Man United's 2-0 win against West Bromwich Albion was one that lifted the Red Devils, temporarily at least, to within a point of the top of the table Saturday. But it was also a game that showcased just why there are such doubts about Louis van Gaal's approach and why Old Trafford these days feels such an anxious place, perpetually on the brink of irritation.
United was set on its way to victory by a lovely Jesse Lingard goal eight minutes into the second half but, that aside, the game was largely forgettable, a procession of United passes that went nowhere much while West Bromwich Albion worked hard to deny the home side any space. Not that anybody would have predicted anything different.
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West Brom had, after all, kept four clean sheets in five away league games this season. That is the Pulis' style, quite happy to sit deep and absorb pressure, content with a 0-0 away to big sides, regarding anything else almost as a bonus. Salomon Rondon, bought from Zenit St Petersburg for £12 million ($18 million) in the summer, is the perfect center-forward for that system. He is tireless runner with the bulk to hold the ball up, but even he seemed isolated, useful more as a nominal attacking threat, forcing United to keep men back to defend, rather than anything more concrete.
Pulis sat Claudio Yacob between two lines of four and asked United to try to find a way through. For this United, that represents a major problem. Van Gaal believes in the primacy of possession above all else. He would prefer his side to go sideways rather than play a risky forward pass which has led repeatedly this season to a lack of penetration. Opponents know that United is frustratable.
Only very occasionally did United look like breaking through. Juan Mata, set up by a sharp pass from Michael Carrick that Wayne Rooney helped into his path curled an effort just wide after 15 minutes, but it said much for the lack of goalmouth incident that even before half an hour had been played fans had begun to entertain themselves with 20-year-old chants about Eric Cantona and Andy Cole.
Six minutes before half-time came the first chant of "Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!" â a forlorn plea from increasingly bored home fans for United to respect the traditions of the club and gamble a little more. Finally, a minute before the break came a clear opening, the quick feet of Anthony Martial creating a shooting chance on the edge of the box, only for him to hit his shot straight at the goalkeeper Boaz Myhill. That just emphasized United's problems this season; it is heavily reliant on Martial to provide the sort of spark that can unlock obdurate teams; it's never healthy to depend so much on one player and it's hugely unfair to place such a burden on a 19-year-old.
As it turned out, it was a 22-year-old making just his second start for United who made the breakthrough â and that, at least vindicates Van Gaal's willingness to give young players their chance. The Stretford End was just beginning another round of the "Attack! Attack!" chant when a headed clearance fell to Lingard just outside the box. He calmly sent a sidefoot finish arcing round Craig Dawson, beyond the dive of Myhill and just inside the post for his first goal for the club. It was a very fine finish, but it was hard to avoid the thought that the way United plays makes it dependent on such moments of individual excellence. There's no sense that United can dismantle an opponent. Rather it holds the ball, stifles the game and hopes somebody does something brilliant.
The stifling part at least it does well. United hasn't conceded in 535 minutes, since Seydou Doumbia put CSKA 1-0 ahead in Moscow. Whether that's enough to mount a serious challenge for the title is doubtful. There will always be the suspicion that lesser sides can hold out and that better sides will find a way through, even if United controls possession. And besides, fine margins are dangerous: West Brom substitute Saido Berahino should have equalized with 16 minutes to go, but miscued badly when presented with a free header from Dawson's cross.
West Brom created nothing else of note, though, and the game was settle in injury-time as Gareth McAuley tripped a charging Martial to earn a red card and concede a penalty that Juan Mata converted. It was a relatively comfortable win for United but comfortable is not thrilling and nor, in this case, was it especially convincing.