In front of an expectedly raucous Old Trafford, Manchester United welcomed back European football with a dominant performance. Two goals from Memphis Depay and a last minute header from Fellaini cancelled out an unfortunate Michael Carrick own goal. While the tie is far from over, it is United who carry the decisive advantage into the next game in Belgium.
If there were lingering doubts in regard to Manchester United’s attack, they were nearly all put to bed. The Red Devils had 69% possession, 19 shots on goal, 10 on target and 3 goals to go with it. At the back, they were at their utmost best, while the midfield remained solid and the attack fluid. It wasn’t a vintage Manchester United performance by any means, but it was a markable improvement from the stagnancy that characterised Untied’s first two league fixtures.
While much will be written about Memphis Depay’s scintillating display, the victory was a combination of every player knowing their roles, and playing their part to almost Shakespearean perfection. The ever doubted centre-half pairing of Blind and Smalling proved effective again, nullifying even the slightest scent of attack. Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw kept the Manchester United back four consistent, while Januzaj, Mata and Memphis all moved around to create space. Morgan Schneiderlin proved silent and effective, while Sergio Romero didn’t have a thing to do.
Despite a resounding performance, the scoreline should have favoured Manchester United a lot more. For all they created, they were found lacking in areas of real opportunity. An unfortunate own goal does provide Club Brugge with a vital away goal. On their current form however, it is unlikely that the Belgians will be able to prevent United from scoring for long.
In the midst of this high-tempo contest on Tuesday night, there were a few things that became abundantly clear.
United will have to use Memphis wisely
The sheer prodigy that is Memphis Depay was on full show against Club Brugge. Playing with the swagger that tore apart the Dutch league last season, the former PSV marksman showed everyone that he’s ready for the bright lights and the big stage. Two goals and a fantastic assist served only to exemplify what had been a perfect performance from the 21 year old.
Reverting to his preferred position on the left wing from that of secondary striker, Memphis thrived in the extra yard of space and the ability to invert his runs. His forays toward the opposition penalty box were mesmerising as his movement and end product made Manchester United fans wonder who exactly they were watching. His eagerness and passion, something which van Gaal wanted to temper at the end of the Tottenham game, was on full display as he cut through Brugge’s defence with near consummate ease.
Louis van Gaal does however, know Memphis’ limits. The comparisons to previous greats that donned the illustrious number 7 jersey came about quickly after the game. However, the performance could be taken with just a pinch of salt. It was just one game against an injury hit defence who were down to ten men. The Dutchman was, however, annoyed at his misses in the second half, commenting:”I’m a little disappointed because I could’ve finished two more chances.”
Van Gaal has been a keen admirer of Ashley Young in Memphis’ left wing position. The 30 year old made vital match-winning contributions last season to ensure that Manchester United finished in the top four. It was therefore natural to assume that he would be the first choice left winger given his reputation. In many scenarios in the coming season, it would be wise to field Young in as much as Depay. Making him play every Premier League game on the wing this season might be overkill, but tempering his run in the team will go a long way to ensuring his maximum performance remains more consistent.
If Rooney was a number 9 once, he isn’t one now
The sight of a bald Wayne Rooney striking the fear of God into defenders’ eyes was a spectacle to behold. On the evidence of the season thus far, however, the Englishman is a far cry from what he was during the 2009-10 season or indeed the 2011-12 season, when he scored 26 and 27 league goals respectively.
Rooney has now failed to score in his last nine competitive appearances for Manchester United, and there is a growing feeling of frustration amongst the fan base, who have understandably been discouraged by his insipid performances up front for Van Gaal’s side to begin this season.
The former Everton striker is often accused of being clumsy in possession and of losing his first-touch, and there has been plenty of evidence for the naysayers from the games against Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and now Club Brugge to suggest that that is not entirely inaccurate.
Confidence is arguably the most important mental attribute for a striker at any given time, and Wayne Rooney looks every bit a striker who has lost just that. Perhaps a goal will reignite that spark and get the 29-year-old back on track, but it would not come as a surprise if Louis Van Gaal decided to explore his options if such displays endure.
Away goal just about keeps Club Brugge in the tie, but United a step closer to a return to the big time
The Belgian outfit could hardly have dreamt of a better start at a packed Old Trafford, with an own goal from Michael Carrick giving them the lead in the tie as well as a crucial away goal. However, any such joy was short-lived with Dutch attacker Memphis Depay announcing himself at the club in an emphatic way for the first time since his arrival from PSV Eindhoven.
Although the away goal gives Club Brugge some small hope in the second leg in Belgium, injuries and suspensions to key players mean that it will take a veritable miracle for the minnows to progress through to the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The sense that the final outcome of the tie is now little more than a fait accompli was reflected by Club Brugge manager Michel Preud’homme, quoted by BBC Sport as saying: “You have a small chance at home but it is going to be very difficult. I know Fellaini, of course, and he is very strong in that situation.
“We tried to play with our qualities. We missed a lot of players. The red card was very far for me, it is difficult to see.
“If we have to miss our captain and central defender, with all our injured players, I don’t see the solution to beat Manchester United.”
Thanks to Depay’s brilliance and Manchester United’s strong team performance, a return to the big league for the Red Devils now remains a mere formality.