Louis van Gaal got out of jail on Saturday as Manchester United somehow found a way to win with a late own goal at Watford.
It’s been a feature of United under Van Gaal this season – not playing well but grinding out results and we’re continually told that is a good trait – but I cannot believe this United side, even with their star men fit, are good enough to make a tilt for the title.
With just over 20 minutes gone and with injury-hit United 1-0 up everything looked to be running smoothly for Van Gaal. Uncharacteristically the visitors had started like a train and it was no surprise when the returning Memphis Depay put them ahead.
But soon after Van Gaal was forced into an early change when Ander Herrera picked up an injury and Marcos Rojo replaced him with 25 minutes gone – a defender for an attacking midfielder and the pattern of the game turned on its head. United – in a 4-2-3-1 formation – were flying at that stage and dominating the game so Van Gaal’s change was strange.
With a large injury list restricting his experienced personnel options, Van Gaal’s hand was forced to a certain extent, but such was the manner in which United were on top you would have expected the Dutch boss to bring on Andreas Pereira. That would have been a straight swap with Herrera or he could have pushed Juan Mata infield and brought the 19-year-old Pereira on out wide to maintain their 4-2-3-1 line-up and their early dominance.
The Belgium-born attacking midfielder has yet to start a Premier League game and he’s made only two starts all season and you have to question Van Gaal’s faith in him and why even bother having him on the replacements list if you are more willing to change to a back three and opt to bring on Rojo, rather than making a like-for-like swap.
Against an attack-minded opponent Van Gaal may well have been justified in bringing on a defensive player, but Watford have been shot-shy at home and only scored in two of their six previous games at home. But in the end Van Gaal will point to the scoreline, however he definitely got away with it.
There’s no doubt Van Gaal thinks more defensively than offensively but against a side who average only 3.1 shots on target per game, United may have been better suited to try and kill off the Premier League newcomers rather than ultimately rely on a late own goal from Troy Deeney, which robbed the plucky hosts of a deserved point.
Still, Van Gaal and United will point to yet another clean sheet which takes them back to the top of the table, albeit temporarily if Arsenal or Manchester City win later in the day, and another crucial three points.
But in truth United were indebted to David de Gea – after he made a brilliant save in the second half – and Watford’s poor finishing. Twice Deeney fired straight at De Gea when well placed, while sandwiched between that was a save from De Gea which was quite simply brilliant.
Almen Abdi’s deflected close-range effort looked the equaliser all the way before De Gea dived down to his right to shovel the effort around the post – a save which earned United the points and masked Van Gaal’s incompetent early substitution.
Memphis on song
Van Gaal admitted he expected more of Memphis Depay when signing the Dutchman from PSV Eindhoven in the summer and he was certainly more like the player we all expected on Saturday.
With Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini missing through injury, Memphis was handed the central striking role – the first time he has started in the league since the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in early October – and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. His opening goal on 11 minutes was a classy side-foot finish from Herrera’s accurate cross and somewhat reminiscent of Rooney is his pomp.
Memphis, kept onside, floated in between Watford’s line of defenders and cushioned home the opener – not the mark of a striker badly out of form and lacking the right attitude, as we’ve been led to believe.
From there on in the £25million man, with just one league goal to his name before today, looked full of confidence. He cut inside and fired a shot goalwards which was kept out at the near post and then he spun away and played a neat reverse ball in to play in Jesse Lingard.
Van Gaal, asked if he had hoped for more from Depay before the game, said: “Of course, because otherwise he was still in the team. Otherwise I don’t look for another solution and I look for another solution in my team and I have kept Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira for example for that option and now he has to fight back and he does it, so I am satisfied.”
Memphis’ display was certainly one of the brightest points for Van Gaal, who will have a welcome problem once Rooney and Martial are both fit again.
It’s one of the old cliches in football that the strength of the bench is a real reflection of the strength of a team’s squad.
With that in mind United looked as poor as they have been for many a season at on Saturday lunchtime, but Louis van Gaal won’t be too concerned as his under-strength side returned north with an undeserved three points.
#mufc subs: Romero, Rojo, McNair, Darmian, Goss, Pereira, Rashford.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 21, 2015
United’s not so magnificent seven on the sidelines at Vicarage Road had just 50 Premier League starts between them and for youngsters Sean Goss and Marcus Rashford it was their first time on the first team subs list.
Poor old Pereira, scorer of a fabulous free-kick on his full debut against Ipswich earlier this season, must think his time will never come.