After over 400 goalless minutes, Manchester United finally brought their scoring drought to an end against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Wayne Rooney’s goal in the 1-0 victory came after 79 minutes of breathless, relentless attacking football in which United sought a goal as desperately as an addict fiends for his drug of choice.
While many have prematurely predicted that the flood gates could now open for both club and scorer, United’s performance is more accurately likened to a drizzle than torrential rain and another goal-shy performance against West Bromich Albion on Saturday would be no surprise.
The team fielded by Louis van Gaal on Tuesday showed both tactical and technical changes; with Ashley Young installed at right back and academy product Jesse Lingard in midfield, and Juan Mata and Lingard granted the type of positional freedom seldom seen during the Dutchman’s tenure.
Van Gaal’s side also took many more calculated risks, with Young and left-back Macos Rojo bombing forward constantly and even breaking the opposition penalty area on occasion.
But for all the attacking freedom granted by their manager, United still struggled to put the ball in the net and it is unlikely that the same gung-ho approach will be applied in the Premier League or against one of Europe’s more established sides.
Though the performance is unlikely to the catalyst for United’s return to the summit of European football, it has, at least, highlighted the deficiencies in the team.
Rooney needs to roam
Football pundits and fans have been calling for Rooney to be reinstated as United’s number nine, at the apex of the team’s attack, since David Moyes’ ill-fated reign.
Van Gaal has obliged this season, but the move has not had the desired effect and Rooney has become a target for both fair and unfair criticism.
Though he is not solely responsible for the team’s lack of goals, Rooney must shoulder some of the blame and should either be dropped reinstalled in a position where he can better contribute.
The forward has always performed better when he is allowed the freedom to drop into midfield and influence build-up play.
Rooney’s creativity, work rate, movement, positioning and technical passing ability (rivaled by only Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger at Old Trafford) are the reasons why he was so often fielded in midfield by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Reinstalling Rooney in an advanced midfield role would provide United more options and bring an element of calculated directness to the team. His ability to slip through a final pass, skip a tackle, shoot and draw opposition players with clever movement would do well to help the Red Devils break down the stubborn, well-organised defences they are often stumped by in the Premier League.
Martial can be lethal
In his short time in England, Anthony Martial has already shown why there is merit in the comparisons to Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.
Martial has also shown exactly why he should be installed as United’s first choice front man. The striker’s pace, aerial presence, strength, finishing abilities and immaculate close control mean he is more qualified to take what few chances United manage to create in most games.
Unlike Rooney, the Frenchman also offers a threat at counterattacks – something that has been missing from United for several years now.
Set-piece goals are golden
Another aspect that United have lacked in recent years is any sort of consistent threat from free-kicks and corners.
Any team with designs on a major title, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern München included, needs to be able to score from set-pieces.
Whether they arrive via a Beckham-esque free-kick, a well-worked routine or a pin-point cross to the far post, set-piece goals become integral to success when goals from open play start to dry up.
On Tuesday, United attempted several different corner routines and showed signs that they can threaten from set-pieces (arguably for the first time this season). They must continue to improve this facet of their game to have any hope of challenging for trophies.
Develop depth out wide
United have already spent astronomical sums on transfers since the departure of Ferguson, but they still lack depth on the wings.
A resurgent Ashley Young has been the best performing wide midfielder this season, but cannot be the sole creative influence from the wings and has often been fielded in defence as well (and may continue to be).
The only other recognised winger in the first team is new signing Memphis Depay, who has failed to live up to his transfer fee and billing after some promising performances early on.
Mata has been a fixture on the right of midfield since the 2013/2014 season and although he often makes telling contributions, his lack of pace and dribbling ability make him an easy threat for top defenders to nullify.
Van Gaal has attempted to rectify the lack of speed and guile on the wings by fielding Martial on the left, dropping Young in at fullback to overlap on attack and bringing in Lingard.
Though all three ideas have their merits, United would be better off fielding Martial and Young where they are most dangerous (up-front and on the wing respectively), moving Mata back into a central position and testing other options on the right flank.
The good news
One of the biggest positives for United this season has been the major improvement in defense. Lead by Chris Smalling, who finally seems to be fulfilling his enormous potential, the club has gone 465 minutes without conceding a goal.
If Van Gaal can improve United’s attacking to the extent that he has improved the defence, United could yet challenge for trophies this season.