Much as they did after going behind in the first leg, United produced the kind of football that has so far eluded them in Europe, showing the kind of fluidity and clinical approach up-front that has too often been missed in the first three Premier League games.
Here’s five things we’ve learned from last night…
1) Ander Herrera must start
Having been frozen out for large spells of last season before impressing when given the chance, Ander Herrera was again left watching from the sidelines earlier this season, as Louis Van Gaal struggled to find a spot for him.
Handed his first state of the season against Brugge, the Basque produced the kind of performance that has endeared him to United fans and made Van Gaal’s decision to omit him from the starting XI so often even more inexplicable.
Initially deployed alongside Michael Carrick, Herrera was comfortable enough but once he was pushed further forward in the second half that he took the game by the scruff of its neck, dictating the play, splitting Brugge’s defence, setting up United’s second and scoring his side’s fourth goal.
With Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger capable to play in front of the back four with Carrick, Van Gaal can afford to deploy Herrera alongside Memphis and Juan Mata behind Wayne Rooney. United’s season could be so much better for it.
2) The real Juan
Not only did Herrera stake a claim for a spot in the starting XI, but his performance in the second half allowed Juan Mata to occupy his favourite number 10 position. Deployed as right-winger in the first 45 minutes, the former Chelsea man was allowed to drift inside, once Van Gaal replaced Adnan Januzaj and pushed Herrera forward.
Mata’s lack of pace makes him easy to be exposed when he’s asked to play out wide but once he slotted in his favourite position, he pulled the strings as he had seldom done in a red shirt. Januzaj might have scored against Villa, but he’s offered little to convince he should start ahead of Herrera and, more importantly, that he should occupy Mata’s number 10 role.
The pass for Rooney’s third goal was a sight to behold.
3) Where now for Rooney?
Wayne Rooney has attracted a lot of criticism so far this season, as he had failed to score in his four appearances up until last night, stretching his goalless run to 10 games in all competitions. Against Brugge, however, the United captain rediscovered his goalscoring form in spectacular fashion, netting his first European hat-trick since the one he scored on his debut just over 10 years ago.
Rooney’s first and third goal were well-taken finishes that exuded the confidence he seemed to have lost earlier in the season. The 30-year-old will, of course, face much sterner test than Brugge this season but Van Gaal’s perseverance with him, whether borne out of conviction or necessity, might still pay its dividends.
4) Options on the bench
Among the furore that surrounded United’s signing this summer, it has been easy to lose focus on the fact that while the new arrivals have improved the starting XI, they’ve also added some much needed depth to Van Gaal’s squad.
On Wednesday night, the United manager had the luxury of leaving a £25m signing unused on the bench and brought on a World Cup winning midfielder and United’s best outfield player of last season.
With United back in Europe – and with an hopefully long run in domestic cups – Van Gaal will need to rotate his squad to keep his men fresh and, unlike any United managers in the last five years, should have no concerns in doing so.
5) Another step forward
The jury is still very much out on Louis Van Gaal’s tenure at Manchester United. The Dutchman’s detractors accuse him of forcing United to implement a style of football too rigid and not in line with the club’s tradition, while others point at the lack of return despite the £250m he’s spent on players in just over 12 months.
However, while both are valid points, Van Gaal has so far done what he was asked of him when he first took the job. He’s overhauled the squad and brought United back in the Champions League, while only the hardest of detractors would argue that the signs of improvements, small though they might be, are more and more frequent.
One feels that United’s ability to juggle European and domestic duties will go a long way in determining the outcome of the Dutchman’s spell at Old Trafford.