Manchester United laboured to a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace to move up to sixth position in the fledgling Premier League table. Substitute Juan Mata’s second half strike was enough to seal all three points for the Red Devils who had previously gone three games without a win. The result is Louis Van Gaal’s fourth victory in 12 competitive games as manager, with all four coming at Old Trafford.

If the Dutchman can improve United’s away form in the coming months, they will be in a fantastic position to break back into the top four. Despite a poor start, they have benefitted from other teams faltering in the early stages this season, with Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton all struggling in mid-table and next opponents’ Arsenal sitting just one place above them after their defeat to Swansea on Sunday.

It may have been quite a difficult start to the Van Gaal era but there are plenty of signs that things are starting to come together. Here are five key thoughts after the victory against Palace this weekend.

Three points were all that mattered

Following good displays against West Brom, Chelsea and Manchester City but only coming away with a total of two points due to stupid individual defensive errors, the three points were a necessity this weekend. It did not matter how United were able to get them, as long as they did. It may not have been a pretty win but the 1-0 success brought three welcome points as United’s rivals faltered this weekend.

Winning this way is very satisfying. United have been known for winning ugly in the past and that is exactly what happened here. The Red Devils will certainly play better than they did on Saturday and even did in the last few games but this way is much better than playing well but failing to win. The clean sheet came as a welcome boost too, particularly with the well-documented defensive problems in mind.

Michael Carrick has been missed

After picking up an unfortunate injury in pre-season, Michael Carrick’s return has been an extremely timely one. Despite coming on at centre half in the Manchester derby, Carrick was given a chance in his preferred holding midfielder role on Saturday with Daley Blind dropping back into the back four. Carrick’s class shone through as he controlled the game from his deep role and gave the makeshift defence fantastic protection.

The England international is an expert at reading the game and knowing where danger is coming from. Carrick was able to win the ball back and intercept Palace attacks throughout as well as dictating the tempo of the game when in possession. What Carrick is deceptively good at is knowing when to play that quick pass through the oppositions’ defensive lines. He offers United extra calmness and his experience will be vital to Van Gaal’s plans for the rest of the season.

Paddy McNair deserves to keep his place

Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Marcos Rojo’s injuries combined with Chris Smalling’s stupid sending off last week meant 19-year-old Paddy McNair had to start alongside the left-footed Blind at centre back. Barring one momentary lapse in the first half, which saw former-United striker Fraizer Campbell miss a sitter, McNair put in a stellar defensive performance to help his side pick up a much-needed clean sheet.

Alongside the excellent Blind, McNair hardly put a foot wrong. The Northern Irishman did everything he needed to, clearing any danger that came his way and even playing the ball out of defence expertly. At times, you forgot he was so young and fresh out of the academy. McNair deserves to retain his place in the side ahead of Smalling after the international break because his performances this season have earned him that opportunity.

Januzaj disappoints but he needs to be given time

It was a difficult day for both of United’s wingers, particularly Adnan Januzaj, who has started United’s last four games without impressing too much. He may have been one of United’s stars during David Moyes’ short reign but he has so far failed to find that sort of form during the early days of the Van Gaal era.

Januzaj was deployed on the right wing but was unable to find a way past Palace full-back Joel Ward. When he did pick up the ball in a dangerous area, Januzaj often slowed down play when United were building some sort of tempo. It was a day where width was key for United as Palace packed central areas in front of their own box but the Belgian failed to have a significant impact and was correctly substituted for Mata. Januzaj is still a huge prospect and his time will come but he must improve on his recent displays quickly.

That goal is just what Juan Mata needed

Juan Mata has come under criticism for some lacklustre displays this campaign but his winner has, perhaps temporarily, silenced some of those critics. Mata has a decent individual record at United but certain games have definitely passed him by. Despite this, it is great to have such a talented player to turn to on the bench and the Spaniard proved that he has plenty to offer Van Gaal this season.

Julian Speroni may feel that he could have done better with Mata’s drive from the edge of the box but it was sweetly struck from the Spaniard. The goal will do him the world of good and give him confidence to push on and find the form which saw United splash almost £40million on him in January. It remains to be seen whether he has a long term future at Old Trafford but Mata is without doubt a huge talent and a match-winner.