In the month that Andy Townsend peaked, we say: That’s better. And, well, it is: Manchester United have played at such a poor standard in the past 16 months that a run of wins — precisely three — is considered good progress, only slightly damning since they’d held aloft a Premier League title not too long before.
It does also say a lot that we’re welcoming the start of something, even in the knowledge that the actual something is still a long way away. Louis van Gaal, then, is lucky in that respect, perhaps aware that it wouldn’t take much to really get fans on his side (“We are still fourth so I am happy, but we have to be at least fourth at the end of the season, not now”). Just an indication, a start, will do for now. November hasn’t quite demonstrated what United should eventually look like, but it’s considerably better than the United we saw in October, September and August.
There was something particularly encouraging about all four games played in November, not excluding the one blemish results-wise in the defeat to Manchester City. There, United showed the kind of competitiveness that was often missing in the big games last season, refusing to take the hint even after a going a man down in the first half. Chris Smalling’s red card was followed by a frustrating, admittedly-comical injury to Marcos Rojo (comical if we consider the manner in which it immediately evoked the crocked Phil Jones), but United were well into the game until the final minute. Wayne Rooney finally showed some leadership qualities in his return from a three-match ban, but his failure to convert after a good solo run ultimately summed up the team’s shortcomings that afternoon. Nevertheless, 1-0 and in it at least isn’t 3-0 and out of it already.
From then, unlike the defensive situation, it looked more promising. United found the quality they needed from the bench via Juan Mata and beat Crystal Palace, digging deep after that; a makeshift back five at Arsenal dealt admirably with the constant charges at their goal, and won the game on the counter, with players like Marouane Fellaini, Angel di Maria and Rooney combining well; and at home to Hull City, United displayed the football that perhaps (just guessing over here) corresponded closest to the manager’s philosophy. The gradual improvement over the month is there for us to see, and, though many will point to the apparent weakness of the away side, the 3-0 defeat inflicted on Hull must go down as United’s best performance of the season. The ball was passed quickly in midfield, thanks largely to Spanish duo Ander Herrera and Mata (Van Gaal: “I have to say Herrera did fantastic”), and were almost always attacking so that the back line, featuring Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as right-back and left-back respectively, had little to do. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, recovered from possibly the worst performance of his career against his former club with one where he was involved throughout, lashing the third to mark a potential return to form.
Three successive victories and a discernible playing style emerging to end the month. Let us start as we ended, by quoting Andy Townsend: Get in.
Player of the month: Wayne Rooney, who should definitely make a habit of playing like this.
Ten years ago: November 2004 (’04/05): Ruud van Nistlerooy went goal crazy in November 2004, or just crazy, really. Seven goals, including four in one game against Sparta Prague, helped United to finally get their season going. The only points United dropped in the league was in a Manchester derby, much like this month, winning three others — much like this month. They came into December in 4th place, just like now! Will history repeat itself? (No.)
Reasons to be cheerful: Christmas is alright.