They say winning ugly is the sign of champions; for Manchester United, it’s the sign of Louis van Gaal. Victory over CSKA Moscow puts Champions League qualification in their hands, but this was a win which left more questions than answers.
If ever the management style of Van Gaal can be epitomised by one decision, it was in the 66th minute with the scores level at Old Trafford. A first substitution just after the hour mark? Check. Your brightest attacking talent sacrificed? Check. Maroaune Fellaini the man to replace him? Check. In a game United desperately needed to win for confidence almost more than anything, old habits were dying hard for the Dutchman.
Yet, somehow, it paid off. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but Wayne Rooney’s match-winner proved that Van Gaal is sound of mind – at least on this occasion. This was Rooney’s best performance of the season since his hat-trick against Club Brugge, with the former Everton man having more shots, making more key passes and making more touches in the opposition box than he managed in all three of his last games combined. It remains the exception rather than the rule for the 30-year-old, but it’s an encouraging start.
From handing Martial a starting role as a central striker to fielding two holding midfielders at home against an opponent content to sit back and defend, mixed messages were rife from the manager on Tuesday. United were a side set up to avoid defeat, but started the game with an opening half-hour befitting of the ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’ style football which the fans have so craved recently. Short, sharp interchanges at a fast tempo with players granted more freedom; Old Trafford was spoilt.
After three straight games without a goal, the home fans were almost in a state of shock. Early chances came and went for Marcos Rojo and the impressive if not overzealous Jesse Lingard, while even Rooney provided an attacking spark. United had eight shots in the first half, as many as they had in 180 minutes against Manchester City and Crystal Palace. Attack also proved the best form of defence, with CSKA unable to muster a single shot and enjoying under 27% of the possesson in the first half.
Whether Van Gaal panicked at half-time is unclear, but something seemed to change in United at the break. The freedom dissipated, replaced by rigidity and, predictably, fewer chances. Rojo and Martial could have scored within five minutes of the restart, but United’s next attempt came 20 minutes later. Where CSKA struggled to handle the fast-paced nature of the Red Devils’ attack in the first half, they dealt with a slower, more methodical style with relative ease.
Then came Martial’s exit. A cacophony of boos greeted the decision to remove the Frenchman just after the hour mark, although they may well have been directed more towards his replacement, Fellaini. In fairness to Van Gaal, Martial struggled somewhat when handed a rare opportunity as a starting striker.
The fear now is that Martial’s next chance to impress in his favoured position won’t come for some time. Patience – too much – may have been shown to Rooney during his struggles as a forward, but Van Gaal lacks said virtue with most others – just ask Ander Herrera. The match-winner against Everton in United’s previous victory was benched after a handful of disappointing recent showings.
But, after 404 long minutes, the run was over. After missing two gilt-edged opportunities from three yards just minutes before, Rooney was presented with a pratically open goal and he duly obliged.
Had Seydou Doumbia converted one of two huge chances at the other end, Van Gaal would have struggled to validate many of his decisions on Tuesday. That David de Gea and Chris Smalling were the men to deny the striker is symptomatic of their vital importance to the cause.
While questions should still be asked of Van Gaal after a first victory in five games, they will be discontented murmurs as opposed to a club-wide inquisition. Boos from his own fans represent the most mutinous response yet, but for a man driven by results, it won’t matter.