Manchester United marked their return to European football with a 3-1 win over Club Brugge last night, as goals from Memphis Depay and Marouane Fellaini put the Reds a step closer to returning to the group stages of the Champions League after last season’s absence.
Despite the result, however, things did not run as smoothly as some would have anticipated, as Brugge took an unexpected early lead and looked threatening in the first half. However, in the second 45 minutes, United stepped up a gear and produced the sort of football they had not delivered in the first two games of the season.
Here’s six key points from United’s return to Europe.
1. In Louis we trust
Over the first two games of the season, United looked like they were neither interested nor capable of playing fast, expansive football. They clearly have a solid foundation, although Sergio Romero and Daley Blind may not be long term solutions, but lacked that cutting edge. Last night, however, showed that quick, exciting football is on the horizon when it is required and when Louis Van Gaal likes to say they “have found their match rhythm”. However, don’t expect this every week, for it is physically unsustainable with the squad they currently have, while LVG will always ensure solidity and a victory comes before flair, risk and performance.
2. Memphis steals the show
Last night the Dutchman dusted away the cobwebs that have hung around OT for the past two seasons. It was a fresh, zippy and arrogant performance – all qualities that have been majorly lacking recently. The Ronaldo comparisons have inevitably started, but Memphis’ shot and crossing accuracy is far superior to that the Portuguese showed when he first came onto the scene.
To surpass Ronaldo’s achievements at United will be a tall order but Memphis has made good start and has the same swagger Ronaldo and is always looking to improve, which will take him and United far.
Of course, he is young but he clearly has the desire to capability to take this on. Barca have set their team up around Lionel Messi for the past six, seven seasons – allowing him to become the best in the world.
While that by no means signifies that Memphis is even half as talented as the Argentine, United could do worse than building the team around the Dutchman in the final third of the pitch. Wayne Rooney has never had this luxury and probably could have achieved more, which sounds ridiculous when one looks at his record but perfectly plausible when one analyses his recent slump in form.
Time to make Memphis the main man.
3. The atmosphere was disappointing
Bearing in mind Champions League football had been absent for a season, a more encouraging atmosphere wouldn’t have gone amiss, particularly given what was, and is, at stake over two legs. A flat atmosphere as we’ve seen too often at Old Trafford and six players making their Champions League debut the crowd did little to ease their nerves. In contrast, the away end was rocking and made themselves heard throughout the game, as United’s superb away support will surely do next week.
As last season showed, the Champions League can never be taken for granted and one can only hope the atmosphere will improve when United reach the group stages.
4. Smalling has really stepped up to the plate
For the past two seasons, few positions have given United managers as big a headache as the centre-back role. However, Chris Smalling has stepped up to the plate so far this season, proving himself capable to be the sort of commanding figure United have desperately needed. An understanding with more cultured Blind has seen a solid partnership develop this season, for while the Dutchman lacks pace, he is a good reader of the game and exudes calm on the ball. Tougher tests against top 4 opposition and the limited recovery between Champions League Premiership games will show if the pairing can be relied upon throughout the season.
5. Carrick looks spent
It wasn’t just the own goal, which was more clumsy than unfortunate, but the all-round performance of Michael Carrick that left the impression of a player still short of his best.
The 34-year-old was arguably United’s most influential figure last season and Louis Van Gaal admitted his side struggled enormously when the former Spurs man was out injured in the final two month of the campaign, but the Geordie has looked like a spent force so far this season.
The pass for Memphis’ first goal was a reminder of just how important Carrick is for the team but it would be surprising to see a fully-fit Bastian Schweinsteiger being kept on the bench much longer. If the German is still short of match fitness, it could be worth to give Ander Herrera a go, as Carrick, who is a renowned slow starter, clearly needs a rest.
6. Fellaini can be a good impact sub
Last season, long balls to Marouane Fellaini got United over the line in terms of Champions League qualification. However, it seemed his services could be deemed surplus to requirement given the fine midfield additions, while Van Gaal was left particularly irked by the Belgian’s dismissal at Hull on the last day of last season.
And yet, the Belgian’s strength and presence look set to be a threat this season after last night’s display and he could cut himself a role as an impact sub, given the way he reinvigorates the teams energy level, livens the crowd and is clearly horrible to play against.
Andy Sargeant (@)