Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal appeared to need the sword of Damocles hanging over his head before he resorted to adopting the traditional fluid attacking style that served the team well in an impressive 3-0 win over Stoke City on Tuesday.
Jeered off by disgruntled supporters after a 1-0 defeat to Southampton in their previous home outing pushed Van Gaal closer to the exit door, the 64-year-old Dutchman made a tactical U-turn which left Old Trafford purring with delight.
“Yes, I am a happy coach,” Van Gaal told Manchester United television after seeing his team unleash 12 shots on goal and four of them on target in a rampant first half of the Premier League encounter.
“When you see how we created the goals with fantastic play building up from the back and finishing, that’s what I like.”
The players, too, thrived with a permission to apply more forward thrust than ever under Van Gaal, who has been heavily criticised by pundits and United supporters alike for insipid and cagey performances since he took over in July 2014.
Signs of a tactical switch were evident in Friday’s 3-1 FA Cup fourth round win at Derby County but United found another gear in a blistering high-tempo early onslaught of Stoke.
With Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard handed a rare start together, their incisive build-up play created space for Wayne Rooney and particularly the speedy Anthony Martial to exploit almost at will.
That, in turn, enabled a fit-again Michael Carrick, making his first start since the 2-0 defeat at Stoke in the reverse fixture on Dec. 26, to pull the strings in midfield while the back four finally enjoyed a quiet evening.
Goalkeeper David De Gea could relax as all the action was at the other end, with United missing several chances after Rooney sealed the match with his seventh goal in as many games in all competitions.
His tap-in came after Lingard and Martial struck in the first half as United found the back of the net in the opening period for the first time in 12 home games.
“It could be a turning point (in scoring goals) but you never know,” added Van Gaal, wary he would soon be under scrutiny again with United visiting revived champions Chelsea on Sunday.
“Carrick said to me what a difference a first-half goal makes because you play with much more confidence and you can do much more.”