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Old Trafford hosted its first league game of the season as United played Fulham. The opening round of games had thrown up contrasting fortunes for the two teams with United losing at Everton and Fulham thumping Norwich 5-0. Once again Carrick would have to start at the back with Ferdinand, Evans, Jones and Smalling still out injured. Fans were treated to appearances by two United supporting Olympic champions – Usain Bolt pre-match and Greg Rutherford at half time.
Fergie shuffles the pack
After the disappointing nature of the defeat at Everton coupled with the toothlessness up front, changes to the team were hoped for rather than expected. Ferguson’s not always picked a starting team that reflects form or sense but on this occasion it was hard to argue with his team. Nani (had frustrated), Rooney (had looked unfit) and Welbeck (simply rotated) were replaced as the attacking spearhead to the team changed. Valencia moved back to the wing with Young on the other side and a first start for Van Persie. Scholes also dropped out the side. Interestingly, Nani failed to even make the substitutes bench, fuelling speculation he could be set to leave the club (ludicrous when you consider that’d only leave us with two wingers and that despite the fact he frustrates, he’s often so vital).
The omission of Rooney gained the most attention. It had been speculated during the week that he may be benched with a surprisingly large number of fans hoping that would be the case. Whilst games are great for match-sharpness, fitness work can be done away from the pitch. Rooney needs to be both fit and sharp but he can only be expected to be sharp once fit. More to the point, the acquisition of Van Persie makes Rooney no longer exempt from poor performances – he now has genuinely top quality competition. Whilst he may have once been undroppable, that no longer applies.
Home debutants both score
Van Persie spent pretty much all of his Arsenal career playing up front alone, supported by width and midfielders. Ferguson gave him his first start and chose to play him in this role. On the whole he appeared to be somewhat rusty and clearly lacked a good pre-season. However, his link-up play was mature and intelligent – he took up good positions and was great at bringing players into the game. United seem to already be benefiting from the fact he can also deliver a good set piece – the ball is at last beating the first man although we still need more heigh to be more of a threat from dead ball situations.
Getting a full game out of Van Persie was invaluable but so was his contribution in the tenth minute. His one shot of the game was as tricky to execute as any that a striker might try and take on during a match. The ball not only appeared to be ever so slightly behind him, but it bounced in front meaning that he had to take it earlier than he’d have liked. Getting across Hangeland, he met Evra’s cross on the half volley and caressed the ball into the far side of the goal. It was one of those strikes that appears to get better from every angle and was a moment of true class that set Old Trafford alight.
In true MOTD style, Kagawa should be lauded for his home debut goal and his quick reactions to prod the ball into the net. Whilst great for him and important for the team, it would be completely overlooking the fact that he was once again excellent for United. Occupying the space behind Van Persie, he drifted around the pitch and seemed to fit into the team with ease. The beauty of Kagawa is that he makes football look easy and does the tricky things very well. Quite simply, getting him on the ball makes magic happen – he’ll be key to United’s success this year, that much can already be deduced.
The best and worst of de Gea (and no luck)
Since the turn of the new year, David de Gea has been wonderful – saving United on various occasions. He was one of the few players who could hold their head high after the Everton game but against Fulham it was a mixed back. The bad was the second Fulham goal – he came for it, didn’t get near the cross and the ball ended up going in via Vidic. Arguably he was in fact blocked and fouled but there was minimal protest and it still doesn’t excuse the fact he failed to get close. Interestingly, it’s been something pretty much completely overlooked by those who are paid to analyse football.
Error aside, he ended up having to make crucial saves before half time and late on as Fulham pressed for an equaliser. He is somewhat unfairly targeted by opposition fans, pundits and the media every time he makes a mistake. The reality is of course that other goalkeepers simply don’t get the same level of overreaction – Pepe Reina at Liverpool made an equally sized howler against Man City and appears to have gotten off rather lightly for it. The highlight of de Gea’s performance though had to be this moment of skill under pressure on the edge of his six yard box – risky but entertaining.
Two returning Olympians impress
If there was one bonus of having players play at the Olympics it was that providing they played, they’d return to United fit and sharp. Cleverley was thrown in against Everton and did well, this week he was joined in the starting line up by Rafael. The pair were notably sharper than many of the other United players and both played an important part in the win.
Rafael seems to have a good understanding with Valencia and when attacking, they team up well. Somewhat surprisingly, he not only scored his first goal of the season, but could have had three or four had it not been for a correct offside decision and some good goalkeeping. He still has to learn about his defensive positioning but there have been signs of improvements there. At 22 he remains a young footballer who has no natural competition to his position. He’s an exciting player who when next to a natural centre back should excel further.
It says much about Cleverley that he not only kept his place in the team when others were replaced but he played the full game. There’s been something metronomic about him these past two games, something reliable. It’s been like watching Carrick almost – he doesn’t have the range of Michael but he has the accuracy. He’s fast become the out-ball and has been very good at changing the point of attack. Not only has Tom sat deep but he’s also gotten forward and had efforts on goal. As the game against Fulham went on he did seem to try too hard and a few errors crept in but with more playing time they’ll be eradicated. Still, if there remains one question, it’s who best to partner him with, particular so the defence is protected more.
He may not have deserved a start but in order to help steady the ship, Rooney was brought on with about 25 minutes to play. His contribution was minimal but deep into injury time he was somewhat innocuously injured – having blocked a shot, Rooney was on the floor when Hugo Rodallega landed, fully-weighted on Rooney’s thigh. TV cameras immediately picked up a huge cut on Rooney’s upper leg and it took a few minutes for the physios to bandage it and carry him off the pitch. This large wound will clearly take some time to heal and Rooney’s now likely to miss the next four United games with a potential return on the 29th September against Spurs. There will now be more pressure and opportunities for the other strikers to gel with van Persie whilst Rooney’s own fitness will not be improved any time soon.
Opposition watch: Dembele
One of the many players linked with United this summer is Moussa Demebele. Having started out as a striker, he’s moved back into central midfield over the past 12 months. A big, physically imposing player, he caused United problems when he picked up the ball and ran directly at the defence. I can see the attraction of him – not only is he strong and commanding but he’s more than capable at beating his man time and time again.
What he proved though is that as a central midfielder, he remains a rough diamond. As a former striker, his natural instinct is not to protect those behind him and as such he can leave gaps. Even at the other end, his end product is questionable – too often a shot goes wide or he just doesn’t see the right pass. At the right price (low) he could be a sound squad addition but my gut say that not snaring him wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.
Much like the start of last season, United won playing exciting attacking football but still managed to leave gaping holes to be exposed. This may all change when centre backs return to partner Vidic and Carrick can again become a central midfielder but until then, teams will continue to feel like they have a chance of scoring against us. Fulham can be disappointed they only tested United at the start and end of the first half – the period in the middle of it cost them the game.
Whilst the attacking options are numerous, the loss of Rooney will put more pressure on new signing van Persie to deliver. Whether he once again plays with Kagawa behind him or whether Ferguson tries him with a partner ermains to be seen. For now, United can look ahead to the trip at Southampton relieved that they have a win to build on after the loss at Everton.