The celebration was old school – Manchester United players piling on goalscorer Robin van Persie after the Dutchman struck home a 94th minute equaliser at Old Trafford on Sunday. Fans, players and manager left elated with the home sides draw against league leaders Chelsea. No more – probably no less – than the Reds deserved for an enterprising performance.
It is, though, easy to be carried away in the moment. After all, every high under David Moyes last season proved to be as transient as the Scotsman with lows assuredly following every victory. It is with a sense of perspective that United supporters greet Sunday’s result; in the narrative of more than a season of disappointments a draw with Chelsea, achieved moments from defeat, feels like a great leap forward.
This, however, was not a great United performance – not in the context of the last 25 years. It is why Louis van Gaal’s mission, above anything else, is to ensure that United moves forward with each result; to demand more from his squad rather than accept the populist platitudes associated with Sunday’s drama. Unlike the Scotsman, Van Gaal will lose nothing in translation from outsider to United manager – he is surely every bit the part.
Little surprise that Van Gaal should, in the aftermath, press home his desire for victory. No point gained for the veteran coach, but two lost given United’s superior possession and greater number of chances created.
“I’ve said to the players we could have won but we didn’t and that’s our fault,” said the Dutchman on Sunday.
“When you can do that against the best team in this league at this moment it is a good sign. But I’m not pleased as I still have the feeling we could have won and that we don’t take our opportunities at the moment. But we kept together and I think we deserved it. The most pleasing thing is we are showing again we are believing in making a goal in spite of the result being bad. At 1-0 behind, it is fantastic that the players are running until the 90th minute to equalise or win.”
It is a sentiment that demands a positive performance is translated into consistent results. After all, away from the elation of Van Persie’s late goal, the dispassionate view holds that United requires around 60 more points this season from 29 games to qualify for the Champions League. That is almost double the points averaged achieved to date. Or in other words, United can afford six draws and five defeats with 18 victories to enjoy a place among Europe’s elite next season. No small feat given this season’s form, but a manageable one for Van Gaal’s collection of attacking riches all the same.
There is another essential truth: that while United is yet to fully blossom this season, the trajectory feels right. The Reds’ 13 points from nine games is one less than Moyes earned over the same period – with a more friendly fixture list to boot – but few doubt that Van Gaal’s side is now on an upward course. It is also an analysis that is bolstered by an obvious truth: Moyes took Sir Alex Ferguson’s title winning side and obliterated its confidence and form, while Van Gaal is rebuilding from the ruins. Only the most myopic fail see United’s progress.
Much of this is an article of faith though. Objectively the Dutchman should face greater criticism this season. United’s results still place the club firmly in mid-table, with no guarantees that the minimum goal of Champions League qualification will be achieved. Yet, just as Van Gaal chooses to pour cold water on a joyous last-minute equaliser, so United fans seem willing to take the Dutchman’s record at face value. He can fail, for now at least.
There are significant questions though. Despite scoring Van Persie was often peripheral, making just 13 passes in a largely quiet game. Even Angel Di Maria struggled to reach previous levels of performance, although the Argentinian still created four chances. More worrying still was Juan Mata’s inability to influence a major game – it has become a frustrating pattern from a player so amply talented.
Elsewhere Van Gaal will enjoy the greater structure in his side’s defensive performance. Both Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw were disciplined, while supporting the attack, and Chris Smalling enjoyed his best game in a United shirt for some months. Only Marcos Rojo betrayed some of the old nerves in gifting Chelsea two chances.
Then there is Marouane Fellaini, with a performance that drew positive reviews. The Belgian was more mobile than at any point during his tenure in Manchester, while making three key tackles and distributing the ball soundly, if over-safely. The former Evertonian will never become a technician of the sort expected at Old Trafford, but he confidence will swell from the momentum gained over the past two matches.
Indeed, this new impetus is a watchword for the team overall. After all, Van Gaal’s side is undefeated since capitulating so embarrassingly against Leicester City. While performances have rarely peaked in the interim, momentum is so ephemeral that is must be captured at every turn. It is a sentiment well understood by United’s players.
“A point that wasn’t much at half time was celebrated and deserved at the end of the game, although is not good enough to remain on the top of the table,” added Mata on his blog. “I’m sure that we will get better and better and we will climb to the main spots, where United deserves to be.”
This is also a statement of confidence that United fans are slowly coming to believe. Last minute goals have that effect. And while Van Gaal is not without his critics, and he faces significant challenges to restore United to preeminence, there is little doubt that more performances like Sunday’s will win over the terraces. More to the point, performances of a similar ilk against Manchester City, Arsenal and Crystal Palace in the month to come will push the Reds towards European qualification. It’s the minimum acceptable performance in truth.
Untied gained pride from Van Persie’s emotional late equaliser. It is not emotion that wins titles though. Points do – and they are now the only goal. It is a truth Van Gaal understands very well.