United's attack solved but defensive lapses emerge, says Gary Lim
Van Gaal getting it right in attack but defensive problems emerge
(Georginio Wijnaldum 42, Aleksandar Mitrovic 67-pen, Paul Dummett 90)
MAN UNITED 3
(Wayne Rooney 9-pen, 79, Jesse Lingard 38)
Louis van Gaal got Manchester United to entertain this time, but the final outcome continues to elude them.
Just as one problem appeared to be solved, another popped up.
With an equal measure of attacking verve and defensive sloppiness, the Red Devils turned in a mixed performance in a thrilling 3-3 draw in a Premier League clash with Newcastle at St James' Park yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The forwards received their fair share of plaudits, but the defenders drew the flak.
This was a victory United let slip from their grasp, allowing a 2-0 lead and later, a 3-2 advantage, to disappear in injury time.
Much-maligned striker Wayne Rooney turned in his best performance of the season with two goals and one assist, and yet after the game was deflated, saying the result felt "like a defeat".
The initial proceedings gave van Gaal plenty to be optimistic about.
For the first time in the Premiership this term, van Gaal dropped Juan Mata from the starting line-up.
The new-look attack, featuring Wayne Rooney up front and a supporting cast of Ander Herrera directly behind him and Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial down the flanks, posed Newcastle with all the early questions as the visitors showed improved mobility, pace and athleticism.
For the first time in months, United's offensive players seemed unleashed and impressed in their ability to carve out openings and their willingness to take on defenders.
In part, it also had to do with Newcastle's gung-ho approach and high defensive line, both of which left vast spaces behind for van Gaal's marauders to roam in.
Lingard and Martial were a constant menace off the flanks, offering directness in their eagerness to drive inwards.
Lingard was all composure with his 38th-minute finish, although it was the dynamic play between Rooney and him during the build-up that stood out.
Herrera dictated the rhythm, showing patience and diligence.
It was the rejuvenated Rooney who shone brightest with three runners around him, netting a ninth-minute penalty to open the scoring and a superb edge-of-the-box curler to help his side gain a 3-2 advantage late on.
However, it was not to be.
United's perked-up attack might have catered to the demands of the supporters, but it also brought with it a different set of complications.
The defence, previously watertight and one which once could claim to be the stingiest in the Premiership, was a shambles all night - and they have been shaky of late, shipping in 10 goals in their last six league matches.
Centre back Chris Smalling, one of United's best players in a topsy-turvy campaign, was very poor and could be faulted for all three goals conceded.
He lost his man Georginio Wijnaldum when the Dutchman scored Newcastle's first goal, conceded a stupid penalty for the hosts to equalise, and then paid the price for a weak defensive header when Paul Dummett collected the loose ball to rifle home off a deflection of Smalling.
Daley Blind had, at best, an average outing in which he showed little initiative to cover for his struggling teammate.
Without a real leader in the backline and ample support from midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Morgan Schneiderlin, chaos reigned at the back.
Injuries to Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw had already forced van Gaal to improvise.
Winger Ashley Young, for all his attacking attributes, was a defensive burden in the right-back role.
Matteo Darmian, a more accomplished player in Young's position or in the middle, looked ill at ease on the left flank.
If van Gaal can't get his defenders to perform when the attacking handbrake is released, then he may have to quickly source for better options while the transfer market remains open.
United now find themselves sixth in the table, two points away from the top four as of yesterday, and more if Tottenham pick up points against Leicester City in this morning's game.
Until van Gaal gets the balance in his team right, they may never close the gap.