Louis van Gaal maintained his perfect start to life as Manchester United manager, picking up a narrow 2-1 victory over Valencia in his first game at Old Trafford on Tuesday. It wasn't a perfect performance from United, but it was another solid showing as the Red Devils continue to adapt to the notorious demands of their innovative new coach.
Even before the match had kicked off, there was a businesslike air among the United players. With van Gaal and Ryan Giggs watching from the sidelines, the players quickly transitioned between training drills, finishing by rehearsing some of the patterns of play they'd go on to recreate in the match itself. Right up until 15 minutes before kickoff, they were working on their positional play. The van Gaal philosophy in action.
However, on the sidelines the Dutchman looked as much the showman as the businessman. Standing on the perimeter of the pitch, he was happy to break from his observations to offer a thumbs-up to the crowd, before theatrically high-fiving Fred the Red and signing several autographs on his way back down the tunnel. He seemed to be enjoying the occasion as much as the crowd.
During the game itself, a few players in particular won the hearts of the fans.
In the middle of the park, Ander Herrera's delightful blend of industry and imagination saw him regularly sliding to sweep the ball from the feet of an opponent, before immediately looking to spread the play to an advancing teammate. An energetic box-to-boxer with the discipline and technique typical of a top class Spaniard, he should more than match the demands of the Premier League -- and the Stretford End -- this season.
Solid defensively and good in possession: something to be said for not just Herrera, but the entire United defence. Valencia were barely given a sniff by the Reds' back three in an impressive opening, with Chris Smalling admirably sweeping up anything that squirmed beyond Phil Jones or Tyler Blackett. This duo was often allowed time on the ball to pick a pass, and the latter didn't hesitate to ambitiously carry it forward into the opposition half. On the whole, it was a good showing.
Despite Wayne Rooney not playing particularly well -- and missing a first half penalty -- the new United captain was also pretty warmly received. If the fans' reactions were anything to go by, van Gaal's appointment will be a popular one. Alas, the impending departure of the ever-popular Javier Hernández will be greeted with a little more sadness, despite his near-anonymous display.
After a decent start, the match wasn't really of the sort to set the heart racing for most of the second half. United's initial promise evaporated, and Valencia were able to nick a scrappy equalising goal after Darren Fletcher's deflected opener.
Then again, that was probably to be expected, with van Gaal continuing to experiment with his squad selection with numerous substitutions. After replacing Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard didn't look strong enough to play as a wing-back -- which, in his defence, is far from his natural role -- while Michael Keane was rather less sturdy than Phil Jones had been on the right of the back three.
With the game locked in stalemate and with full-time approaching, the match looked destined to end all square. Adnan Januzaj ducked, weaved, prodded and poked, but still the Valencia defence held firm. But cometh the hour, cometh the Fellaini. Brought on 12 minutes from time to form a shudderingly Moyesian midfield pair with Tom Cleverley, the big-haired Belgian looked surprisingly comfortable, much to the amusement of those who ironically cheered whenever he touched the ball.
It was certainly Fellaini who had the last laugh, as he leaped to outmuscle Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves in the dying moments of the game, before rolling the ball into an empty net. The home crowd erupted in jubilation and laugher in equal measure, doubly amazed by how good some of Cleverley's cross-field passes were.
There's ultimately not very much that can be drawn from pre-season friendlies, with many first-team players absent, and just as many ambitious first-team hopefuls present. But if United's win over Valencia revealed anything, it's that Louis van Gaal has brought the buzz back to Old Trafford. Now let's see how far the momentum can take us.