The international breaks are usually purgatory for devotees of club football, particularly when the best part of a fortnight is taken up by friendly games. These periods are either absolute torture if your club side goes into them with a defeat or tolerable if they are preceded with by a win. Given the paucity of anything approaching competent football in United’s 20 months under Louis Van Gaal it’s a strange quirk that more often than not his side have gone into these breaks on the back of a pretty tidy result. Twice Liverpool have been vanquished, with two weeks to revel in the temporary dominance over our Scouse brethren. Last weekend, however, few were confident of a contented two weeks away from Premier League action. When you have one away win in ten and most recently lost heavily at Anfield and tepidly at West Brom it’s hard to get to giddy about an approaching visit to the Etihad.
What we didn’t count on, perhaps partially because we rated Pellegrini’s side on the basis of what they should be and have been before as opposed to what they are now (a team which had lost as many games as United and as many games at home as they had in the previous four years), was a lacklustre City performance lacking in tempo and desire and a rare occasion when Van Gaal got his tactics spot on. The key battle was, of course, Marcus Rashford against the liability of all liabilities Martin Demichelis. Regardless of his marker’s shortcomings, Rashford’s goal was a thing of beauty, the sort of burst of pace and power and cool finish that we’ve come to expect from the Argentine striker at the other end of the pitch, Sergio Aguero. There is little more satisfying in this world than watching a Mancunian score the winner in The Derby, particularly at their gaff. Happy days.
Van Gaal also moved Jesse Lingard infield to the number ten position, from where he drove United on through midfield, exposing the rickety City back four. Morgen Schneiderlin had perhaps his best game in a United shirt, whilst Anthony Martial continued to impress. Remarkably, given the regularity with which he’s been expected to keep the attacking hordes at bay, David De Gea made only one save of note. City misfired and more and more resemble an ageing, listless bunch who have lost the desire that drove them to their first two Premier League titles. Aguero always gives his all, but his teammates so often give the impression that they are bored and need a new challenge. Perhaps Guardiola will offer them that, or eject them from a large cannon into the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty who could have few complaints. There has been much discussion recently about whether Van Gaal has bought poorly at United, and there is some merit to that argument, but City have been equally as frivolous with their money. Wilfried Bony and Eliaquim Mangala have been two appalling pieces of business, whilst the jury is very much out on the likes of Navas, Otamendi, Sagna and Fernando. Regardless, whilst he will take over at a model club, Guardiola will have a lot of work to do to upgrade his squad.
So United triumphed, but it all felt a little hollow. The atmosphere in the stadium was subdued, the low level din sounding like a well attended village fete rather than a vitally important Premier League game. We’d won and yet it felt like nothing more than a one-off, rather than a gathering of momentum or launchpad to better things. We’ve been here so many times before in the cycle of LVG, brief highs which raise hopes and expectations, only for it all to come crashing down the following week against inferior opposition. The manager can set a team up to play against bold teams who are proactive and will have a lot of the ball. What he can’t deal with are teams who defend deep in numbers, are compact, press hard and break with pace. Teams have blown United away this season in a blur of energy and intensity. City barely broke sweat. Contrast the four meetings between United and Liverpool this season. Twice in the league they played low tempo game, meat and drink to Van Gaal’s rigid tactical plan. Twice they lost. Fast forward to the Europa League ties, and a frenzied, passionate, driven Liverpool murdered United at Anfield. In the return leg they again took the game to United and could have been ahead before Anthony Martial’s penalty opened the tie up. But Liverpool continued to be positive and perhaps should have beaten their uninspired hosts on the night.
It is hard, therefore, to get too excited about the next league game, at home to Everton, who have lost only once away this season. They are happy to take the game to teams on the road and have a strong, pacey forward line. The back four are susceptible, but United will have to be more varied and less predictable than they have been at home for much of the season. It would be typical of this United to win at City, lose the next home game, plod along poorly for several weeks before producing another decent performance which gives us all a grain of hope again.
This time needs to be different. It feels as if it is already too late for Van Gaal to save his job. It should be. Very few can stomach the thought of another twelve months of unimaginative, soulless football. But perhaps he can rescue a crumb of dignity by getting United into the Champions League and/or win the FA Cup. West Ham stand in the way on both fronts and are the form side in the battle for top four. The Cup quarter final replay, to be played under lights, will be last of its kind at Upton Park. The noise inside an already atmospheric stadium will be extremely tasty, the same sort of breathless frenzy which United have struggled so desperately to overcome away from home this season. Let’s hope this time will be different.
For now, however, we have another week to bathe in the modest afterglow of a win at City, however low key it felt, and to smile at the continued development of an unexpected star. Screw England or Ireland or Wales or whatever your national team flavour, this week is about Marcus Rashford.