Once again at Villa Park, United were poor before half-time and decidedly better after it. For the tenth time this season they came from behind to win in the Premier League, making it 31 points gained from losing positions.
It came at a price, however, with captain Harry Maguire forced off in the second half following a collision with Anwar El Ghazi. Maguire doesn’t leave the action easily so it raises concerns over his fitness for a busy run-in and the Europa League final against Villarreal on May 26.
Even so, United’s first-half performance wasn’t that of a team desperate to take the title race as far as they could.
For the umpteenth time this season, Solskjaer’s side lacked pace and purpose in the opening period and could have no complaints that they trailed at the interval.
The goal rather summed up United’s first-half shortcomings as Mason Greenwood and Fred both gave the ball away close to their own penalty box. John McGinn played the ball to Douglas Luiz who shifted it quickly into the feet of Bertrand Traore. He span away from Victor Lindelof who got a foot in but didn’t make enough contact on the ball and scuffed it back to his opponent. Traore held off the Swede far too easily and tried his luck from a tight angle, arrowing the ball beyond Dean Henderson and into the top corner with his left foot.
It was a cracking goal but typical of the sloppy play by United. Aaron Wan-Bissaka completely missed the ball as he tried to control a pass from Lindelof and gave away a freekick for handball.
Luke Shaw tried to play the ball across his own box and succeeded in picking out El Ghazi who was as surprised as anyone to be given a chance to head for goal. On the stroke of half-time, Lindelof cleared the ball straight to McGinn who gave Ollie Watkins the chance to force a smart save from Henderson.
United had their moments, but they lacked zip and ingenuity going forward. It resulted in a string of comfortable saves from Emiliano Martinez and not enough clear-cut chances.
Marcus Rashford had one of them when Greenwood’s cross-shot fell kindly for him in front of goal, but he got the ball caught under his feet. Greenwood created another for himself, bursting past Matt Targett to whip in a right-foot shot that Martinez saved with one hand. The ball deflected against Ezri Konsa and headed for goal but the Villa defender recovered in time to clear it to safety.
Villa threatened to extend their lead early in the second half when McGinn launched another attack, sending Ross Barkley free down the right. Barkley squared the ball for El Ghazi who shot straight at Henderson.
How many times have United raise their game in the second half this season though? They did it again with two goals in the space of four minutes.
The first came from the penalty spot in the 52nd minute. Douglas Luiz had already caused Paul Pogba to stumble once as the Frenchman held him off inside the box, and then sent him over again with a clumsy attempt to win the ball from behind.
Bruno Fernandes had scored from the spot on his two other Premier League appearances against Villa and he the same here. There was a little stutter-step run-up to let Martinez make the first move before sliding the ball in the other direction for his 27th goal in all competitions this season.
No sooner were United level than they were going ahead through Greenwood’s 16th league goal for the club – moving ahead of Wayne Rooney as United’s top teenage goal scorer in the Premier League on a list that also includes Ryan Giggs, Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s still got another five months to go before he turns 20 as well.
Wan-Bissaka played the ball into him from the right and Greenwood turned Tyrone Mings far too easily before beating Martinez with a low shot at his near post. Simple but very effective.
Villa weren’t done and Henderson had to be on alert to produce a fine reflex save when Harry Maguire almost turned Targett’s cross into his own net.
The United captain limped off shortly afterwards but substitute Edinson Cavani made sure of victory with his eighth goal in seven appearances in the 87th minute. The ball was worked wide to Rashford who whipped in a cross to the edge of the six-yard box where Cavani had stolen a yard on Matty Cash and scored with a lovely glancing header.
It got even worse for Villa before the end when Watkins beat Henderson to a throughball and went down in the box. Referee Chris Kavanagh decided it was a dive, VAR backed him up and the Villa striker was sent off for a second yellow card.