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The 2013-14 season is almost here. Manchester United have beaten Wigan Athletic 2-0 at Wembley to win the Community Shield, David Moyes’ first trophy at the club. Robin van Persie got both goals, his first one in particular being especially well-worked. In all honesty, it was a fairly pedestrian game, but as everyone knows, this fixture is just a teaser for the start of the Premier League next weekend. Despite all that, there were a few interesting points to note from the game, and our observations are below. We’d love to hear from both sets of fans in the comments.
On the Flanks
When the team sheets were announced (and endlessly retweeted on Twitter), some fans were surprised at the inclusion of Giggs and Zaha on the flanks. At opposite ends of the age spectrum, both provided performances that reflected their levels of experience. Giggs’ remarkable zest for the game could be seen in some robust slide-tackling out wide, while he provided his usual craft and understanding of his teammates’ movement. As he did in Fergie’s final few years, Giggsy often tended to come inside to support the midfield or switched to the right and doubled up with Zaha, which allowed Evra to own the left flank (more on that later). Over on the right side, Zaha’s direct, tricky running excited United fans just as much as it did in pre-season, where he excelled. His balance wasn’t always the best and his decision-making is still understandably immature, yet both areas can be improved over time and are therefore only short-term concerns. The amount of raw ability and confidence in every Zaha performance has been mightily encouraging; United fans are enthused about the youngster’s potential, with good reason.
Thus far, Moyes has made only slight changes to the way United play. One of his adjustments has been to increase the team’s urgency in winning the ball back. Today, United’s pressing from the front was really quite good, not for the first time this pre-season. While they’re still a long, long way from the coordinated, stifling pressure of Guardiola’s Barcelona or AVB’s Porto, there have been indications that Moyes wants to make United a more proactive side without the ball. In the first 40 minutes of this game, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck closed down the Wigan defenders high up the pitch, dangerously winning the ball back on a number of occasions. Of course, this was aided by the fact that Wigan’s James Perch and Leon Barnett aren’t the most technically proficient centre-backs, and understandably, the players eased off in the second half as a lack of match sharpness caught up with them. Still, given the large squad and the high fitness levels United players maintain, a more aggressive approach to defending is something to look out for from Moyes’ boys.
Another small that was apparent today was the freedom given to Patrice Evra. As good as his performance was today – easily man of the match, for me – a bustling display in a trophy-friendly doesn’t mean that much. More important is the role he had in the side, and what it means for him under David Moyes. With Giggs coming inside a lot, Evra was given even more licence to attack than he had under Fergie. He took the opportunity to bomb up and down the left flank, mostly unimpeded by Wigan’s weak right sided players. While most fans and commentators overstate Evra’s dip in form from 2010-2012, it’s hard to deny that the Frenchman looked re-energised today – surging forward to attack, providing a superb assist for the first goal, sprinting back to cover in the right back position, and showing his superhuman healing powers to recover from a few knocks. For a player of 32, such intensity is simply remarkable, and it bodes well for the club’s title defence. While we shouldn’t read too much into one game, I do hope Evra’s new role is a feature of the side from now on, and that Moyes sees the tremendous value that Patrice adds to the team. Of course, this makes you wonder what it means for the rumoured signing of Leighton Baines. For me, I don’t think we need him, as Evra should still be first choice, and it’d be unfair to have as good a fullback as Baines operating as an understudy. Whatever happens come September 2nd, the new boss certainly has a way with a left-back.
Midfield not tested
As we’re all aware, United are short of numbers in central midfield, and are in the market for quality players to fill the gap. Though Wigan’s midfield possesses some excellent Premier League-quality players – James McCarthy chief amongst them – they weren’t really able to show up the midfield deficiencies that United have manifested for the last three to four years. Michael Carrick bossed the game, spreading the play left and right and looking comfortable, under little pressure from mostly passive opponents. Tom Cleverley also did well, continuing his good work from pre-season. Moyes seems to appreciate Tom’s willingness to press and win the ball back quickly, which fits into the slightly more proactive style that he wants to implement at United. In the second half, Tom got forward effectively to support the attack as well, though one sometimes suspects he lacks the technique to be a reliable creative force. Anderson came on after 67 minutes and did his part, with little in the way of the spectacular. With all due respect to Wigan, United don’t need top quality midfielders for games of this nature; rather, such players are needed for competitive duels against the very toughest opposition. Results like this one, which United are already well capable of producing, tell us little about the club’s most urgent requirement.
The Community Shield churned out the result most of us expected: a comfortable United win, without much drama or tension. Unfortunately, Rafael picked up a hamstring injury and will be out for four to five weeks. We can only hope that this doesn’t presage the type of defensive injury crisis that seems to blight United every year. While the game itself was largely forgettable, it did provide a few insights into what we can expect from Moyes’ United side in the upcoming season. It’s only one week away now. Come on United.