Manchester United's 3-1 victory over Liverpool on Saturday was a microcosm of Louis van Gaal's entire tenure: at times it looked brilliant, at others utterly frustrating.
For the vast majority of the match United totally dominated both territory and possession, but finished the game having scored every one of their meagre three shots on target: a freakish conversion rate upon which league titles cannot be won. The result was undeniably brilliant, and means United have now won three on the bounce against their Merseyside rivals, but the jury must still be out on the performance and van Gaal's assessment thereof.
There were few surprises in the United lineup, with Marouane Fellaini's selection up front causing amusement but little surprise in the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney. David de Gea was handed the gloves in the first match after he signed a contract extension, while Morgan Schneiderlin was dropped to make way for a returning Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield.
Meanwhile, Brendan Rodgers reacted to Liverpool's present injury crisis by throwing two out-and-out strikers into his lineup, with both Danny Ings and Christian Benteke handed starts. But despite subsequent predictions of a switch to a 4-4-2 diamond, Ings bizarrely started out on the left of a 4-1-4-1, while Roberto Firmino was forced out into a position wide on the right. It was a conservative approach that played right into United's hands.
From the off, United were able to dominate possession as they did at Anfield late last season, courtesy of Liverpool's conservative shape and surprisingly deep-lying midfield. But the usual tale of possession without penetration looked at risk of again becoming the dominant tactical narrative, with the Merseysiders' compact lines denying United the space in which to work.
It wasn't just a story of good defending, but also a continuation of the risk-averse attacking that van Gaal has drilled into his players. In the crucial few seconds after United won the ball back and sparked a Liverpool counter-press, the hosts didn't take risks by playing quick, incisive passes. Instead, they played backwards or sideways, and indeed allowed the visitors the opportunity to align their two banks of four before trying to construct another attack.
The only real source of United danger came down the left side, where Luke Shaw delivered another excellent performance behind Memphis Depay. Aided by the half-hearted tracking of makeshift winger Firmino, Shaw was constantly able to burst forward, both on the overlap and into the centre of the pitch. He was one of the few dynamic players on the field, with his movement offering a rare positional challenge for Liverpool's defenders, and was tellingly involved in all three of United's top pass combinations in the first half: Shaw to Memphis (15), Schweinsteiger to Shaw (13), Shaw to Schweinsteiger (12).
United were blunt, but Liverpool were even more hopeless going forward. So negative was their set-up that they left Benteke completely isolated up top, and his only regular service was hopeful long-balls. That was partly because their shape played right into United's pressing set-up: Marouane Fellaini closed down the centre backs, United's wingers pushed up against the full-backs, Shaw and Darmian man-marked their direct opponents and United's midfield trio mapped onto Liverpool's:
It meant Rodgers' side didn't have a spare man on the entire field, and United were able to win the ball back as soon as they'd lost it.
The old cliché that goals change games certainly proved true in the second half, with United managing to execute a perfect training ground routine to break the deadlock through Daley Blind. After taking the lead, United found themselves under pressure for the first time in the match: Liverpool's attackers played closer to each other, and suddenly Christian Benteke didn't find himself outnumbered by Blind and Chris Smalling.
But Liverpool's greater possession meant they pushed higher up the field, leaving space in behind in the process. United took full advantage with 20 minutes left, when Carrick -- who, along with the incredibly industrious Bastian Schweinsteiger, turned in an impressive performance -- played a defence-splitting pass for Ander Herrera. He was brought down, and converted the subsequent spot-kick himself.
Liverpool pulled one back through a moment of individual brilliance from Benteke after blowing a couple of good chances, though United still seemed to have the tactical advantage. They also had a certain Anthony Martial, who had been brought on in place of Juan Mata with 25 minutes left.
Martial's introduction could have hardly come in a better scenario: his paced proved deadly against a team leaving plenty of space in search of an equalising goal, and the free role van Gaal gave him up top maximised this advantage. That's not to downplay the true brilliance of his goal, however, which no United fan will forget in a hurry. It was the icing on the cake of a great second half -- one which showed the value in occasionally allowing the opponent time on the ball, drawing them out of their own third and into higher areas of the pitch.
That made it all the more depressing when van Gaal declared the first half to have been better in his post-match interview:
"I think we played better in the first half, we had far more control but we didn't create so much. I think there were two chances and a lot of possibilities in the third and fourth phase but the last pass was not so good."
Groan. It may well be not in spite of our control that we didn't create much in the first half, but precisely because of it. Still, van Gaal clearly disagrees, and the season is yet a long one. We'll have to see how it plays out before we can definitely answer this biggest of United's tactical questions.
No United fan will have complaints about the end, but questions about the means still remain. United's opening goal was brilliantly executed, but it was a set-piece nonetheless. Had Daley Blind not hit the ball quite as perfectly as he did, Liverpool would not have been forced into gifting United plenty of space, and another frustrating 0-0 could've been the result. Van Gaal's team are still too risk-averse, even if it's only against the Premier League's lesser teams that the full extent of this problem is evident.
For now, we're delighted, but changes still have to be made if United are to become a true title contender.