Manchester United kept alive their best chance of breaking a five-year trophy drought with this victory. Yet their display offered the latest evidence that Ralf Rangnick is still to prove the mid-season Mr Fixit he was hired to be.
Aston Villa will ponder how they did not enjoy a rout. Steven Gerrard’s men attacked United at will from the first minute to the last. Somehow the hosts hung on and, while they remain in the Champions League, Rangnick’s brightest hope of ensuring the club do not match their longest period without silverware for 40 years remains a 13th FA Cup triumph.
The big issue for Rangnick concerns a group of players who are flatlining: Victor Lindelöf, Marcus Rashford and Raphaël Varane were tonight’s chief culprits but this is a team-wide malaise. Rangnick cannot be held solely culpable for talent not performing as their highly-paid salaries demand. But the bottom line is that the 63-year-old has to sort the current mess out quickly.
For the seventh game of his interim tenure Rangnick was unable to select Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho due “muscular problems”. Their omissions were two of five changes from the 1-0 loss to Wolves and it provided a first chance to see United without Ronaldo in a game they must win, the ageing Portuguese’s previous exclusion under Rangnick a meaningless Champions League outing versus Young Boys. In the absence of the 36-year-old might the lesser-spotted gegenpress from the team tutored by the so-called “godfather” of the function be more evident? The answer would be an emphatic no.
United’s mission was to play at a higher tempo than in recent outings and Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay seemed to set the tone via zipping passes which paid an early, and utimately decisive, dividend. A Luke Shaw corner broke to Fred whose flighted ball into the area was headed home by the marauding McTominay with Ezri Konza’s marking glaringly absent.
Villa’s response was immediate as they went close from the second of two corners: Douglas Luiz swung the ball in from the left, Mings flicked on, and Watkins went close to diverting in after Victor Lindelöf’s failed attempt at a clearing header.
This highlighted how open United were. A further illustration cane when Emiliano Buendía ghosted in from near the halfway line, Fred unable to stop him, before shooting – and missing – from inside the area.
Gerrard’s frustration was visible, too, when Jacob Ramsey punched through United’s feeble resistance only to smash a regulation pass out of touch. Then, at last, McTominay did what a midfielder is suppose to: stop an attack by prodding the ball away from Buendía on the edge of the area. John McGinn, who probed throughout, was the next Villa player to enjoy the space being afforded him as he blazed an effort at David de Gea, the Spaniard flinging himself to the left to save.
Fernandes and Rashford have thus far endured seasons to forget. The latter’s touch was noticeably awry while the former chugged about hoping to influence proceedings. When Fernandes did awaken he threatened to breach Villa’s resistance only to see his effort blocked.
United were still too vulnerable at the back, though, and poor control from Lindelöf saw Ollie Watkins pounce before smacking a shot against the crossbar. Villa might have been three or four ahead by this juncture. United’s next escape came when Jacob Ramsey’s attempt deflected off McTominay for a corner.
Rashford, at least, closed the first half brightly. First he conjured a slick bring-down and pass to Edinson Cavani, who teed up Fernandes, only for the midfielder to shoot over. Then, Fernandes set Rashford bursting in at goal, Ezri Konsa doing just enough to steer him wide.
United began the second half with a Fernandes corner which Villa repelled with ease. There was still little evidence of the solidity Rangnick desires. This was a team grinding through the gears and they appeared to be punished for their half-slumber when Danny Ings headed in from a McGinn free-kick. After a lengthy delay, VAR ordered Michael Oliver to the touchline monitor and the referee ruled that Ramsey had blocked Cavani when in an offside position. Gerrard was unhappy at the delay but refused to blame this for the defeat
It raised the temperature further. McGinn took out Fred, Shaw did the same to Matty Cash, the stadium a wall of Cup-fever noise, especially after Ings was ruled offside after Watkins had poked home.
Villa were in charge, United unable to move beyond the edge of their area as the white-shirted wave flowed at them. It was, simply, not good enough for a side of United’s talent and pedigree and they needed De Gea to be cat-like to save a Cash effort and preserve their advantage.
At the other end Rashford’s refusal to follow-up a rebound from Greenwood’s shot seemed to sum up the torpor that has set in at Old Trafford.
Villa had one final chance to force extra-time but could not profit from McGinn’s corner meaning United are still in contention while Villa, mystifyingly, are not.