It was all fairly straightforward in the end for Manchester United and Louis van Gaal – a win, safe passage into the FA Cup fifth round and now a stress-free weekend for the manager to contemplate after weeks of draining pressure.
Goals from Wayne Rooney, Daley Blind and Juan Mata ensured United returned up the M6 with a convincing victory against a spirited but limited Derby County, and although there were periods of uncertainty and over- caution from the Premier League team, this was a performance which eventually gave glimpses of some of the cut-and-thrust that the club’s supporters demand.
Another failure to record a home victory against Stoke City on Tuesday will see a return to the negativity that has smothered Van Gaal in recent weeks, but for once, the Dutchman can close his leather folder with satisfaction and a tick in every box
Van Gaal’s assertion in the build-up to this game that he would “continue to the end” at United, insisting he intended to see out the final 18 months of his contract, was delivered with the knowledge that he retains the backing of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, despite a run of just three victories in 13 games prior to this fixture.
Results ultimately determined the fate of every manager, however, and unyielding support from the boardroom has a habit of going wobbly once events on the pitch spiral out of control.
Van Gaal was by no means on the brink as he and his team arrived at the iPro Stadium, but the Dutchman would also have been acutely aware that another setback against a Championship team that had gone five games without a league victory would only intensify the pressure he is under at Old Trafford.
If ever he needed a confidence-boosting victory, then this was the night, and the boisterous atmosphere inside the stadium actually worked in United’s favour as much as the home team’s.
The tickertape welcome added to the sense of theatre, with both sets of supporters attempting to outdo each other in terms of decibel levels, and the noise injected urgency into both sets of players in the early stages.
As early as the third minute, United went close to opening the scoring and only Anthony Martial will know how he was able to skew his close-range effort so high over the crossbar after being teed up by Rooney.
With Rooney receiving the ball from Marouane Fellaini, the United captain opened up the goal for Martial by laying a pass off to the teenager, but with the hard work done, the forward curled the ball over from six yards.
Martial’s pace and direct runs offered a unique threat as his team-mates stuck to a more possession-based game in which sideways passes, rather than bursts forward, proved the common thread.
That is the contradiction of Van Gaal’s approach. With the pace of Martial and Jesse Lingard on the flanks, United could hurt teams quickly and repeatedly down the wings, but they instead go for the boa constrictor approach.
Still, with Derby offering little threat, United were able to get away with their slow build-up and they opened the scoring on 16 minutes with a stunner from Rooney
The England captain had strayed marginally offside before receiving Martial’s pass, but the flag stayed down and Rooney made the most of his opportunity as he accelerated past two defenders before curling a right-foot shot beyond goalkeeper Scott Carson from the edge of the 18-yard box.
But instead of going for the kill by chasing a second, United persisted with patience and it eventually gave Derby a route back into the game.
Poor defending was the primary factor, however, with Derby midfielder George Thorne left free to run into space down the centre of the pitch and into the United penalty area to latch on to Chris Martin’s lobbed pass forward. Thorne raced away from Morgan Schneiderlin before beating the exposed David de Gea from 12 yards.
Derby barely deserved to haul themselves level, but United only had themselves to blame for giving them the opportunity.
The travelling United contingent, perhaps out of a sense of mischief and frustration with the pedestrian football being played by Van Gaal’s players, broke into a chant of “Viva Ronaldo” early in the second half as Derby began with greater attacking intent.
The days of Cristiano Ronaldo running down the United wing at break-neck speed are long gone, however, and the current team lack the players to even threaten that kind of marauding approach.
By the start of the second half, Derby had tuned into United’s inability to hurt them and Clement’s players grew in belief, with Nick Blackman going close on 52 minutes after Tom Ince had been inches short of converting Cyrus Christie’s shot.
More composure by Blackman from 12 yards and the Derby forward would have put his team ahead.
United lacked creativity, although Mata spurned a clear chance on 58 minutes when he headed Lingard’s deflected cross wide of the far post from three yards.
As the rain poured down, making the surface unpredictable for defenders, the frustrated Rooney became starved of service as United failed to devise a way to unlock the door.
The breakthrough came from the most unlikely source on 65 minutes, though, when Blind raced upfield from his defensive berth to restore United’s lead with only his second goal of the season.
At times, Blind has become the focus of supporters’ ire towards Van Gaal, with the Netherlands international embodying the manager’s safety-first approach, but he abandoned his usual caution with the kind of powerhouse run Bryan Robson once produced to rescue equally limited United teams in the 1980s.
And Blind was rewarded for his adventure with Lingard’s cross into the six-yard box being perfectly weighted for the former Ajax man to slam into the net from two yards.
It was a crucial moment, the turning point which banished United’s fear of defeat, and Mata confirmed progression to the fifth round by converting Martial’s cross to make it 3-1 on 83 minutes.
So the storm clouds clear for Van Gaal. He will be hoping they have gone away for good.