Manchester United will come good this season, there is too much talent at Louis van Gaal’s disposal to fail, although from the standpoint of another near car crash performance on Saturday it is impossible to predict when, let alone where. Old Trafford certainly holds no guarantees these days. For the moment this remains United, but not quite as we once knew it. On the cusp of turning it around, or of another dismal season? The next five weeks will say much.
Who would have thought that £150 million spent over the summer would have so little immediate impact, with United having lost twice in the Premier League already this season, including a humiliating 5-3 loss at Leicester City. Not to mention that Carling Cup defeat at Milton Keynes Dons.
Leaving aside Wayne Rooney’s dismissal in the 59th minute, United’s performance at home to West Ham United this weekend rarely achieved a level above the mundane – at least in aggregate even if there were moments of brilliance. Indeed, prior to the Scouser’s moment of insanity in kicking out at Stuart Downing it was the visitors who had begun to dominate proceedings as the second half opened. Momentum swung to the Hammers long before Rooney hit the showers. Something is just not quite right with Van Gaal’s outfit.
There were certainly mitigating circumstances on Saturday. Injuries to Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left United with Marcos Rojo as the only available first team central defender. Hardly ideal in any circumstances. Though even this excuse was unavailable as United conceded five to Leicester last weekend.
Positives? The Reds passing in the first half against the Hammers was crisp and the side’s attacking movement reflected the quality available to United’s Dutch manager. Rooney’s goal was exceptionally well executed, while Radamel Falcao enjoyed a fine game even without a strike of his own.
Van Gaal should also feel more secure in his young defenders after the performance. Rojo was, at times, commanding in central defence, although the Argentinian World Cup star has some work to do on positioning.
But it was the Dutchman’s two young attacking full-backs that impressed most. Rafael da Silva was all energy and enterprise in the first half and, without exception, solid defensively in the second. He hasn’t always been that reliable. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw enjoyed a positive début for the club – attacking in tandem with Angel Di Maria down the left, while playing an almost immaculate defensive game during the second.
“It was a tough début, I would say,” said Shaw. “Obviously, we went down to 10 men and it’s never easy but we all fought hard and showed how much we wanted these three points. It means a lot to us. Overall, I’m really pleased with how my début went but the main thing, for me, was to get the win.”
There was kudos too for Patrick McNair, the patently raw 19-year-old, who completed a game-saving defensive header late in the game that would have been impressive from the most celebrated of centre halves.
Yet, at no point did the result feel secure either – not even as United led 2-0 lead with 11 men on the pitch. West Ham’s policy of attacking United’s fragile defence with long balls had a significant effect on a youthful rearguard. After all Rojo, at 24, was the elder statesman of United’s defensive unit. That David de Gea looks anything but his completely secure self is also concerning, although surely a symptom and not a cause of United’s defensive malaise this season.
Still, the Reds held out for the win, reorganising into a solid defensive shape after Rooney’s dismissal and resorting, sometimes crudely, to launching the ball forward in defensive situations. Sensibly too some might add given the result last weekend, even if the tactic was anything but ‘the United way’.
Van Gaal called the win “very important,” while Robin Van Persie lauded victory as “more than three points.” That it was. Holding out to claim a 2-1 win while fielding 10 players for more than half an hour – even at home – is a level of robustness that has not always been present since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
“After the red card, we had to fight for the victory and I have said to the lads you have been rewarded today because you fought until the end – and more than that,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
Rooney, United’s captain and leader, let the group down. It has been five years since the former Evertonian saw red in the Premier League. Yet, somehow, this didn’t surprise either. Rooney’s is rarely a calm head. Captain material? Pull the other one.
“I could imagine why he did it,” said Van Gaal somewhat magnanimously. “But I think you have to do it more friendly and that is the only thing that I can say. You can ask if that is a red card. I think you see what you want to see and I believe [the referee] could have given a red card. In professional football, you make these faults.”
For the rest of the group this victory is a platform, with Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea to come over the next five weeks. Rooney will miss the first of those games allowing Juan Mata to once again take up a role a ‘number 10’. Whether the Spaniard’s re-introduction will help or hinder United’s attacking play is a debate to come; some team-mates will enjoy United’s greater balance with Rooney out of the side.
Results are key though and with difficult games on the horizon United’s victory over West Ham may well be a turning point. It certainly feels like a pivotal period in the season if the Reds are to build some momentum before the turn of the year.
“It was absolutely vital to get the three points for everyone’s belief and the fans’ belief,” Van Persie added.
“I thought we played really well in the first half but in the second it was a completely different game because of the red card. At times it was a bit nerve-wracking but we did ever so well and everyone fought really hard.”
Good things do sometimes come to those who wait and, in this, United’s supporters have played a long game of patience. Not with Van Gaal per se, but in the near 18 months since Sir Alex announced his retirement there have been few moments of levity. West Ham wasn’t really one; Chelsea and City in the weeks to come. Now there would be a real platform.