Manchester United picked up their first three points in the Champions League as they overcame a good Wolfsburg side on Wednesday night. Following their 2-1 defeat in Eindhoven, United found themselves a goal behind after less than five minutes but restore parity through a Juan Mata penalty in the first half, before Chris Smalling scored the winner soon after the break.
However, it was far from for United and here’s five talking points from last night.
1) The Special Juan
In his first campaign at Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal transformed Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young from pantomime villains into pivotal figures in his side. This season the Dutchman seems to have repeated the trick with Juan Mata.
The Spaniard was instrumental against Wolfsburg, as he won and scored the penalty that clinched United’s equaliser and provided the assist for Chris Smalling’s winner. Mata’s impact, however, was bigger than numbers reveal, as every attacking move seemed to go through him during a first half in which he picked out his teammates with sumptuous passes and proved to be a constant thorn in the visitors’ side.
Earlier this week, Mata revealed United were coming to terms with Van Gaal’s methods. Four goals and four assists in the first two months of the season surely back up the statement, as the Spaniard looks as more inspired than he’s ever looked since arriving at Old Trafford.
2) United depend on Smalling
United’s defensive frailties have been well documented and, at times, ruthlessly exposed this season. One has to wonder the fate their back four would have suffered this season had it not been for Chris Smalling.
On Wednesday night, the England international showed the kind of mercurial form that has made him arguably the Premier League’s best defender so far this season. Composed on the ball, covering up the right areas when off it, Smalling looks an incredibly more accomplished than he ever did at any stage of his career.
While he might not be as vocal as some of his predecessor, the former Fulham man is developing into the sort of leader United’s rearguard need and he even scored the winner against Wolfsburg.
At the same time, the lack of defensive options at Van Gaal’s disposal means an injury to Smalling could have drastic repercussions.
3) The Rooney conundrum continues
Having brought his Premier League drought to an end on Saturday, many hoped Wayne Rooney could embark on the kind of goalscoring streak he’s become renowned for. Unfortunately for United, not only did the England captain not find the net, he also conjured to deliver arguably his worst performance of the season.
Sluggish in possession, utterly abysmal off the ball, Rooney was lucky not to be substituted, as he looked increasingly like the paltry imitation of the footballer he was once was, wasting a glorious chance to draw United level midway through the first half.
Not even playing alongside Mata and Anthony Martial seems to be enough to rescue the soon-to-be 30-year-old from the mediocrity that’s engulfed him for the best part of the last three seasons and one has to wonder how long it will be until Van Gaal drops him.
4) Martial rules
He might be only 19 years of age, he might not have scored often for Monaco and he might be the most expensive teenager in world football, but Anthony Martial is the real deal.
In his first Champions League game at Old Trafford, the Frenchman displayed all the qualities United fans have grown to love since he joined the club on deadline day, as Martial gave Dante an absolute torrid time.
The former Bayern Munich defender, who won the trophy with the Bavarian giants, could not cope with the Frenchman’s speed and footwork and while Martial failed to find the net, he again looked like the sort of exciting striking option United had desperately lacked.
Van Gaal described the former Monaco as a man for the future but Martial is very much a man for the present.
5) Valencia is not a right-back
Luke Shaw’s injury has forced Van Gaal to reshuffle his back four, with the United manager opting to move Matteo Darmian in Shaw’s role and deploy Antonio Valencia at right-back.
However, while the plan might work against clubs languishing at the bottom of the table in the Premier League, it is likely to come undone against teams in the Champions League, for Valencia lacks the positional awareness of a proper right-back.
Against Wolfsburg, the former Wigan man failed to step up alongside the rest of United’s backline, as the Germans took an early lead. Daniel Caligiuri would have been onside anyway, but the mistake highlighted Valencia’s shortcomings when deployed in such a crucial position and Van Gaal’s decision to replace him at half-time with Ashley Young was an ominous sign for the Ecuador international.