Manchester United were still in celebratory mode when the switch finally happened. Philippe Coutinho had been on the touchline waiting to make his Aston Villa bow, but had to watch Bruno Fernandes score a second before then replacing Morgan Sanson.
The game felt lost at the point of his introduction: the hosts best period had preceded the Portugal international’s thundered finish on 67 minutes, moments before the change was made. Villa faced a steep climb, after Emi Martinez’s howler in the opening stages.
Alex Telles’ light touch from a free kick allowed Fernandes to shift the ball infield. He took a few touches to set himself and directed a shot towards the bottom left that the goalkeeper should have gathered with ease, but Martinez embarrassingly let the ball slip through his hands, between his legs, and into the net.
Villa were cooked at 2-0, but Coutinho – desperate to remind the world, and vitally himself – of his gifts delivered an altogether different recipe.
Fellow substitute Carney Chukwuemeka engaged passes with the former Liverpool playmaker and Barcelona ghost. Coutinho dribbled into the stacked box, attracting markers before slipping in Jacob Ramsey. He slotted into the top right from the penalty spot and the home crowd were enlivened.
Five minutes later, the roles were reversed when Emiliano Buendia released Ramsey into the box, who spotted Coutinho’s run and rolled the ball across the face of goal, past desperate slide from Rafael Varane.
The Brazilian tapped into an unguarded net from close range, colouring his debut with a decisive edge.
United had provided their most convincing period of play under Ralf Rangnick in the opening 35 minutes here. They were structured, aggressive and purposeful with Fernandes looking like his old influential self rather than invisible, Anthony Elanga dazzling and Mason Greenwood supremely sharp.
They were controlling and shaping the match, with Martinez’s blunder infiltrating everything Villa did for an age.
The keeper redeemed himself by darting out to deny the Greenwood as he blasted a shot on the run. The forward’s next attempt went just wide as he collected a Martinez clearance, took it under control and shifted to the right before shooting low just shy of the bottom corner.
Villa’s first touch in United’s box materialised soon after, on the 32-minute mark, as atypically loose play from Edison Cavani allowed them to counter. David de Gea was equal to a curler from Ollie Watkins, and with Emiliano Buendia increasingly orchestrating matters, United’s rearguard finally had regular work to do.
Villa didn’t extract any joy from finally coming alive and lost Ezri Konsa, but began the second half with verve plus venom.
De Gea was on hand to stifle efforts from Ramsey and Buendia, but the rocket from Fernandes was a sucker punch that seemed certain to seal the game.
Coutinho changed that. United were once again left reflecting on their inadequacies while Villa are in celebratory mode over their new creative gem.