Wayne Rooney will grab the headlines with his critic-defying hat-trick, but it was the men who lined up behind him who enabled his display. For the first time this season, manager Louis van Gaal played his best midfield and the results favoured the front of the team greatly. The defence were left in worse shape though.
Tactically, United were much more inventive and dangerous moving forwards. Herrera brings that. Of all United’s players he is the most comfortable playing the ball into the forwards and taking risks. It almost meant that Wayne Rooney saw more of the ball and was able to do more with it. In previous games he has charged around the pitch looking for it. Not so in Belgium.
Carrick and Schneiderlein are safety-first operatives who keep possession at all costs. Van Gaal loves this as it fits his system perfectly. This could be part of the reason Herrera has been more of an outsider under the Dutchman.
It is interesting though that Van Gaal opted for a more positive selection and tactical set up in such an important game. Perhaps he truly does believe that fortune favours the brave.
He will be aware though that United were far more vulnerable at the back. Better teams than Brugge would have punished the travelling side for some of their lapses in concentration.
In particular, Daley Blind was left for dead at one point from a Brugge though ball that exposed his lack of fluency in the position. Blind and United have done brilliant this season, but there is a mitigating factor.
In every match so far, United have played a 4-2-3-1 formation with two midfielders protecting the back four and goalkeeper. Four clean sheets from five games and four victories justify that completely. It marks a change of direction though.
Van Gaal is on the record as saying his ideal formation is 4-3-3. Indeed, this has been the case at his previous clubs and has brought him much success. Without two natural centre-backs though, the pragmatist in Van Gaal is playing more defensively. Perhaps missing out on Sergio Ramos was more important than he let on.
United are in fine shape as they head to Swansea in the Premier League this Sunday and will be buoyed by this comfortable victory. Whilst it is great news that Rooney has found his shooting boots, the sight of Javier Hernandez missing both a penalty and a sitter was concerning.
Last season, United were let off the leash against Leicester before collapsing and conceding four second-half goals in an ignominious defeat. Brugge didn’t punish United for the space they left open in Belgium, but gaps were still there to be found.
Whilst United are in the Champions League again, they might not have right personnel to go far in it. On the evidence of this qualifier, they still need another centre-back and another striker. Without them, Van Gaal is unlikely to play his best midfield and that will limit his forwards.
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