Manchester United fire blanks in draw with Newcastle
A third game, a third clean sheet but the mood around Old Trafford was one of frustration; the more significant statistic is that Manchester United has scored only twice in three league games.
Manchester United were held Saturday afternoon 0-0 by Newcastle despite a grandstand finish.
As the season began the widespread belief was that United's hopes of winning the title would be undermined by its defence. It now looks as though the weakness is at the other end of the team. Although the game ended with United encamped around the Newcastle box, this for the most part was a pedestrian display, lacking guile and penetration.
The sense that United might be finding some sort of fluency that had been apparent in the 3-1 Champions League win over Club Brugge on Tuesday quickly disappeared.
Newcastle pressed intelligently and hard, preventing United from playing out from the back, while Memphis Depay, after his two stunning goals against Club Brugge, had an afternoon to forget.
Twice in the first half hour he was caught dawdling in possession, he ruined one attack by running needlessly offside and then, having been set through one-on-one against Tim Krul, squandered the opportunity with a heavy touch that took him too wide. What made it worse was that Depay was up against Chancel Mbemba, a centre-back forced into action at right-back.
Krul was forced into one good save low by his near post as the ball fell to Juan Mata in the box, but this was a patchy, disjointed performance from United. Everything seemed very ponderous, very mannered.
To an extent that is simply how Van Gaal teams play - the structure is always the priority - but it might also have been an indirect result of the inclusion of Bastian Schweinsteiger, for his full competitive debut for the club in place of Michael Carrick.
Carrick was arguably United's most influential player last season - it averaged 2.44 points per game when he played against an overall season average of 1.84, but he had an awkward night against Club Brugge on Tuesday, scoring an early own goal and generally looking uncharacteristically skittish.
Schweinsteiger began well, but he tired even towards the end of the first half - raising the spectre of Pep Guardiola's comments about his lack of fitness over the past three years - and his tendency to push forwards meant Morgan Schneiderlin was called upon to initiate attacks from the back.
The former Southampton midfielder has many fine qualities, but incisive passing isn't one of them. It was no great surprise when Carrick was introduced for Schweinsteiger just before the hour.
Wayne Rooney, once again, was of limited effectiveness. He did have the ball in the net after four minutes, finishing off after being slipped through by Adnan Januzaj, but he was denied by a tight offside decision.
There were a couple of sharp turns that resulted in shots straight at Krul, but for the most part Rooney huffed and puffed and didn't get great service.
The arrival of Javier Hernandez, who suddenly looks as though he may have a significant role to play this season, in place of Januzaj meant Rooney dropped back into an attacking midfield role where he looked far more comfortable. Almost immediately he latched onto a chipped pass from Mata only for his volley to be charged down, and then clipped a measured cross to the back post for Mata, who volleyed over.
The first real spark of invention in the second half, though, came from Luke Shaw, the left-back surging through, playing a one-two but then stabbing his shot at Krul.
The Dutch goalkeeper, who came off the bench for the penalty shoot-out as Van Gaal's Netherlands side beat Costa Rica, then spread himself brilliantly to block a Hernandez effort as Mata's shot was deflected to him in the box.
Antonio Valencia also had a late volley blocked during a spell of frantic late pressure and Chris Smalling headed against the post, but the ball simply wouldn't go in - United perhaps paying the price for opening up too late.
Newcastle's threat was limited, but palpable enough that United could never be gung-ho - not that that is really in Van Gaal's make-up anyway.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose chief contribution since his summer signing had been to get booked in each of his two brief substitute appearances, hit the bar 24 minutes in, meeting a superb cross from his former Anderlecht team-mate Mbemba with a firm header. The new signing from Marseille, Florian Thauvin was a fraction from getting on the end of a cross-cum-shot from Papiss Cisse on an injury-time breakaway, but Newcastle must have been happy enough with the point.
Steve McClaren's side may have ridden its luck by the end, but it defended well enough to offer hope for the future. United, meanwhile, is in desperate need of cutting edge.