On evenings like these Erik ten Hag must feel he has the golden touch. It was not without a, by-now-customary, spot of bother but Manchester United racked up a fourth straight victory for the first time this season, the substitute Scott McTominay’s powerful late header helping them cut the gap to the top four to six points.
Rasmus Højlund opened the scoring, displaying his predatory instincts to register his sixth goal in his past seven appearances, but Douglas Luiz cancelled out that strike midway through the second half, at which point Aston Villa undoubtedly had United on the ropes. It was not quite the late, late show United required at Wolves 10 days ago, McTominay scoring with 86 minutes on the clock, but it no doubt tasted just as sweet for Ten Hag.
In the absence of Lisandro Martínez, who was forced off with a knee ligament injury against West Ham last time out, it was over to Harry Maguire to play left centre-back alongside Raphaêl Varane, who was promoted to the starting lineup. Both Maguire and Varane are predominantly right footed but Ten Hag selected the former to play next to left-back Luke Shaw given the rapport they have built with club and country. Shaw was replaced by Victor Lindelöf at the break and Villa seemed to prey on his arrival, with Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby leaving him in a spin.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, was among those in the stands who will surely have been encouraged by Maguire’s assured display. He made a smart block to deny Jacob Ramsey a clean shot at goal as Villa cranked up the pressure in search of an equaliser midway through the first half, making a long barrier with his right leg, and had a key hand in Højlund’s goal on 17 minutes. Maguire eluded his marker, Boubacar Kamara, and got above Diego Carlos to nod down Bruno Fernandes’s corner and an unmarked Højlund stroked in from a couple of yards out.
When the television director panned to Southgate, the former Villa defender, in the directors’ box, his appearance on the big screens in opposite corners was roundly jeered. Ollie Watkins, this his 150th appearance for Villa, and Ezri Konsa, the injured Villa centre-back, were in Southgate’s last England squad but presumably the locals feel the pair warrant more opportunities. Southgate was doubtless keen to cast his eye over Kobbie Mainoo, the 18-year-old who has developed into something of a regular for Ten Hag, but this match-up also provided a chance to check in on Højlund, who could line up against England for Denmark in Group C at Euro 2024.
Maguire and United had to do their fair share of defending. A couple of minutes into the second half André Onana, who had one of those days where he exhibited the best and worst of his game, repelled Watkins’ first-time shot from Matty Cash’s cross, the Villa striker nipping in front of Varane, and in the first half he starfished to make a two-handed save and deny John McGinn after the Villa captain leathered a vicious strike at goal from outside the box. Bailey bent a shot wide when looking for the far corner after cutting in from the right and Ramsey after being slipped inside by Alex Moreno down the left. Unai Emery winced on the touchline.
United had the advantage but no control. Emery’s side had lost here in midweek to Chelsea and had no plans to slip to a third straight home defeat. Fernandes earned a high-five from Maguire after making a block on the edge of United’s 18-yard box. Villa seemed to find it easy to bypass United’s midfield and swarmed upfield, Watkins hounding Onana. It was no surprise when his net eventually rippled, Douglas Luiz sweeping in Bailey’s cross. Varane nonchalantly hoiked clear a corner but Villa recycled the ball and Douglas Luiz side-footed in before celebrating wildly in front of Varane. Rashford, whose impact fizzled, was replaced by McTominay.
It was McTominay who had the final say. Mainoo jinked clear of Ramsey and laid the ball on for Diogo Dalot, who shone at right-back. He sent in a delicious first-time cross and McTominay made a beeline for the six-yard box, where he beat Cash to the punch and headed in past Emiliano Martínez. Cash pulled his socks over his knees as McTominay surged towards the ecstatic away support, who made sure to let their feelings be known.