The last time I wrote my Review of the Week the content was almost exclusively negative. The defeat at Swansea City, following on from the home draw with Newcastle United, had exposed the weaknesses of both the squad and the philosophy to date of manager Louis Van Gaal. With 8 league goals in 10 games stretching into the back end of last season, this team was both ineffective and boring. United fans can cope with one of the two, even if they don’t like it, as Sir Alex’s final title winning side demonstrated. We might grumble a bit, but when push comes to shove the most important thing is winning. If we can’t win then let’s at least entertain. In the fortnight after the game in Wales the murmurs of discontent from the most disgruntled were spreading to even the most patient. United, compact and conservative were less fun than watching a fresh dog t*rd dry. With a declining Wayne Rooney gallumping around up front to little effect and with the flapping Romero in goal, United had footballing gastro-enteritis, stinking bile pouring out at both ends.
Watching the first half of the Liverpool game on Sunday it would be hard to find any evidence of change, even if David De Gea had been restored to the lineup after a remarkable fortnight. With his transfer to Real Madrid having fallen through, he could have acted like a smacked ar*e, but all indications are that he was always professional throughout the saga. He was well received by the United fans inside Old Trafford, or at least a good proportion. Footballers don’t always leave their clubs for the most palatable of reasons, but it was difficult to knock the Spaniard’s desire to move back home, close to his girlfriend and family. Not only is he staying but he also signed a new four year deal, about which he provided the official club website with some ridiculously transparent patter about how United are the best place for the next stage of his development. I’m not naive enough to imagine that the new contract is anything other than a tool for him to get his move at some point, be lavishly well paid in the meantime and to play to cement his position as Spain’s first choice Number 1 at Euro 2016. But, whatever the events that led to his staying, having another year of him between the sticks is as valuable to United as it is for him. Perhaps by luck and design the best goalkeeper in the world remains at Old Trafford and the club has safeguarded his future sale value. Everyone, it appears, is a winner.
Even with De Gea back in the side, not much appeared to change on Sunday. Rooney, injured in training, was absent, exposing United’s remarkable paucity of striking options. His replacement was Marouane Fellaini who, unsurprisingly given that he isn’t a striker, plodded around without causing a defensive and desperately poor Liverpool side a moment’s trouble. United did what they do, particularly against teams who defend en-masse in their own final third, and neatly but agonisingly slowly moved the ball from side to side with no penetration whatsoever. It was grim. It was a grim game. Zero shots on target, for both sides.
At half time, social media was awash with United fans disgusted by a passionless, turgid half against their bitter rivals, a side who were there for the taking. It was possibly the worst Liverpool team I can recall visiting Old Trafford. Van Gaal made a smart call and swapped the struggling Memphis for Ashley Young, to immediate effect. Soon after the restart, Young was fouled and United scored from a set piece, the only way they were going to net even if they’d played for a week. It was a goal beautifully executed by Juan Mata and Daley Blind and it brought the match to life. With the visitors having to open up, suddenly there was space to play, and so began forty minutes that were the antithesis of what had come before. Next there was Herrera’s penalty, awarded after a foul following a filthy slide-rule pass from Carrick, and then Benteke’s absurd over-head kick. Oof. Breathless stuff.
By this time Van Gaal had brought on £70 trillion new signing Anthony Martial, who half of Fleet Street and most bitter old pros had written off before he’d touched a ball. By 7.15 many of them looked right t*ts, as the Frenchman’s wonder-goal ended the game. It was a thing of perfect beauty, a type of goal we haven’t seen since Ronaldo left United. Martial wore pink boots. As far as I’m concerned he’s allowed, but woe betide any other footballer who does so. Those pink boots danced through Liverpool’s tiring back line, taking out three defenders, and slid the ball past Simon Mignolet. Pandemonium. PANDEMONIUM. More pandemonium than I can recall since Evra’s thunder-bast*rd in Munich. Happy days.
At full time Louis Van Gaal looked as he does after wins, internally weighing up whether or not to eat himself on the spot, and declared, rather strangely, that his team had been better in the dreadful first half than the exhilarating second, reinforcing the extent to which possession and control are preferable to chaos and joy. Whilst we can revel in the adrenaline rush that constituted the second half, it is most likely that at Southampton the team will revert back to their introverted selves.
On the one hand, therefore, all of the problems remain. You’d imagine that Rooney or Fellaini will start up front, with Martial being protected and used as an impact substitute, raw pace against tiring legs. Most opposition teams will sit deep, exposing United’s Achilles heal, breaking down compact, disciplined teams. However, I prefer not to think about that just yet, as we have a tricky Champions League tie in Eindhoven to negotiate first. More importantly we should all take time to bathe in the positivity of the last two weeks. Not only did we keep our world class goalkeeper, but his future and his value to the club as an asset have both been protected. Van Gaal overcame his own stubbornness and immediately reintroduced De Gea in the club’s biggest game of the season so far and made changes during the game which were timely and decisive. It took a set-piece goal to open up the match, but from there United exposed Liverpool’s greater adventure as they chased an equaliser. Then enter, stage left, Anthony Martial, who lit up Old Trafford and flicked the bird to the assembled press. The full backs, Darmian and Shaw were again magnificent, as was Daley Blind. But the most important player on the pitch, by a mile, was Bastian Schweinsteiger, an absolute Rolls Royce of a footballer. Sheer class, for only £6m. The Scousers were beaten again, an event which should postpone any introspection. All that matters is defeating them and, as Martin Tyler exclaimed as the 19 year old Martial slid the ball home, “YES! WELCOME TO MANCHESTER UNITED, ANTHONY MARTIAL!”. Welcome indeed.