What Man United did right against Chelsea

Manchester United seemed to finally rise from their six week slumber against Chelsea on Monday night.

The 13-time Premier League champions went into the match in a state of crisis, with manager Louis van Gaal not only at his wits end (having admitted he had run out of ideas) but also seemingly on the verge of a sacking or resignation after three draws and four losses in seven games.

United and Van Gaal had been savaged by pundits for their dour attacking play (if it can even be called attacking), increasingly poor defending, and racking up the club's worst run of results in decades.

Van Gaal was on the verge of suffering an acrimonious departure from what he says will be his last ever post before retirement, and was desperate for a response from his players.

Though his position is far from assured after Monday's goalless draw at Old Trafford, the Dutchman's injury-beleaguered squad did come to his aid to put in what is arguably their best performance during his tenure.

United had Chelsea on the rack for the first 35 minutes and though they were unable to maintain that dominance, Van Gaal's charges still managed to threaten and create chances; something that has been missing from their play in recent weeks.

Descriptions of the revitalised showing have largely centred on an enhanced hunger and determination from the Red Devils, but what is more important is what they did with this supposed additional desire.

Determination and diligence alone will not win you many matches in most professional leagues. What will is committed defending, inventive attacking, individual brilliance and a system which suits the players in the team.

It was Sir Alex Ferguson's philosophy that any team with title ambitions must have an exceptional goalkeeper, and Monday's match could have gone either way if not for the men between the sticks. Though David de Gea's role in maintaining United's clean sheet cannot be overstated, the men in front of him also played an important part in keeping an equally hungry Chelsea side at bay.

United kept a slightly higher line than usual, pressured Chelsea in all parts of the pitch and hunted in packs when not on possession. The defensive performance of United's five-man midfield was particularly impressive in those 35 minutes of dominance; crowding out their counterparts and winning possession back quickly.

Once United had the ball, they also displayed another trait which has been noticeably absent for most of Van Gaal's reign: positivity. The former Barcelona coach's football philosophy seems to value possession above all else, but the slow, measured, low-risk approach applied this season has not yielded results. Against Chelsea, United were more daring on the whole – committing numbers to attack and shunning the safety-first lateral balls in favour of more positive passes.

Ander Herrera's inclusion in an advanced position behind striker Wayne Rooney also worked wonders for United's attack. Though most fans believe the Spaniard should be a fixture in the first team, there has seldom been place for him in Van Gaal's system. With Anthony Martial cutting in from the left wing and Juan Mata seemingly granted a free role, Herrera's ingenuity, directness and willingness to take risks helped United to finally turn possession into goal-scoring opportunities.  

Like Herrera, several other key individuals in the team also seemed to take more responsibility for creating chances. United showed a willingness to shoot from where they would normally not, attempt more challenging and risky passes, and dribble at defenders in situations where they would previously have sought to only keep possession.

The only aspect missing from the performance were the goals. If United can ensure they take their chances and play for the full 90 minutes instead of just 35, then they will have turned the corner on one of the club's darkest periods in the last 20 years.

Liam Moses