MANCHESTER – At least, among all the indignities Louis van Gaal has had to confront recently, Manchester United’s sequence of defeats has been ended one short of it becoming their worst run in a single season since December 1936. Their winless sequence does, however, now stand at eight matches. Even more astoundingly this was their fifth goalless draw in the last eight games at Old Trafford, the only consolation being they did at least play in a way that meant there was only fleeting dissent at the final whistle.
Whether it will be enough to keep Van Gaal in a job remains to be seen but there were signs the spirit of this team is not entirely broken. Finally there were spells when United showed they can remove the tactical straightjacket and start to play a little bit more like the the old United, with width and penetration, and a crowd that seemed to appreciate what they were watching.
True, they became increasingly ragged as the game went on and a better team than Chelsea might have taken advantage of their carelessness. United were indebted at times to outstanding goalkeeping from David de Gea and the match has to be put in the context that Chelsea are wading through the most implausibly wretched title defence in memory. Yet it was an improvement from Van Gaal’s team, even if they have now failed to score in 11 of their 26 Premier League assignments since April.
For a club with United’s attacking traditions that is one of many galling statistics about the Van Gaal reign. Equally, this did not feel like a performance that would end in the manager being fired, or even choosing to sever ties himself.
Van Gaal talked of his team not “daring to play” when they lost at Stoke City on Boxing Day but there was nothing timid about the shot Juan Mata cracked against Thibaut Courtois’s crossbar in the opening exchanges and the same again, on 17 minutes, when Anthony Martial cut inside from the left only for his low drive to strike the inside of the post, flash across the goalmouth and then spin out of play. There were still imperfections but at least this time nobody could accuse them of plodding, sideways football.
Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian had the licence to advance from their full-back positions. Martial’s directness and quick feet made him a difficult opponent and United generally look a more rounded team when Marouane Fellaini is not in the starting line-up.
The temptation to aim the ball high was removed and United, passing the ball with an increased tempo, began the game as though affronted by the accusations of repetitive dreariness.It was their best 45 minutes for some time.
The mood might have been entirely different if David de Gea had not turned John Terry’s header over the crossbar from an early corner but Chelsea did not have the impetus that is usually expected of them against the big opponents. In better times, this team was so adept at controlling games and making sure everything was to their tempo.
Those days seem to have passed and, though it still feels strange and incongruous to see them so close to the relegation places, if they were in better health they would surely have made a better job of exploring whether the players in red might be suffering from low self-belief and, in turn, vulnerable.
Chelsea certainly missed the suspended Diego Costa, if only because it meant they did not have a natural striker for the role. Eden Hazard flitted in and out but his tendency was to roam to wide positions and in the first half Chelsea looked what they have become: a team drifting through the league, too haughty to be afraid of relegation but too far back to think they can still challenge for Europe.
Branislav Ivanovic’s difficulty taking care of Martial was the case in point, when the Chelsea defender was the outstanding right-back in the league this season. Martial, a right-footed player operating on the left, was always going to turn inside. Yet Ivanovic did not seem to cotton on he should be trying to block that route and direct his opponent the other way.
Chelsea, to give them their due, did improve after the interval and had enough chances in the first 15 minutes of that half to think they ought to have scored at least once. Nemanja Matic might wake in a cold sweat when he thinks of his wild finish after Chelsea had broken from defence and opened up their opponents on the counter-attack.
De Gea is a formidable goalkeeper to beat but Matic was clean through and made a terrible hash of his shot, putting the ball into the crowd when he had the time and space to pick his spot.
Shortly before, De Gea had produced a wonderful double save to keep out Pedro and then the follow-up effort from César Azpilicueta. Yet Courtois’s reflexes to keep out Ander Herrera showed there is still competition to be recognised as the best goalkeeper in the league.
It was a dishevelled finale, with both teams demonstrating why they are in their current league positions, but Chelsea have at least gone three matches unbeaten in the league for the first time this season. Van Gaal will have heard the boos at the end but they passed quickly and there was sympathetic applause elsewhere in the ground. – Guardian