Rasmus Hojlund and Manchester United beat Aston Villa at their own game

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Goalscorers Rasmus Hojlund (left) and Scott McTominay pictured celebrating during Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa

IMAGO/Sportimage/Andrew Yates

Rasmus Hojlund made it five from five© 2024 Manchester United FC

Manchester United conceded twice from set-pieces when they defeated Aston Villa on Boxing Day. On Sunday, it was their turn to beat them at their own game.

Austin MacPhee is the instantly-recognisable Villa set-piece specialist who could easily be mistaken for a Scandinavian TV detective. He was outdone by the less glamorous and often criticised Eric Ramsay in a pivotal moment of the match.

Ramsay occupies a far broader role than just a set-piece coach anymore, but he certainly shouldn’t shy away from that reputation given the nature of United’s opening goal at Villa Park.

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Bruno Fernandes’ delivery into the box was good, before Harry Maguire used his strength to direct the ball back into the six-yard box. Rasmus Hojlund also won’t get much credit for his close-range finish, but it is credit to him that he was in the right place at the right time to reap the rewards.

The Danish forward’s anticipation and reading of the game was so refreshing because it has rarely been seen from a United forward in recent years, perhaps last during Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season back at the club.

It sounds rather simple, and that’s because it is, but if a striker plays between the posts, then they will end up scoring a lot of goals as a result of it. Hojlund now has five goals in his last five appearances, and the simpler strikes against Villa and Newport are the ones that will have pleased Erik ten Hag the most.

Hojlund netted his first Premier League goal in that previous meeting with Villa, and now he looks like a completely different player, so transformed is he by the confidence pumping through his veins and the weight of expectation lifted from his shoulders.

In the shape of Alejandro Garancho, Marcus Rashford, and Fernandes, they already have players capable of producing spectacular goals out of nowhere. Hojlund can do that too, but he is mainly in the side to grab those ‘ugly’ goals.

What was so encouraging about his latest outing at Villa Park was that he put all the positive parts of his game to good use. His pace on the counterattack gave United a number of threatening opportunities; he dropped deep to help with the defensive phases, and his pressing play forced Douglas Luiz into a mistake that almost gave his side the lead.

That stuff is all good, but it counts for little if you are not doing your primary job of putting the ball into the back of the net. Hojlund is not only offering all of the extra bits that Ten Hag loves, but he is also becoming an increasing goal threat as his confidence grows.

This was arguably his most complete performance in a United shirt and the perfect showcase for why United gambled £72 million on him being the man to lead their line last summer.

It has now reached the point where you expect him to put the ball in the back of the net every game he plays, and it is actually becoming even less of a story every time that he does.

Ten Hag will love that Hojlund found the back of the net again. Ramsay will love that it came from a corner.

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