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Manchester United need to rediscover the art of late goals

Last Saturday, with a little help, Bastian Schweinsteiger scored Manchester United's first important late goal of the season. It's a habit the team desperately need to rediscover.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Let's start with some definitions, shall we? That's always fun. Let's says that a late goal is any goal that comes once the clock has ticked around to 80'. And let's say that a late, important goal is one that turns a losing position into a drawing one, or a drawing position into a winning one. So, for example, the 1999 Champions League final had two late, important goals: Teddy Sheringham's equaliser, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's winner.

A bit arbitrary, perhaps, but you've got to draw the line somewhere, and seeing that 81st minute appear certainly feels significant when watching a game. Manchester United used to have a reputation for this sort of thing, and it's slightly depressing to note that Saturday's late winner, served up by Bastian Schweinsteiger's right foot and Troy Deeney's buttocks, was United's first late, important goal* since Newcastle's Tim Krul made Ashley Young a present last March.

* Rooney's goal against CSKA Moscow came in the 79th minute. What a fortuitous definition we're working with ...

Late result-changing goals are important things, and United's reputation for these gutpunches has been well-earned. Alex Ferguson's first title, way back in 1992/93, included no fewer than ten, most famously Steve Bruce's double against Sheffield Wednesday. The treble season also featured ten, included five in four consecutive Champions League games: a Paul Scholes equaliser against Internazionale in the second leg of the quarterfinals; a Ryan Giggs equaliser against Juventus in the first leg of the semi; Andy Cole's late winner in the second leg; and then, of course, "Can Manchester United score? They always score."

Late-era Ferguson was also notable for its late gamechangers. Eight in 07/08, seven in 08/09, nine in 2009/10, eleven in 2010/11, eight in the final two seasons ... it turns out that Ferguson's preference for having at least three excellent forwards in the squad at any one time made United a fairly terrifying, magnificently irritating prospect.

Being magnificently irritating is always nice. Late goals are beautiful things to watch happen, but they're also beautiful things to watch happen to opposing fans and players. The hands go to the head, the legs crumple, the eyes well up and the heart breaks. Most of Bayern Munich's 1998/99 side are, as far as tBB is aware, completely harmless and probably very nice men. Yet the images of their bodies strewn across the Camp Nou turf is still, to this day, exceptionally pleasing.

But being fairly terrifying is important. Football takes place on the pitch, yes, but also takes in place in the heads and the hearts of every player on the pitch. The knowledge that a team scores lots of late goals—that they're famous for it, no less—can't help but seep into the awareness of the opponents, and it only takes one defender to blink at the wrong moment for the whole thing to become self-fulfilling. Or, it only takes one change of manager for the whole thing to grind to a halt.

Ferguson's United averaged slightly more than six a season. David Moyes' Manchester United scored exactly three late, important goals: an 80th minute Javier Hernandez winner against Stoke City; a 121st minute Javier Hernandez winner against Sunderland (which set up a loss on penalties, but details); and Michael Carrick's 80th minute goal against Fulham, which would have won the game had Darren Bent not equalised in stoppage time. We're not going to dig into precisely why Moyes' United were rubbish, but one of the consequences was that the sense of inevitability, the fear of the team that never loses, just run out of time, was gone.

Van Gaal's first season yielded four such goals. But the other notable thing about Ferguson's United's late goals, in addition to their frequency, was the way they arrived. Where Van Gaal has so far leaned towards flinging Marouane Fellaini up front as a kind of siege weapon, Ferguson's preference was to take control of the game, pin the opposition back, then introduce another striker, and another, until something broke. Keep going. Stick to the plan. It will come. Not only is that better to watch, but it speaks of a confidence and self-belief that is entirely absent from see the big man. Hit the big man.

And that was what was encouraging about the late goal against Watford: it wasn't a panicked lump towards a maladroit Plan B; it was just United playing their football a little bit quicker, working the chance, and then forcing Troy Deeney to take it for them. Admittedly, Fellaini was missing from the squad, but let's hope that this wasn't the only reason. A bit more of this, and United might end up being scary again. Then, surely, the titles will have to follow.

There's a possibility we've miscounted a late goal here or there. If so, we apologise. But you take the general point.