‘Will Rooney’s absence cause problems?’ read the tweet from BBC Sport. ‘To Watford?’ a million people people guffawed. Eleven minutes after the kick-off at Vicarage Road, it looked like the laughter was justified as Memphis Depay finished a lovely attacking move with a deft volley. It had only been 11 minutes but a Rooney-less Manchester United had looked energetic, fluid and ultimately effective.
Would that goal have been scored by a Manchester United side featuring Rooney? To say ‘no’ is the tempting conclusion but in truth, Rooney may well have gobbled up a delicious cross from Ander Herrera. Certainly, his England finish in midweek suggested that the right delivery could still prompt the right finish. The more pertinent question would be whether United would have played that less-rigid defence-addling 4-2-2-2 formation if Rooney had been available to play. Necessity was clearly the mother of this particular invention.
Robbed of both (and yes, it is ridiculous that we can use the word ‘both’ to describe the attacking options of a club of Manchester United’s size) their strikers, Louis van Gaal opted not to simply replace Anthony Martial with Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney with Ander Herrera but to cross out his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and instead allow his four creative players to roam almost free. To interchange, to stray away from their nominal starting positions, to play without a stringent plan, to be rather a lot less Van Gaal; Ashley Young and Daley Blind were instructed to provide width. The result was a usually calm Watford defence looking thoroughly befuddled and United looking – whisper it – entertaining.
The shame was that Ander Herrera’s injury forced a change midway through a very dominant first half from Manchester United. The further shame was that Van Gaal looked around at a bench boasting just 57 Premier League appearances and decided Marcos Rojo and a switch to a three-man defence was his best option. While it would have been fascinating to watch a United side playing with verve for a full 90 minutes, at least Van Gaal opted to keep his striker-less strike partnership intact. The growing confidence of Depay (could it be that he’s not the new Ravel Morrison after all?), coupled with the intelligent running of Jesse Lingard, ensured that United continued to look dangerous, though United sadly reverted to type and never engaged full throttle.
Lingard’s lack of experience as the side’s striking focal point was painfully clear when presented with a more-than-passable chance from Blind’s raking long ball, and Rojo’s lack of intelligence almost cost United two points with a ridiculous challenge on Odion Ighalo, but there are still more positives than negatives to take away for United. The headlines will be hogged by talk of ‘Van Gaal time’ but when the euphoria from their late winner subsides, United fans can reflect on an opening half that showed that a) Van Gaal is still capable of invention and b) they do have players with enough intelligence and creativity to operate outside of a rigid gameplan.
In the end, the three points earned by Troy Deeney’s unfortunate diversion and David De Gea’s exemplary goalkeeping are a wonderful bonus, but the real boon is that United provided bona fide fun, something sadly lacking too often this season. Will the party continue when Rooney returns? If Van Gaal really does have attacking instincts, he won’t be turning the lights on and the music off while his guests still want to dance.