The Premier League is back. With a fantastic summer of British sport behind us, it is now time to welcome back football to the weekly schedule, and all the drama that it brings through to May. With the weekend throwing up some surprising results. On Monday night, it was the turn of Manchester United to get their season under way, travelling to Goodison Park to take on Everton.
With all the talk of the new signings and who would be making debuts, questions began to arise as to who would be starting at the back. With the welcome return of Vidic, it soon came to light that Rio Ferdinand had been ruled out, joining Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling on the sidelines and leaving United somewhat short of options at centre back. That left Michael Carrick to partner Nemanja Vidic, with Antonio Valencia at right back and Patrice Evra occupying the left back position. David De Gea was behind them in goal. In midfield, United opted for Cleverley, Paul Scholes and new-boy Kagawa, with Nani, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney leading the line.
The first half was a story of frustration for the visitors, with Everton controlling play and finding themselves with numerous opportunities to score. United by contrast, were slower off the mark, struggling to break down an organised home side, and despite some flashes of good play, particularly where Kagawa was involved, they failed to create any clear cut chances. In fact, it was Everton who should have gone in with the lead at the break but for the heroics of one David De Gea. The young Spaniard, now in his second season at Old Trafford and sporting a refreshed look, denied Jelavic and stopped Pienaar twice and tipped Baines’ free kick destined for the top corner.
However, it was the towering presence of Fellaini that gave United the greatest cause for concern. He looked sharp from the outset and United’s back line struggled to cope with him. Indeed, it was only fitting that the most problematic of the opposition was to score, as Fellaini beat Carrick to head home on 57 minutes. 1-0 to Everton.
United did not respond immediately, with Everton continuing to cause problems and control play, before Sir Alex Ferguson’s side began to pick up the pace, passing the ball around more and attempting to get forward. Yet they still could not find a way through. The closest they came to an equaliser was when Cleverley had a shot cleared off the line after a short scramble in the box. With just over 20 minutes remaining, Robin Van Persie was called upon, replacing Danny Welbeck. Alas, it was not to be United’s day. Despite throwing men forward, they could not break down Moyes’ men, attempting to pass their way to goal with little effect and crosses failing to find people, with the home side seeing out the game for a deserved 1-0 victory and sparking scenes of jubilation for Evertonians.
A disappointing season opener, but one from which United can hope to improve, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) David De Gea – New look, great saves
Monday night saw the start of David De Gea’s second season at United, and unlike some of his teammates, looked sharp under pressure when Everton often looked like scoring. The Spanish ‘keeper’s shot stopping ability has never been in doubt but there have been questions over his physicality in the face of pressure situations such as corners. But his performance could not be faulted on this occasion, pulling off a string of superb saves in the first half, and United’s best player. He still looks somewhat engulfed in the goal, but De Gea seems to look a little bigger than he did last season, and it will be interesting to see how his development has come along further down the road.
2) Welcome back, Nemanja Vidic
Having spent much of last season injured, it was a welcome sight for United fans to find the name Vidic on the team sheet. Given the complete lack of central defenders, Vidic was more of a necessity than one would have hoped for right at the start of the season, with Michael Carrick linking up with him. His return was a decent one, given his length of time away from the pitch. He looked solid but ultimately could not overcome the defensive shortcomings himself. Michael Carrick is not a central defender and put up a noteworthy effort given the circumstances, although there ought to be question marks as to why he was the man charged with marking Fellaini for the only goal of the game. However, United’s defensive issues are not an excuse for the defeat.
3) Antonio Valencia – Wasted at right back
There was a unanimous voice of approval when Antonio Valencia was given the number 7 shirt at Old Trafford. the Ecuadorian has been a strong influence down the right wing since his arrival, and despite deputising at right back at certain points last season, one can be in no doubt his talents lie going forward. In some respects one can understand why he would be preferred to Rafael in the more defensive position, given his more disciplined nature and an ability to stay back, but in reality, it is a shame to see him played in such a way, given the threat he possesses going forward. Considering how flat United appeared in the final third, his influence would have been to greater effect had he started the game in an attacking position.
4) The season is young
With a start like this, it is always tempting to jump at the opportunity to say that the side is in trouble for the coming season, and rant at the poor signings and who should have been brought in, in a knee-jerk reaction that only the mind of a Football Manager 2012 devotee could muster up. However, one must remember that the first game of the season is no barometer of things to come. Ultimately, one must remember that new players are taking place in the side and a new style of play could well be adopted to accommodate them. On his debut, Kagawa looked impressive, playing slick passes to try to cut open the defense, linking up well with Rooney up front.
Robin Van Persie, coming off the bench, could not be expected to settle in straight away, having been at the club for a matter of days, it was always going to be a big ask to rescue the game when United were struggling to break through up front in the first place.
There were some areas of frustration for the United faithful. Wayne Rooney looked off the pace and Nani struggled to have any impact whatsoever. But going forward the team as a whole were something of a let down, they were not clinical and Everton held up well when they needed to defend in the closing stages of the game.
5) Everton threatened, United did not
Despite having a reputation for slow starts in recent years, Everton started this campaign in the same way they ended the last one, controlling the midfield and looking dangerous going forward, picking up a deserved 3 points in which United could not get a hold on the game and failed to create the chances that their opponents did. No doubt, there are better things to come from Ferguson’s side, with Fulham at home the next challenge. Will Van Persie make his full home debut? What formation can we expect?
I, like many others, am looking forward to the season ahead and how United will play as the season develops.