Not since August 1995, when their team last beat the Red Devils in the top flight at Villa Park, has the final whistle sounded in the fixture with home supporters so happy. The intervening years have seen their share of agonising near misses and almost unfathomable capitulations. On three occasions Villa have contrived to blow two-goal leads when victory seemed within reach.
Saturday, in that respect, felt like the normal order turned upside down. This time it was Villa who pulled off the improbable fightback, scoring twice in the final 13 minutes to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat.
“This feels like a loss,” United boss Ralf Rangnick admitted afterward.
For Villa and head coach Steven Gerrard it did not quite feel like a win. Indeed, rousing finale not withstanding, it would be very easy to paint Saturday as a big opportunity missed.
Never in the last 26 years has the visiting line-up for this fixture looked less intimidating. For the second time in six days Villa faced a United team without Cristiano Ronaldo while Luke Shaw and Scott McTominay, two of their more reliable performers, were both absent through suspension. Rangnick was only able to name eight substitutes, two of which were goalkeepers. And yet United’s XI were much better in practice than on paper while Villa, supposedly hungry for revenge after the perceived injustice of Monday’s FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, failed to answer the bell.
The visitors were gifted the opener through an inexplicable Emi Martinez error and then, just when they were being pushed back onto the ropes, handed another free swing midway through the second half when an errant pass from the otherwise impressive Morgan Sanson allowed Bruno Fernandes to double the lead.
What happened next is why, on balance, Villa’s evening should be regarded as more success than failure. Rather than accept their fate, the home side hit back, cutting the deficit when Philippe Coutinho teed up Jacob Ramsey for his first Villa Park goal and then levelling, as the academy product returning the favour with the final pass as the most high-profile signing in club history capped his excellent cameo with a goal just 14 minutes after coming off the bench.
At that moment Villa looked the most likely winners and their inability to find a third goal left a nagging sense this had been another ‘nearly’ moment for Gerrard’s team. There will certainly come a time in the not too distant future when such results are not deemed good enough for a squad assembled at increasingly expensive cost.
Yet just 10 matches into Gerrard’s reign and in the middle of his first transfer window as head coach, Villa can still just about be categorised a work in progress. Promise remains sufficient, for now, and on Saturday there was no shortage of it, from Coutinho’s headline grabbing antics to Lucas Digne’s impressive debut, Ramsey’s rousing second-half display and the character shown by a team refusing to accept its fate.
Most encouraging was the performance of Emi Buendia, for whom this felt like a breakthrough occasion.
The Argentine playmaker has largely struggled to live up to expectation since joining in a club-record £38million deal from Norwich last summer. But after improved displays at Brentford and in the Cup defeat at Old Trafford, Saturday was his most complete showing yet. It was Buendia who was Villa’s driving force, helping them spark into rhythm late in the first half and then orchestrating much of the second, his vision summed up perfectly when he supplied the key pass in the build up to the equaliser, rolling the ball into the path of Ramsey’s run from the wing.
Crucially, there was no shortage of physicality to go with the flair. Gerrard, who last week stressed the importance of his players requiring steel as well as style, couldn’t help but be impressed as Buendia threw himself into tackles and leapt to win headers. The notion might be under threat by the arrival of Coutinho appears laughable on this evidence. Increasingly, Buendia is becoming the talisman Villa need him to be.
The other two members of Villa’s attacking three, by contrast, appear more vulnerable. Neither Danny Ings or Ollie Watkins enjoyed a particularly impressive evening and Gerrard, like Dean Smith before him, is struggling to find a system which best utilises the strengths of both players.
While Ings has netted more recently of the pair, Villa generally look a more fluid forward unit when Watkins is leading the line. Both of their goals on Saturday were scored after Ings had been withdrawn from the action and while Gerrard can hardly be blamed for attempting a system which gets two strikers on the pitch, you do wonder how much longer he will persist.
This felt like an important result for Villa’s boss. A defeat would have been their fourth on the spin and set up a rather nervy trip next weekend to face an Everton team supposedly in crisis but who began the day just three points behind Villa in the table.
Instead they should travel to Merseyside with a little confidence restored ahead of the winter break and a run of fixtures against teams below them in the table. By then a few further exciting additions might have been made.
Saturday was not the statement result Villa wanted but there is a chance, over time, it may come to be regarded as a significant turning point.