An intriguing question is whether Manchester United fans would accept a 21st title playing the Louis van Gaal way. The answer is surely in the affirmative so perhaps the degree of criticism aimed at the manager is unfair – especially as he is currently achieving the right results. Tuesday evening’s victory over CSKA Moscow placed United top of their Champions League group, and this win lifted them to 24 points in the Premier League, one behind Manchester City and Arsenal, who have played a game fewer.
There is no disguising, though, that yet again this was hardly a display of liquid football. It required a sweet Jesse Lingard goal – his first – and a late Juan Mata penalty to confirm the points after Gareth McAuley was sent off for tripping Anthony Martial. But the bottom line is Van Gaal’s men won, and this is the name of the managerial game.
United came into the contest having not scored a Premier League goal for 208 minutes. That was Wayne Rooney’s 62nd-minute strike at Everton on 17 October. On Tuesday there had been chants of “Attack, attack, attack!” before and during the 1-0 win over CSKA. This was a voicing of disquiet at the stodgy stuff Van Gaal’s side can play and there were boos when Martial was replaced by Marouane Fellaini, this viewed as another negative move from the 64-year-old.
On Saturday there was applause and oohs and aahs, and no mutinous noises. United started by dominating and offered enough potency to suggest they would score first.
Martial was again the No9 and Rooney the second forward, as Van Gaal likes to describe the captain when he operates at No10. Rooney had one volley blocked then created an opening for Mata. The Spaniard attempted a curler beyond Boaz Myhill, aimed to go inside the goalkeeper’s right post, but it went wide.
Martial is in a run of form where just about every time he pulls on the United shirt he impresses. Jonny Evans was the latest to be burned by the Frenchman, when being barged aside, before Martial turned and moved effortlessly into space and crossed.
The half’s outstanding moment was also his. From a duff Rooney free-kick that hit the first man the ball was eventually headed by Chris Smalling to Martial in a crowded area. One shimmering shoulder drop later and the 19-year-old was in a yard of space and Myhill did well to repel the rocket that was propelled at his goal.
Van Gaal again started Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield, as he had against CSKA. Throughout, their contribution was hardly eye-catching and the German, especially, lacked sharpness, ballooning one shot into the crowd.
Morgan Schneiderlin was said by Van Gaal to be ill so this may have been behind the selection of Carrick’s pairing with Schweinsteiger, though the former Southampton schemer was well enough to be named on the bench.
Tony Pulis’s side had come to defend so they would have been content as the second half began. This was about to change. Martial, again, was the spark. The striker wandered along the left and floated in a cross. Chris Brunt headed this straight into the path of Lingard. From outside the area and to the left of centre the forward steered a composed finish inside Myhill’s left post.
This ended United’s league goal drought on four hours and 20 minutes and when the camera cut to Van Gaal he was chuckling as a melee of United players mobbed Lingard.
West Brom now enjoyed their brightest passage and though this is a relative judgment they should have had an equaliser after 74 minutes. Craig Dawson swung in a ball from the right that landed plumb on Saido Berahino’s head, yet from right in front of David De Gea the No18 aimed this over at rugby conversion height.
As Pulis had hoped to seize the initiative by bringing on Berahino moments earlier this was particularly infuriating, and the manager hopped around on the sideline in incandescent fashion.
With 14 minutes left the Manchester-born Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, an 18-year-old left-back, replaced Marcos Rojo to make his debut for United. Later, Rooney was superseded by Ander Herrera to the soundtrack of cheers. These seemed to be in appreciation of the captain rather than his removal, though there was a moment when it was difficult to tell.
There was, though, only clarity regarding the home supporters’ reaction at final whistle: they reacted in jubilantly and went home happy. Winning generally does this to all fans.