There was a lot for Manchester United to feel good about following their stirring 3-2 comeback victory over Aston Villa on Boxing Day.
- With the news over the weekend that Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s long-simmering minority ownership stake (with control over footballing decisions) had finally been confirmed, optimism was back at Old Trafford. Time will tell whether Ratcliffe really does take over the club from the hated Glazers, to say nothing of his promises to invest in upgrading the stadium and practice facilities. And, of course, he and his new hires will be under scrutiny right off the bat, what with the January transfer window set to open in a matter of days.
- United have had some great moments at Old Trafford at the expense of Aston Villa, but for the first time in a long time, Villa came in as the superior team. Sitting in third place with recent wins over Manchester City and Arsenal under their belts, Unai Emery’s team have been one of the most in-form sides in the league. United’s record against top-of-the-table sides under Erik ten Hag has been pretty dire, so another butt-kicking seemed in the works — especially after Villa went up 2-0 in the first half.
- Unlike the dispiriting defeats against Bournemouth and West Ham, United kept fighting and actually generated lots of chances before finally getting their breakthrough thanks to a brilliant team goal capped off by Alejandro Garnacho’s finish in front of the Stretford End. Garnacho added another great goal in the 70th minute before Rasmus Højlund finally broke his Premier League duck and won the match in the 82nd minute. Højlund’s goal may not have been quite as late or dramatic as Federico Macheda’s memorable debut winner in 2009 (coincidentally, Jonny Evans was on the pitch for both of them), but it was no less emotional and cathartic. Højlund hasn’t been as bad as his stats would indicate — he hasn’t gotten a lot of opportunities in good positions and is getting poor service from his midfielders and wingers, but he’s also struggled to impose himself in matches. Here’s hoping he’ll go on a run now and make everyone forget about his rough start.
- Speaking of players who have been poor this season, Marcus Rashford played his best match in a long time. With Antony dropped and Garnacho moving to the right, Rashford finally got time at his preferred left wing and looked good, running at Villa’s defenders with purpose and forcing a few saves from Emiliano Martinez. Rashford assisted Garnacho’s opener (as well as another Garnacho strike that found the back of the net but was chalked off for being offside) and generally looked like a threat for the first time in months. As the Manchester Evening News said, sometimes there are easy answers in football, like playing your best players in their best positions. Rashford looks like a completely different player when he starts on the left, and if Garnacho can thrive on the right like he did against Villa, then Erik ten Hag has a pretty easy solution on his hands.
- United have had a terrible start to this season and are out of the League Cup, Europe and (probably) the League. But the FA Cup looms and a good second half could see them still win silverware while solidifying a Top Four position. During this time, last year, United went on a fantastic run where they were the most in-form team in Europe, knocked Barcelona out of Europe and won the League Cup. So here’s hope that this win can catalyze another run like that.
- Edwin Van der Sar took in the game with fellow Dutchman and United alum Robin van Persie. For the former, it was his first trip back to Old Trafford since his brain hemorrhage over the summer. Coincidentally, the two United icons have been linked with sensational returns to the club — Van der Sar just ended a successful tenure as Ajax chief executive and sold United Donny Van de Beek, Lisandro Martinez and Antony and let them hire ten Hag, while Van Persie has been an assistant coach at defending Eredivisie champions Feyenoord working with the club’s forwards. Is the Dutch flavor at United about to get stronger?