Manchester United have never endured four consecutive 0-0 draws in their history - and Wayne Rooney’s late winner on Tuesday night against CSKA Moscow ensured that record remained intact.
The 30-year-old’s goal was United’s first in over six and a half hours, during which they failed to register against rivals Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace.
Red Devils boss Louis van Gaal is a fairly stubborn man, but against CSKA there were a few distinct changes to United’s play that saw them dominate the Russian side at Old Trafford and finally end their goal drought.
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Rooney has sustained the vast majority of the criticism for United’s poor efforts in front of goal recently. The media have been on his case since the beginning of the season and questioned whether he, now 30, still has the qualities to play as the main striker at Old Trafford.
In Rooney's defence, it would have proven difficult for any striker in world football to score goals for United this season. Not only has their talisman severely lacked support, leaving him isolated upfront, but he’s also been starved of regular service from his teammates.
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In the 1-0 win over the Russian outfit, young forward Anthony Martial was moved from the left-wing to a central role alongside Rooney. The Frenchman's pace stretched CSKA’s ageing defence and also meant his English teammate could drop into deeper positions and collect the ball.
Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, who both played in the wide areas, needed no invitation to get into the box in support of their captain and it was the latter who provided the assist for Rooney’s headed goal.
In scoring on Tuesday night, the England captain moved level with the legendary Dennis Law in United’s all-time goalscoring record books.
SLOW STYLE OF PLAY
A major part of Van Gaal’s footballing philosophy is controlling possession. Whilst such domination is hugely important in football, it’s only effective if a team can put it to good use and create goalscoring opportunities.
In recent weeks there has been a tendency to overplay and pass the ball slowly without any attacking intent. So far this season in the Premier League, United have made more sideways or backwards passes than any other team - an indication of their inefficient use of the ball.
From the very beginning of the match against CSKA, though, Van Gaal’s side were much more direct in their attacking play. They moved the ball purposefully at pace and took more risks by passing forwards when they could’ve opted for a safer option.
Lingard gave the Red Devils width and was a constant menace with his dribbling skills, work rate and pace. The biggest difference for United, however, was the fact both Rooney and Martial played together centrally.
This meant United were a much bigger threat going forward whilst still dominating the game with 69% possession.
MORE TO COME
Despite a much improved performance, they still relied on an exceptional save from David de Gea and a last-ditch block from Chris Smalling to prevent Seydou Doumbia from scoring.
There’s no doubt, though, that United looked more like the team their fans are accustomed to against the Russian side - and Van Gaal will hope for a similar display against West Bromwich Albion this weekend.
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