Maybe people have got Van Gaal all wrong. Maybe the whole idea is for his sides to look as clueless as possible and lull the opposition into a false sense of security before making an impact. It’d explain a lot. Or maybe the manager’s critics need to concede that, however unconvincing his sides look at times, they possess enough character and determination generally to get themselves out of whatever hole they’ve dug.
His side certainly dominated the early possession here without, it has to be said, much of an end product. With the industrious and much called-for Herrera alongside him in midfield, Di Maria was finding space and seeing a lot of the ball, though his attempts to play in the front men were consistently poorly executed. It wasn’t just the Argentinian, though. Whatever formation Van Gaal plays, it won’t work to full effect unless players move off the ball with more intelligence, and it took some time for anything resembling that to happen.
In other words, there wasn’t a lot wrong with United’s shape, except that it was too rigid. Rooney looked the best prospect of pulling the opposition out of position and it was no coincidence that the closest the Reds came to a first half chance was when he almost latched onto a long ball from Di Maria just before half-time. The captain was also denied moments later when he was tackled after almost being put in by Falcao.
If it was a sign that things were changing then they were, though not initially in the way the travelling supporters hoped. Preston came out from the second half and almost immediately took the lead, Davies laying off the ball to Laird whose shot deflected off Valencia’s foot and went through De Gea in a way nothing else has managed to do all season. It almost got worse as, from a long free kick, Clarke met the ball at the back post but failed to make the necessary contact. And, although United were beginning to up their levels of urgency by that point, it was Gardner who went closer to extending his side’s lead when his effort was saved by De Gea.
By then, United had brought on Young for Falcao and Fellaini had joined Rooney up front and seemed to have woken up. Not only that, they were playing in something discernible as an old-fashioned 4-4-2 with Di Maria suddenly looking far more at home running with the ball and cutting in from the right.
However, itt was Young who turned up on that side and eventually opened up the home defence, his ball into the area finding Herrera, who steered the ball home off the post. The copy of the offside laws they have at Deepdale must be about fifteen years out of date because the home side were protesting about Rooney, who didn’t get close to touching the ball, being in an offside position.
They were predictably much quieter when the referee failed to produce the second yellow that Kevin Davies, no stranger to such situations, clearly deserved a few minutes later. In any case, United responded and took the lead, Valencia’s cross from the right finding the head of Fellaini who, after his first effort was saved, made no mistake with his foot when the ball came back to him.
It wasn’t entirely plain sailing from there. Poor defending from Smalling and a shocking back pass from Valencia thankfully weren’t exploited by the home side. However, when Rooney sprung the defence and attempted to round the keeper, only to be upended in the area, he took the penalty himself and put the tie beyond question. Young was forced to clear off the line in stoppage time, but there was to be no second goal for Preston.
No excitement? I don’t know what Paul Scholes is talking about. It’s a roller-coaster, this. A roller-coaster that’s a bit rusty and looks like it might fall about at any point in the ride, admittedly. But then Uncle Aloysius comes along, tinkers a bit with it and we finish the ride all in one piece. At least for now.