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Van Gaal looks more like a great dictator


Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Getty Images

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

For the first time, the boom was back in Louis van Gaal's voice. In victory - their first away from home in the league this season - Manchester United's manager spoke with the heavy emphasis of a dictator.

No more baffled Ofsted inspector at Old Trafford.

United's 2-1 win at Arsenal was hardly pretty.

It started with defensive chaos but ended with precision: a counter-attack by Angel di Maria and Wayne Rooney that exposed a bewildering inability by Arsene Wenger's team to guard against quick breaks.

United have been counter-punching Arsenal like this for years.

The interesting part, though, was the tenacity and togetherness shown by United's players when they were under siege from the marauding Gunners.

There were shades of this new stubbornness in the recent Manchester derby.

United had made their worst league start for 25 years (16 points from 11 matches) but were up to fourth in the table when referee Mike Dean blew the final whistle.


The simple optical treat of being back in the Champions League places was a delight for United's supporters, perpetually confronted by one mega-stat -that this is the most expensive squad ever assembled in British football history: £382m (€483m).

Van Gaal's first big win as United manager owed less to extravagant transfer fees than youthful promise, together with an impressive collectivity.

A defensive back-three of Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair either side of Chris Smalling was blood in the water to Arsenal's rapid strike force, who created numerous first-half chances but failed to convert any of them, on account mainly of David de Gea's brilliance in the United goal.

Beware 'turning points'. A gruelling Premier League campaign is seldom amenable to such easy signposting.

Yet fortune seemed intent on lifting United back into the top four places when a reckless challenge from the side by McNair ended Jack Wilshere's participation, Kieran Gibbs deflected an Antonio Valencia drive into his own net and then Wojciech Szczesny also went off hurt.

Smalling was a picture of agitation as he tried to keep youngsters Blackett and McNair briefed.

They hardly needed it. Though the first 20 minutes was bordering on shambolic from the visitors, the two young centre-backs showed why Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Marcos Rojo now face real competition from the club's improving academy graduates.

"We showed a lot of character today," Smalling said.

"We didn't play that well and we'll go through the video to see what we could have done better, but it will be on the back of having taken three points."

So often since Alex Ferguson retired, United's players have "gone through the video" to study another let-down.

"We had to make sure we were always talking, leading each other along, because if you switch off for any moment, they can nick it. It was good, and we just have to keep talking," Smalling said, confirming a point made earlier by Van Gaal.

Switching to three at the back is feasible only if the trio of centre-backs work in unison, especially against a forward as relentlessly busy as Alexis Sanchez.

"We know we have two home games coming up, and we need six points - then we can have a look at where we are in the table," said Smalling, who called a top-four finish "always a minimum for this club".

He said: "Given the manager and the players we have, we should be playing better, with more points.

"But we have a good base now with an away win and we can go back to Old Trafford and build on that."

A measure of United's defensive instability this season is that they have changed their rearguard 14 times.

Losing Daley Blind to an injury sustained on international duty wrecked another pattern, since Blind had settled into the defensive-midfield role, performed in north London by Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.


So, with De Gea imperious, Rooney impressing in the captain's role and former manager David Moyes back in work after leading United to the point where Van Gaal had to be hired, there is more than a sense of mounting confidence, which was reflected in Van Gaal's buoyant demeanour in the post-match inquisition.

The reporter who theorised that United's 3-5-2 formation looked "crazy" for the first half-hour would have been taking a greater risk with that statement when the new manager was in his more sombre phase.

The gamble worked: partly because Arsenal lacked ruthlessness around the penalty box and still appear to have no idea whatsoever how to guard against counter-attacks when they themselves are chasing a goal.

Why was Nacho Monreal - easily Arsenal's least convincing defender - left on his own to deal with a rampant Rooney and Di Maria at full gallop?

United have lost only once in 15 encounters with Arsenal.

In that narrow sense, this victory was routine.

But it was better than that.

If resilience is step one on the road to recovery, the rest now ought to follow. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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