer chances than today. The result was not good and we have to accept it. It’s frustrating for us. Some days we are going to be clinical, sometimes not, like tonight.”
Villa, to their credit, remained unperturbed. Emery pointed to the gameplan being performed expertly — hence his pleasure analysing the broader display — stopping United on transition and combinations out wide. Watkins missed another gilt-edged opportunity after the break, shooting first time but at a comfortable height and close enough to Andre Onana.
By this point, Villa were kicking towards The Holte End, and they beckoned for more frequent attacks on Onana’s goal. United were wilting due to the punches taken down both flanks and Emery intended to capitalise. He brought on Moussa Diaby in place of the injured Boubacar Kamara. Diaby and Bailey found themselves two-v-one against Victor Lindelof, moonlighting at left-back which increased the state of frenzy.
Douglas Luiz equalised two minutes later, shimmying his shoulders in celebration before running back to the centre circle. Villa Park had reached boiling point and United’s players appeared frenetic.
Emery, though, sought to replace chaos with control, as is his inclination. He called for Youri Tielemans to replace Bailey six minutes later, losing the latter’s ball-carrying ability and opting for “safer” ball retention. Emery’s decision appeared regretful in hindsight and served as another example of Villa lacking ruthlessness.
Perhaps it is due to inherent caution, given Villa had a Champions League position to preserve. Yet the moments after Douglas Luiz’s equaliser presented a window of opportunity for Villa to push on and take the lead. Teams competing at the top end of the table invariably take those opportunities. But instead their attacking force was blunted when Bailey came off and United regathered themselves to produce the game’s defining touch.
Villa’s absence of edge going forward was obvious, but there can be no disguising the defensive softness which has rumbled throughout the season. Hojlund’s goal came from a Harry Maguire knockdown, taking the number of set-play goals conceded to three in as many matches, and Sheffield United had one disallowed too.
Keeping clean sheets has been an issue (six all season), though that had been masked by Villa outscoring their opponents in the summer and autumn months. Villa have conceded an average of 1.33 goals per game and in 75 per cent of their fixtures.
Damaging injuries to Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa and Pau Torres offer extreme mitigation, yet the structure is still at odds with the solidity of last season, when Villa conceded just seven times in their final 12 games. Those deficiencies are now biting and have left Villa peering over their shoulder — sixth-placed United have cut the gap to just five points — rather than looking at the teams above them.
Cash was again down on his haunches at full-time, elbows resting on knees and head bowed. Diaby stood motionless with hands glued to hips while Watkins headed straight down the tunnel, eyes similarly fixed to the floor. Back-to-back home league defeats and the walls around Villa Park have been breached.
How great a psychological blow Sunday evening was might only be known come May.
(Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)