Looking back over the most successful United teams of the last three decades they all had several characteristics in common. Having brilliant players is obviously one, but it’s what those players did that made them so effective. Fergie’s title winning teams were mostly defensively competent, but it is what they did in attacking areas that made them special. Firstly, there were always players who could run very very fast, both with the ball and without it. Think Giggs, Kanchelskis, Ronaldo, Nani etc. Beating defenders creates space and draws other defenders out of position, leaving space for teammates. It’s simple but effective, and often rather exhilarating to watch.
But having players who are really really fast and can beat a defender is only of use if it’s combined with intelligence and end product. Antonio Valencia can run really really fast, but beating his full-back and knee-capitating his teammates isn’t much use. Perhaps the greatest wooshy United player of them all, Cristiano Ronaldo, had to learn that intelligence before making the transformation from a kid who often made the most mild-mannered Red want to fuzz their TV’s into the sea to an efficient and deadly all-round forward. Like Nani should have, but didn’t, costing hard-working folk hundreds of pounds in replacement telebox fees.
Even then, pace and intelligence will only be fully exploited if others in attack can escape the attention of their markers and utilise the space others have created. To do so requires constant movement, drawing players out of position and creating confusion as to who should be marking who and in what areas. All of the most effective United forward lines had perfected that art: Hughes and Cantona, Yorke and Cole, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez. Get all of these elements right and you’ll be close to unstoppable.
Unfortunately, this season, Van Gaal’s side appeared unable to perfect any of them. Solidity at the back has rarely been complemented by attacking flair, movement, pace or intelligence. Rooney has lumbered around in areas easy to defend, Mata lacks the pace to open up defences in wide areas and the man with that pace, Memphis Depay, has struggled to make any use of it. United have been predictable and relatively easy to defend against, with the exception of that mature and devastating performance at Everton. Perhaps the man who made most difference that day was Ander Herrera, Van Gaal’s one midfielder with the intelligence and movement to make things happen. Sadly his manager has been rather myopic with his little genius and has often opted for solidity over creativity. Boo.
The only glimmer of hope has been Anthony Martial. He’s 19. He can run fast, dribble, has great movement and appears not to possess any emotions whatsoever. He feels like more of a Marvel superhero than a footballer. CAPTAIN GAULOIS. Or something. Anyway, he’s magic.
Unfortunately, at Watford on Saturday CAPTAIN GAULOIS was missing, injured, as were half of his teammates. Double boo. That meant a return from the naughty step for Memphis Depay, starting his first game as a striker at United. Van Gaal, clearly feeling under the weather, decided to play Jesse Lingard as a second forward. Mon dieu! With Herrera behind them this felt more than a little different to the wretched norm. And it was, as United started in a blur of perpetual motion. Lingard has been a revelation since being given his chance, and whilst he wasn’t at his best at Vicarage Road his pace, intelligence and movement create space for others. Depay’s markers couldn’t work out where the Dutchman was half the time, particularly as he converted a beautifully flighted first-time cross from Herrera. Oof.
Considering that United have struggled to muster more than two or three shots on target per match this season, this was madness. There were shots. Lots of shots. And lots of nearly shots too. And a few would have been shots if the ball had just been a couple of inches closer to someone’s foot. This was fun. I think. I can’t quite remember what fun football should look like, but I think this was it. People were running fast and beating players and moving and passing intelligently and quickly. Watford were screwed. The second and third would surely soon come.
Except they didn’t, because doing everything perfectly was a little too much to ask. After a half-time interval in which I’m pretty sure Louis Van Gaal didn’t tell his players to stop running fast and moving and stuff, they eased off with the running fast and moving and stuff and Watford started creating chances. Thankfully, at the time at least, United also had CAPTAIN ESPANA and CAPTAIN GREENWICH to parry, save and block. Phew.
But the ‘not scoring a second’ thing was getting a bit annoying. That way late equalisers lie. And, of course, it did, and a thousand more TVs went into the sea. When United fail, Wonga win. How very, very irritating. But wait, all was not lost. In a manner we haven’t seen since Fergie told us to ‘get behind’ David Moyes, United came roaring back, laying siege to the Watford penalty area. Alas, surely it would be too late.
But no. Pereira, youth team graduate, cut the ball back to Lingard, a youth team graduate, whose shot was palmed away from the goal by Gomes. The ball fell to CAPTAIN DEUTSCHLAND, who cost £6m (£6m!), and the German DemiGod drove the ball across goal, where Troy Deeney, sliding desperately to make the block, only succeeded in turning the ball and himself into Watford’s net. PANDEMONIUM. A German who has won almost everything there is to win in the game set off on a crazed half-lap of a patch of grass in Hertfordshire, roaring and grinning as if it was the first time he’d ever contributed to a winning goal. Between that and his inordinately brilliant tweeting habits you’d think he were a teenager living a dream. Perhaps it is because he is vicariously living his brother’s. Who cares. It’s ace. After 17 months Fergie time has at last become Louis time, and a million United fans ran to the beach to see of their TVs could be salvaged from the waves. When United win, Wonga loses.
There are a number of observations from Saturday’s game which should be noted. Firstly, this was another prod in the eye for those in the media and fanbase who have continually derided Van Gaal and United for their supposed move away from giving chances to academy graduates. The manager stated in his first press conference that if a young player is good enough he will get chances to impress, regardless of age. At the final whistle at Vicarage Road amongst those celebrating in red shirts were Lingard, Pereira and McNair. All three have, at some point in the last 17 months been given chances and have taken them. In the case of Lingard in particular, his was not an example of injuries requiring use. The alternatives were simply not working and Van Gaal saw something in him which his current wide options were not offering. It is a level of faith which has been rewarded by the player. If the academy produces players of sufficient quality, the manager will use them.
It was also notable just how dominant and secure a midfield of CAPTAIN DEUTSCHLAND and THE SCHNEIDER’TING can be. The Frenchman, in particular, has improved markedly since his Wolfsburg horror-show and we are now seeing the leadership, solidity and progressive passing which made him such a success at Southampton. (The) AVENGERS (are) ASSEMBLED.
The Watford win also reopened the debate about Wayne Rooney. In his absence Memphis used his pace and movement to stretch the Watford defence, always playing the game facing forwards and being positive on the ball. Martial offered similar drive in his short and prolific spell up front, before he was moved wide to accommodate Rooney. The Englishman, in contrast, so often plays with his back to goal, drops deep to gain possession and removes the fear opposition defences have of playing a high line. He creates congestion and the sort of massed defences that United have found so hard to break down.
The question is whether, if he is recovered from illness, CAPTAIN CROXTETH will return against PSV, and at whose expense? I suspect we know the answer to the first part of that question. The fall guy is anyone’s guess. But if it is Memphis or Lingard it will be a shame, because they can run fast and offer perpetual, intelligent movement. Without the injured Herrera the space that creates will be essential against a Dutch side who will look to defend compactly and try to snatch a goal. Saturday was tense but fun to watch. It demonstrated the seeds of a side which would be devastating were it more clinical. I want to see more of that side. I want more fun.
By the way, does anyone know the phone number for Wonga? I’m asking for a friend.