Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 1
Louis van Gaal has talked about how away victories can be the cornerstone of Manchester United's success this season, and this was a promising start, if not a convincing performance, as Adnan Januzaj came in from the cold to score the only goal of the game and deliver a gentle reminder to his manager that there may be something worth persevering with yet.
Making his first United start in more than six months after seemingly being on his way out of Old Trafford, Januzaj responded with his first goal since April 2014 on a night when Van Gaal’s side extended their extraordinary sequence of results at Villa Park and dampened some of the optimism in these parts after a summer of rebuilding.
United have now gone 20 matches without losing in the league at Villa – increasing what was already the longest unbeaten away run in any fixture in top-flight history – and the brutal truth is that Tim Sherwood’s new-look side never threatened to deliver a result that would have put that statistic to bed.
Sergio Romero could have taken the night off along with David de Gea as Villa huffed and puffed with little success. United also toiled for periods and it was alarming to see Wayne Rooney looking so far off the pace. Leading the line, the United captain had to wait until injury-time to touch the ball in the penalty area. By that point, however, Januzaj had made his mark.
Sherwood had been typically bullish beforehand, talking about how Villa would “fancy themselves” against Van Gaal’s side, yet the history books suggested otherwise. To put Villa’s record against United into some sort of context, the last time they beat United at home in the Premier League was almost 20 years ago to the day and Adama Traoré, their new signing from Barcelona, who was paraded to a warm ovation before kick-off, had not been born.
This game was a slowburner, with neither side playing with much cohesion during a scrappy opening 45 minutes. Perhaps that was to be expected given that there were a total of 10 new signings on display. United made the better start and had Morgan Schneiderlin, one of four new faces in the visitors' team, been more alert in the 16th minute Villa could easily have fallen behind.
Memphis Depay’s inswinging free-kick from the left floated towards the back post and ran through to the unmarked Schneiderlin, who seemed to be taken by surprise that nobody had got a touch on the ball and was unable to adjust quickly enough to steer his header on target.
Brad Guzan raced quickly off his line moments later to win a duel with Depay after the ball rebounded off Michael Carrick and invited the Dutchman to break into the inside left channel, but there was no reprieve for Villa just before the half-hour mark, when United took the lead.
It was a goal that said much about the influence and talent of Juan Mata, who started on the right to accommodate Januzaj in the No10 role, but drifted out to the left to deliver the perfectly weighted pass that carved open the Villa defence and picked out Januzaj's run. Micah Richards saw the danger and raced across but he failed to apply the brakes and Januzaj, with some dexterous footwork, checked inside, sitting the Villa captain on his backside in the process, before stroking a right-footed shot that deflected off Ciaran Clark and went in off the far upright.
Januzaj's inclusion in the starting XI, in place of Ashley Young, was something of a surprise and meant that Depay took up a more familiar role on the left. Depay was involved in the buildup to the goal, which was the best passage of play in a disappointing first-half during which Rooney struggled to make any impression on the game.
Villa looked every inch a team in transition and by the time half-time came the atmosphere felt rather flat. Sherwood's team had created precious little and the only real moment of concern for United was when Matteo Darmian, the Italian right-back, tangled with Richards following a Villa corner. The Italian had his hands all over Richards and on another night Mike Dean, the referee, could easily have pointed to the spot.
There was more urgency about Villa at the start of the second half as they started to play with more belief. Mata's careless pass – something of a collector's item – presented Jordan Ayew with a chance to run with the ball before shooting wildly over, and in the 54th minute Gabriel Agbonlahor's header, from Ashley Westwood's corner, forced Romero to make his first save of the evening.
Villa needed more physical presence up front and Sherwood responded by replacing Sinclair with Rudy Gestede. Van Gaal also made two changes on the hour mark, supplanting Carrick with Bastian Schweinsteiger and bringing on Ander Herrera for Januzaj, to shift the momentum of the game back into United's favour. Desperation was creeping into Villa's play as Ayew picked up a booking for diving.
At the other end Mata produced another of those majestic left-footed passes to release Depay behind the Villa defence. With only Guzan to beat, Depay opened up his body to create the angle for the shot but curled his right-footed effort inches wide of the far post.