Manchester United scraped into the fourth round of the FA Cup thanks to an early goal from Scott McTominay against Aston Villa at Old Trafford.
Ralf Rangnick’s team were second best on the night and Villa will wonder how they didn’t manage to punish an ultimately poor opponent.
There was no Cristiano Ronaldo for the hosts, but fans didn’t have to wait long for a breakthrough when McTominay connected unchallenged with a teasing cross from midfield partner Fred. It was an avoidable goal that would have disappointed Villa boss Steven Gerrard.
Villa threatened to quickly fire back. Ollie Watkins couldn’t adjust his body in time to turn home the ball at the far post, while Danny Ings fired narrowly wide. John McGinn also stung the hands of David de Gea with a power drive from distance.
United missed a chance to double their lead when Bruno Fernandes delayed his final pass too long and left Edinson Cavani with too narrow an angle to beat Emiliano Martinez.
They almost regretted it moments later when Watkins turned Victor Lindelof inside out and crashed an effort off the crossbar. Villa again went close shortly after that through Jacob Ramsey, whose deflected shot just missed.
But as flaky as United were out of possession, they were still threatening going forward and De Gea wasn’t the only busy goalkeeper. Martinez soon needed a strong wrist to tip over a drive from Luke Shaw and then held onto a swerving volley from McTominay.
That was all in the first half alone.
Once the second half began, United got away with some dreadful set-piece defending when Ings scrambled in from close range. A lengthy VAR review advised referee Michael Oliver to look again at a potential foul on Cavani in the build-up and he ruled the goal out.
Barely any time had passed before Watkins then had the ball in the net, but that one was also ruled out because of a raised offside flag against Ings.
Villa continued to dominate and United were increasingly poor as the second half wore on – Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford particularly disappointed in a continuation of recent weeks. Neither player looked happy when finally substituted in the closing stages.
United saw the game out in the lead, but the performance only raises further questions.
Man Utd player ratings
1. Goalkeeper & defenders
David de Gea (GK) - 8/10 - Busy throughout and was ultimately the reason his team won the tie.
Diogo Dalot (RB) - 5/10 - Struggled against Watkins, whose free movement in wide areas and centrally made him hard to pin down.
Victor Lindelof (CB) - 4/10 - Sluggish on his return to the side.
Raphael Varane (CB) - 5/10 - Got away with being caught on his heels when Villa scored their would be equaliser that was chalked off.
Luke Shaw (LB) - 5/10 - Had similar issues to Dalot on the other side, but in keeping tabs on Buendia.
Scott McTominay (CM) - 7/10 - Gave his team the perfect start and was the best United midfielder on display - it wasn't a high bar, however.
Fred (CM) - 5/10 - Beautifully flighted cross found his midfield partner for the early breakthrough. A little bit lost and off the pace after that.
Bruno Fernandes (AM) - 3/10 - Not enough impact on the game. Poor with his final pass that caused chances to disappear more than once.
Mason Greenwood (RW) - 5/10 - The United player most likely to make something happen in the second half, although his efforts were tame.
Edinson Cavani (ST) - 5/10 - Had one half chance in the first half but faded from the game as Villa began to dominate and his service dried up.
Marcus Rashford (LW) - 3/10 - Looked eager to impress when he got on the ball in the early stages but it didn't last. His night was characterised by letting Martinez recover a fumble instead of challenging for the ball.
Donny van de Beek (CM) - 6/10 - The crowd was chanting his name as soon as he was stood on the touchline waiting to come on.
Anthony Elanga (ST) - 6/10 - Showed more in only a few minutes than some of the other attackers who started.
Jesse Lingard (AM) - 6/10 - Another who provided a spark off the bench. He just didn't have long enough to make the most of it.
Aston Villa player ratings
5. Goalkeeper & defenders
Emiliano Martinez (GK) - 6/10 - Stood little chance with the early goal but did everything else that was asked of him.
Matty Cash (RB) - 6/10 - Not troubled by a poor Rashford.
Ezri Konsa (CB) - 7/10 - Competed well, whether in the air or stepping into midfield to win the ball. Got a bloody nose for his trouble.
Tyrone Mings (CB) - 6/10 - Led his team well after the initial blow of conceding a disappointingly easy early goal.
Matt Targett (LB) - 6/10 - Didn't really stand out for good or bad but did just about enough to keep Greenwood under wraps.
John McGinn (CM) - 7/10 - Fiercely combative as usual and forced a brilliant first half save out of De Gea.
Douglas Luiz (CM) - 5/10 - Lost the ball cheaply in midfield on several occasions that directly led to United chances.
Jacob Ramsey (CM) - 7/10 - Looked superior to United for large parts. Blocked Cavani off when Villa thought they'd scored an equaliser, leading to it being ruled out.
Emiliano Buendia (RW) - 7/10 - Took up good positions between midfield and defence that made it tough for United defenders to pick him.
Danny Ings (ST) - 7/10 - Had the ball in the net, only to see it ruled out for an incident earlier in the play. Never gave the hosts any peace.
Ollie Watkins (LW) - 7/10 - Hit the bar in the first half and went close on a number of occasions, including one ruled out for offside.
Anwar El Ghazi (LW) - 5/10 - Spurned a late chance to get back in it.
Jaden Philogene-Bidace (CM) - 6/10 - Far from overawed by the occasion.