Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday has done little to disguise the problems that continue to plague Louis van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford.
A Kieran Gibbs own-goal and a late Wayne Rooney strike was enough to secure United’s first away triumph of the season and move them up to fourth in the Barclays Premier League.
However, the result was more due to a profligate showing from Arsene Wenger’s men than any scintillating brilliance from Van Gaal or his charges, and the Dutchman must be counting down the days until the January transfer window swings open.
United’s injury woes continued as Luke Shaw was forced to withdraw early on, leaving a backline of youngsters Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett under the stewardship of the much-maligned Chris Smalling.
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were once again deployed as wing-backs while Robin van Persie was anonymous on the right-hand side of a front three, leaving Van Gaal to do some head-scratching as he tries to extract the best from the forlorn striker.
Shaw joins Radamel Falcao, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Rafael, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans on the treatment table, although the rejuvenated Michael Carrick and man-of-the-match David De Gea will give the United manager a smidgen of optimism for the future.
On Saturday Rooney’s 85th minute goal was the first time the 20-time league champions had registered an attempt on target, and they were under the proverbial cosh for long periods of the game.
Employing a 3-4-3 system, which more often than not manifested into a 5-2-3, Carrick and Marouane Fellaini sat in front of the defence and added much needed steel to a United side quite obviously set up to operate on the counter attack.
Van Gaal’s conservative tactics are a far cry from the Ferguson days when United played with an arrogance that disregarded such things as home advantage.
The visitors only saw 39% of the ball throughout the match, with their opponents firing off 23 efforts at De Gea’s goal.
The Spaniard was superb between the sticks after recovering from a dislocated finger sustained on international duty, and has developed into one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the country.
Yet, while the 24-year-old and his defenders did their best impersonation of a sponge in soaking up waves of Arsenal pressure, the hosts should have been out of sight well before Gibbs sliced into his own net.
Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all guilty of missing chances, with the Gunners now having triumphed just once in the previous 15 meetings between the two great rivals.
Olivier Giroud’s sublime injury-time strike did nothing to change this statistic, but it did offer a strong reminder to his manager and teammates of what they have been missing in his enforced absence.
Arsenal’s 17 points from the first 12 games is their worst start to a campaign in 32 years, and United’s victory is tempered by the realisation that defeating the North London club does not hold the same significance as it has in past seasons.
Arsenal should have won this game – they missed a plethora of chances, dominated possession, and were up against a side with one first choice defender.
Wenger has lamented his side’s defensive naivety as they frantically sought to turn their territorial dominance into goals, although their cause was hampered by injuries to Wojciech Szczesny and the wonderfully talented but frustratingly immature Wilshere.
The England international’s lack of restraint in ‘squaring up’ to Fellaini was laughable, and shows he still has a long way to go before becoming as good as many think he is (although that is a debate for another time and place).
A refreshingly dogged performance from the oft-forgotten Carrick was not enough to detract attention away from Van Persie’s woeful showing, with the United front man completing just two passes in 75 minutes of football.
Van Gaal is faced with the prospect of finding a place in the starting line up where his compatriot can contribute to the team without throwing any of his toys out the pram, while there is still a Roy Keane-sized vacancy in midfield that requires filling.
Top of the manager’s Christmas list would be the arrival of a dominant centre back, but this United squad is a work in progress and the win over Arsenal demonstrates things are going in the right direction.
Van Gaal will joyfully welcome the three points, as before the weekend United had been experiencing their worst start to a season since 1989-90. Maybe David Moyes wasn’t doing such a bad job after all…
Main image courtesy of BBC via YouTube, with thanks.