As the Manchester United supporters headed out into the drizzle, there was at least a collective sense of relief that Louis van Gaal’s team have reminded themselves what it is like to win a football match. It has been a long time coming – 42 days, to be precise – and they had to endure a wretched first half. Yet the eight-match sequence without a victory, their worst run since 1990, is finally over and the crowd will cling to the hope that better times might be ahead.
They made hard going of it at times and it still feels startling that Old Trafford, a stadium once known for its sense of high drama, has seen the lowest number of goals, 15, of all 92 league clubs. United have not managed a first-half goal in nine successive home games stretching back to 30 September and Van Gaal is being generous in the extreme when he says this team is still capable of winning the league.
There was, however, a considerable improvement during a second half when United took the lead through Anthony Martial then briefly toyed with the idea of the game becoming another ordeal courtesy of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s 71st-minute equaliser. The decisive moment came six minutes later and Wayne Rooney’s improvisational finish should maybe soothe his confidence at a time when the United captain has admitted he is off form.
Rooney has now moved ahead of Denis Law to become the second outright highest scorer in United’s history, a dozen short of Sir Bobby Charlton’s 249, but his afternoon might still have been spoiled during a late spell of pressure from Swansea in the final exchanges. The game with finished with Lukasz Fabianski, the visiting goalkeeper, coming forward for a stoppage-time corner and heading the ball just wide of David de Gea’s post and it cannot be satisfactory that, 18 months after joining the club, Van Gaal is still experimenting with new formations and still a mile away from everything fully clicking.
His new system here took some working out, veering from 3-4-2-1 to 3-1-3-3 and back again, and it is no wonder sometimes if even his own players sometimes look bewildered. The football was leaden in the first half and, once again, there were times when an impatient crowd struggled to contain their frustrations.
In other parts of the game there was a brooding silence. Old Trafford is not enjoying what it sees and Van Gaal should probably be grateful that the crowd here is showing more restraint than he would have experienced at some of his former clubs. At Barcelona, it is easy to imagine how vigorously the panolada would have been fluttering.
If that sounds slightly harsh after a return to winning ways, then it cannot be understated how sterile United looked during the opening 45 minutes. At one point, the cameras turned to the area of seats where United’s directors. Sir Alex Ferguson was playing with his phone. A few seats along, the academy coach, Paul McGuinness, was reading the programme.
On the pitch, United were risk-free and lacking adventure and fortunate, perhaps, in the first half that Jon Moss, one of the more bewildering referees, gave Morgan Schneiderlin the benefit of the doubt after he had hooked an attempted clearance against his own hand.
Martial’s goal came two minutes into the second half with a downward header from Ashley Young’s cross and at that stage United’s crowd must have been encouraged by the fact their goals-against column at Old Trafford is the best in the league, with only three goals scored against them on their own ground. Yet the game changed when Alan Curtis brought on Modou Barrow for Leon Britton just after the hour.
It was Barrow’s cross, having eluded the half-time substitute Matteo Darmian, that led to Sigurdsson looping a header over De Gea for the equaliser. Swansea could also reflect on André Ayew’s header striking the post when the score was 1-0 but United, on the balance of play, did create the better chances and kept their nerve in the late stages.
Rooney’s goal came from Martial’s low centre and that strike, elegantly flicked though his own legs, spared Van Gaal another wave of scrutiny.