Opinion: Villa Park win a big moment for Ten Hag's Reds
When Douglas Luiz equalised at Villa Park, with just over 20 minutes remaining, most United fans around the world were thinking: 'Here we go again.'
Fans worry (with some justification) that the team can collapse after feeling that first blow from an opponent. But here in Birmingham, we witnessed the clearest sign yet of firm progress under Ten Hag in 2024.
We headed into this match on a positive, undefeated run in the new calendar year, but Unai Emery's team were a step up, particularly in an away fixture. Few visiting sides have won here since the Spaniard took over in October 2022.
"Come on the Villa," shouted an enthusiastic lad, as we began the stroll up towards the Holte End's magnificent brick facade. Even when United took the lead, through Rasmus Hojlund's fifth league goal in as many appearances, the Midlands club's confidence seemed to endure.
But what followed next could prove a hugely important passage of play in United's season and, perhaps, Ten Hag's reign as manager.
First, United quietened the crowd down with some calm, composed possession, with Casemiro pulling out towards the left flank and slowing the play down to allow his team-mates a pause for breath. Harry Maguire and Kobbie Mainoo picked up on the theme, and eventually United began to inch up the field with a touch more confidence.
Diogo Dalot – excellent throughout, both defensively and offensively – burst down the right and found a superb cross, which was met by the midfielder's powerful close-range header. Get in! 'Limbs,' as they say nowadays. We used to call it 'a goon'. You can call it what you want. But the point is this: however many headlines are generated by the Academy graduate's eighth of the season – his best-ever return – the 10 minutes preceding the goal were a masterclass in how to manage a tricky situation away from home. And that's something this United team have not shown very often in recent times.
And it wasn't just that period that made this victory so sweet for Ten Hag.
And that was despite the loss of Luke Shaw – another left-footer who is vital to the way United want to build up under the Dutchman – at half-time.
Andre Onana posted arguably his greatest display at United to date, with two quickfire saves to deny John McGinn and Ollie Watkins in the first half. The Cameroonian was also calm when collecting in the air, as Villa desperately tried to exert pressure in the second period.
Maguire is also worth a big mention. The England stalwart gave a display of superbly controlled aggression throughout, and could be seen bawling at his colleagues in the final minutes. "Concentrate!" he screamed. They did.
There were other little things that impressed, too. Mainoo making it through so much of the match – before being substituted in added time – on a yellow card. Casemiro is much older, and endlessly more experienced, but he managed to do the same, tempering his natural inclination to storm in and win the ball back at every opportunity. Instead, the Brazilian was more considered, more Maldini than Montero. But it was equally effective.
It's Villa's third consecutive home defeat, but that did not bother United's away end at all, nor will it perturb the players and the manager, who were understandably delighted after the final whistle.
These three points give United a greater sniff at a top-four (or top-five) place and, yes, that's really important, with just 14 games to go. But the nature of the final 20 minutes or so should give fans and staff just as much pleasure.