“For us the Champions League is the title,” was the pre-match message from Louis van Gaal. Against Tottenham, Manchester United finally offered evidence that they merit that top-four place. In parts they played like champions.
This was not a day on which to dwell on the slightly Wengerian nature of Van Gaal’s words, but instead for United supporters to display happy relief and disbelief. Their manager demanded a performance ahead of a local derby with Liverpool and, for the first time in far too long, he was not left disappointed.
United fans have broadly been split into two camps during this sustained period of stylistic disappointment under Van Gaal. Those defending the manager do so on the principle of ‘only the result matters’. The style of the team is unimportant, they decree, as long as they qualify for the Champions League. These people nod their head in the direction of the league table with both fingers in ears.
That view fails to take into account one obvious retort. Against Tottenham, United proved that they are infinitely better when they play with style, so that style must therefore matter. Their results are at least partly proportional to the means.
This was a performance that has become a distant memory to many at Old Trafford, a “Do you remember when” recollection mused upon when 1-0 down to Preston or 0-0 with Sunderland after an hour. Tempo, attacking fluidity and a game won by half-time: A much-missed holy trinity.
Has it really taken Van Gaal seven months to realise that Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney might work well in the same side? This was their first start as a trio since the 4-0 win against QPR in September, Angel Di Maria’s lauded home debut. We even had Radamel Falcao, Rafael, Herrera and Mata on the pitch at the same time. Heady days indeed.
The aesthetic drought was ended in spectacular fashion, United dominating from the off with a cadence and verve so rarely seen this season. Gone were the long balls forward to the head of Marouane Fellaini, replaced by passes played into the feet of United’s front line. Gone were the aimless crosses into the box (ten in open play compared to an average of 21 in their previous six matches), replaced by intricate passing on the edge of the area. Gone was the sluggish possession through defence and midfield, replaced by Chris Smalling and Phil Jones actually striding forward from the back.
Gone too is the desire from Van Gaal to cram strikers into the starting line-up. Despite the manager’s insistence in his programme notes that Radamel Falcao will come good (and the injury to Robin van Persie), the Colombian was again left on the bench. Wayne Rooney led the line, and did so brilliantly.
“I think until now because of Rooney we have a better balance in midfield,” said Van Gaal last month. Even if that statement is true – and I have my doubts – his impact as a striker is too vital to ignore. No player on the pitch created more chances than Rooney, who failed to suffer for a lack of partner. He had as many shots as in any Premier League game this season.
Rooney’s performance was crowned with the third goal, a surging run past two players that has become sadly infrequent in recent times. The finish was never in doubt, his 14th in his last 14 games at Old Trafford. Despite the doubts, he remains United’s best striking option. Play him up front, and he will score.
Finally, gone is the commitment to possession as a crucial key to success. Against Newcastle in their previous league game, United had 68% of the ball, but looked toothless. Despite their domination against Spurs they had just 51.6% of possession, which equates to their second-lowest figure of the season at Old Trafford. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Instead of lethargy verging on stagnation, Van Gaal’s side surged forward. Seven of their outfield players had an average touch position in the opposition half (compared to three for Spurs), indicating their desire to peg back Pochettino’s side. They lost the ball frequently in attack and more than once attacking moves failed to materialise, but it did not matter. At last it felt as if they were making things happen: Proaction over reaction.
As in any one-sided contest, Spurs contributed significantly to their own downfall. During the first half they attempted a ballsy strategy of playing without any determinable midfielder or full-back. Herrera and Michael Carrick were able to brush past Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason with ease, whilst Kyle Walker in particular was abysmal at right-back. Walker was continuously found out of position, a situation exacerbated by Andros Townsend’s inability or disinclination to track back. Townsend was substituted after half an hour.
Spurs did improve after the break, but United merely closed out the result with the minimum of fuss. That’s another unfamiliar scenario this season, and another box ticked.
After a campaign of great promise, Spurs’ top-four race may have run. This was a significant reminder of how much work Pochettino has to do in order to reach the Champions League promised land. It doesn’t promise to get any easier next season.
It was also a reminder of exactly how good United can be when it clicks. The nagging cliché is that one swallow does not make a summer, but there are reasons for high spirits ahead of a trip to Anfield. After waiting the best part of three months for a high tempo, commanding display, Van Gaal will hope that his side have found momentum at exactly the right time. We’ve been waiting long enough.