Man United's season turns around through an injection of youth
Manchester United's 1-0 victory over Watford on Wednesday owed plenty to fortune.
Until Juan Mata's guided missile of a free kick seven minutes from time, they were struggling, with Memphis Depay reverting back to frustrating type and Marcus Rashford unable to repeat the romance of scoring four goals in his first two matches.
In the latest makeshift defensive unit fielded by Louis van Gaal, United were horribly shaky. Daley Blind, partnered by teenager Timothy Fosu-Mensah making his first start, turned in an error-strewn display and had to be bailed out repeatedly by the teenager and goalkeeper David De Gea.
Had Odion Ighalo finished with anything like the accuracy he had shown before a six-game scoreless streak, then Van Gaal's troubled reign would be once more under heavy fire.
As it was, having beaten each of Shrewsbury, Midtjylland, Arsenal and the Hornets in the past nine days, he could hail a winning run that seemed anything but possible when his team was turning in an all-time low of a performance when being defeated 2-1 at Midtjylland in the Europa League two weeks ago.
If you can keep your head and keep winning when all about you are passing up the chance to win the Premier League -- with Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham all losing and Leicester drawing this week -- then suddenly the prognosis does not look quite so bad, and the pressure is relieved.
United are now level with fourth-placed City, though have played a game more. Their Premier League campaign, and probably the manager's reign with it, has come down to just 10 more matches.
Post-match, Van Gaal spared the bombast, the chance to kick against his detractors, perhaps recognising the good fortune United had enjoyed against Quique Sanchez Flores' team with the rag-tag and bobtail bunch he now has to call a first-team. The team picked from a squad riven by an injury list of 17 players is more by accident than his design.
"I think you can see the statistics with how many players are injured, and then you can see how difficult it was and we are still in with a chance of being in the top four of the Premier League," Van Gaal said after the match.
"That's not bad. And we're in the FA Cup quarterfinal, and that's not bad. And we're still in the Europa League, and that's not bad. But we have still a full program. We have played 40 games and still have so many to play. It's very difficult to fulfil the expectations."
The four-game winning run is the first such sequence since Southampton, Ipswich, Sunderland and Wolfsburg were beaten in September but still represents an odd momentum, an unlikely turnaround. Having said that, Van Gaal did add to the callowness of his team when resting veteran Michael Carrick to thrust Fosu-Mensah into active service.
The 18-year-old Dutchman showed he had high potential but also that he is hugely raw. Some of his tackling was of a ferocity that former club captain Nemanja Vidic might have baulked at, but his positioning often betrayed his preciousness. Without him, however, Blind would most probably have been the scapegoat for a momentum-halting defeat.
It was telling that Van Gaal, who usually does not like to garland individual players with praise, singled out Fosu-Mensah for a lengthy tribute.
"Timothy has saved us three times I think because of his speed and I was very pleased he was on the pitch," Van Gaal said. "I let him stay on the pitch in the second half because he was the player who always closed the door for us."
With Van Gaal's future still uncertain, and the availability of Jose Mourinho still haunting his chances of seeing out his three-year contract, it does appear that he has turned his attention to legacy.
Though his hand has been forced by chance, an inexplicably long injury list, Van Gaal has seized the opportunity to augment his reputation as a prime promoter and polisher of young talent.
Ten players have now been given their debuts this season. Rashford and Fosu-Mensah, the latter signed from Ajax during Van Gaal's early weeks in charge, might end up being a Xavi or a Thomas Muller, stars of the future given chance by the Dutchman in the past.
Rashford also stayed on for the full 90 minutes, and when it became clear he was struggling with Watford's highly physical defensive quartet, was shifted to the right wing in a swap with Anthony Martial, where his speed made significant inroads during a 10-minute second-half spell in which United looked genuinely dangerous on the attack. Though the goals did not come for him this time, his light was in no way dimmed.
"I think the youngsters give us a lot of spirit and now when you see the dressing room full of joy and the players are laughing that is beautiful to see," Van Gaal added. "That shall accelerate the recoveries of the players."
And meanwhile, the manager himself is riding out the storm, and shown the depth of character that has stubbornly carried him through his long career. He will also doubtless feel he earned the luck enjoyed against Watford.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.