MANCHESTER, England – Slowly, the patterns are beginning to emerge. Nobody would claim this Manchester United is the finished article, but with each game this season, it has played with greater fluency. Memphis Depay, with two goals and the cross for the third goal, quite rightly took most of the plaudits after United’s 3-1 Champions League playoff first-leg win over Club Brugge on Tuesday, but that is only part of the story.
In some ways, what has been most impressive about United this season has been what was supposed to be the great weakness: the defense.
In three games United has conceded only once, and that Michael Carrick’s unfortunate own goal on Tuesday, slicing past his own goalkeeper after being wrong-footed as Victor Vazquez’s free kick took a deflection off Adnan Januzaj. In part that has been down to the fine form of Chris Smalling and Daley Blind in the center of defense, but it is also about the stricture of the team.
Blind lacks pace, height and upper-body strength and that means there will always be a thought that he could be exposed by a quick or powerful striker but, as yet, his reading of the game and United’s organization has more than compensated for that, even late in the win at Aston Villa after the powerful Rudy Gestede had come on. Smalling, meanwhile, has had an exceptional start to the season, radiating composure and authority to build on the impression he gave last year that he was beginning to develop into the defender he always threatened to be.
It’s helped that the back of United’s midfield is now arguably the strongest part of the side. Morgan Schneiderlin has been so smoothly integrated, his adaptation apparently so seamless, that after three games it already seems as though he’s bee a fixture for years. Carrick perhaps hasn’t been quite at his best–his own goal on Tuesday was part of a generally skittish start that included hitting a pass straight out play and hitting a dreadful backpass to Sergio Romero–but he’s been good enough, while Bastian Schweinsteiger’s entrances from the bench in all three games have brought greater control.
Both fullbacks have been excellent as well: Matteo Darmian is a defensive fullback in the best Italian tradition, robust, cynical and effective.
Whatever fitness issues Luke Shaw may have had last year are a thing of the past, as demonstrated by his forward surge down the right on Tuesday for the counterattack that led to Wayne Rooney flicking the ball back for Depay to blast over.
Which, surprisingly, leaves the biggest concern the forward line in general and Rooney in particular. Last season, van Gaal seemed convinced that Rooney was a midfielder–either an attacking one, as he has been seen for most of his career, or a deeper-lying one. This season, though, he has not only played him as a center forward, but after letting Robin van Persie and Radamel Falao leave, he has a dearth of other players who could occupy the role. A deal to bring Pedro from Barcelona still seems likely, but he is more of a wide forward than an out-and-out striker.
“I think all the media has written that for one year and advised me I have to put him in the striker's position,” said van Gaal, slightly bewilderingly–apparently referring to the questions that were asked last season when he fielded Rooney as a midfielder. "So it is very amazing that after you are doubting your own opinion, so I cannot understand that.
"We don't have only Wayne Rooney in the striker's position. We have Adnan. He played in the USA [on the preseason tour] in the striker's position. I have given him that chance and he has shown he can do that. We have Chicharito and we have [James] Wilson, so I don't think we have a lack of strikers.”
Rooney looked sharper against Brugge than he had either against Tottenham or Aston Villa, but Depay’s performance was the big positive.
“I wanted to kiss him tonight,” said Van Gaal.
More encouraging still is that last Friday it was Juan Mata and Januzaj who combined for the winner against Villa. A mutual understanding is beginning to develop and United offers a threat from across that line of three.
“In spite of the compactness of Brugge we created a lot of chances,” Van Gaal said, and he was entitled to be pleased.
Each game this season has brought a win and an improvement in performance. The team is almost visibly developing. If Rooney can shake off his early-season sluggishness, or if Chicharito can suddenly impose himself, or if another striker is signed, the future could be very bright indeed.