The script, it would turn out, as many of the best, recent television series have done, the creation of men with nothing but a cynical outlook of the world, would have an anticlimactic ending as its sole purpose was not necessarily to entertain and satisfy us, rather give us a dose of realism. As it turned out, Robin van Persie would not emerge from the bench with the two goals that would see Manchester United to victory at Everton. Instead, it would be the rather unsung Marouane Fellaini that would go on to upstage all potential heroes.
At half time, the scores were level at nothing but there were clear examples of foreshadowing. Fellaini would constantly bounce up and down like an intoxicated Martin Keown-impersonator on a pogo stick, frightening Michael Carrick into near-resignation during the first 45. He would go on to head Everton into the lead in the second and would be such a presence that there would be no need for Nikica Jelavic; indeed, as Fellaini leaped like a salmon on a trampoline, the Croat indulged in an impromptu toilet break that nobody inside Goodison Park had noticed.
One other unnoticeable aspect was Kagawa’s contact with the Goodison turf; it was almost as if he had donned the Hover Boots from The Legend of Zelda, leaving next to no traces of movement. His light-footedness is not a necessary footballing trait but it is aesthetically-pleasing, and it was one of the few enjoyable things thrown up from the game from a Manchester United perspective. He was United’s best outfield player by far; he covered great distances and linked up well with his team-mates, playing a variety of passes and splitting an otherwise resolute defence with perfectly-weighted through balls not limited to just one occasion. There were even signs of a partnership with Wayne Rooney. If both stay fit and it ends up not working, it would surely be the latter to blame.
Rooney has a problem. One of those problems is not scoring goals, however. And while that is arguably more useful than anything, there is a real problem that many are not willing to accept because the smokescreen is more than adequate. He is profligate, like Nani*, but it is even more frustrating in his case because he possesses talent largely unmatched; so talented in fact, that seeing him play badly consistently is a greater shame than any others that may dare to mirror some of his performances. Goals do not measure form, especially when you’re a player like Rooney, expected to assume playmaker duties, too. Still, United must be patient with him in the hope his loveable aggression is restored, but it is reassuring to know that if he holds the side back like he did at times last season, there is last season’s top scorer and others to call on. (This is not a knee-jerk; this was written about in more detail last season.)
Still while Rooney struggled up the pitch, David de Gea was his usual self in goal (as of January 2012) and spared the visitors further embarrassment. While there are clearly areas to work on, he remains one of the League’s best shot-stoppers. His best moment of Monday night coming from a Leighton Baines free-kick, where as Baines’ strike took an awkward deflection off his wall, the Spaniard re-adjusted himself almost spontaneously and moved his right arm across his body to pull off a remarkable save. He could do nothing, however, to stop Fellaini’s winning header, beating a helpless Michael Carrick — the makeshift-defender wearing the look of someone who would rather be elsewhere. That is, in midfield.
Just as United would have wished Nemanja Vidic be able to mark every single threat from the set-piece, thus a more difficult challenge for Fellaini, they were also in need of a Carrick that could play in midfield. As Mark Ogden argues, a Carrick-less midfield means United “lack the dynamo that enables those ahead of him to play their natural game.” Vidic looked good in parts but he looked badly in need of a competent partner. Carrick has had a few good cameos in the position but it is obvious, from this game alone, that he struggles in the air and Fulham may well exploit that on Saturday.
As for leaving Scott Wootton on the bench in the midst of a crisis, understandable as it may seem, he should be considered for the next game. United gave débuts to Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling with similar experience to 20-year-old Wootton, and, with Phil Jones added to the list, at a similar age. It might sound cruel to throw in a player against such a physical side like Everton but there’s nothing to suggest that he isn’t capable. Two Championship spells at Peterborough and Nottingham Forest at least hint that he can play. Imagine, quickly, that he had played for, say, Reading or Southampton in the previous campaign. Both teams have centre-halves that played second-tier football last season and it could be suggested they’d do better than Carrick against men with big afros, making a transition into the Premier League that so many others have been able to do.
But United should remain optimistic. This isn’t to take away from what was a superb performance from the hosts but the game didn’t say so much about Manchester United as a team, rather its individuals, good or bad. Michael Carrick cannot play as a central defender if he’s up against a side so dominant in the air, Wayne Rooney and Nani need to give more, Kagawa looks good and De Gea, too. Even the most pessimistic fan recognises that titles are not lost on the first day of the season, unless, of course, this particular fan argues that, had United defeated West Brom 11-1 in last season’s opener, the Reds would have won the League on goal difference.
*On Nani, poet Musa Okwonga tries to work out what is going through his mind today: “There is no weight more severe/Than your duvet on a Tuesday morning.” You can read it all here.
“Defend, defend … defend, defend, defend,” the Manchester United fans cry in unison, as the opposition launch a counter-attack, outnumbering the United defence by six to one. This is a re-working of the elaborate “attack, attack, attack” chant that so often boomed out of the stands in the seasons before, now a humorous, yet slightly concerned response to the signings of Shinji Kagawa, some Chilean bloke and Robin van Persie from Arsenal. As the away side see their attempted break snuffed out by a gutsy lone defender named Danny Welbeck, there is an overwhelming sigh of relief, and then the fans switch to another new favourite: “we often score ten but we seldom score thirteen.”
A US war general, known for being a bit of a crank, is noted to have once said that “nobody ever defended anything successfully, [that] there is only attack and attack and attack some more.” This, of course, is simply an uttering of words in an order that doesn’t make sense and quite clearly an attempted soundbite (but it sounds believable enough — he was American after all). Only his fellow hotshots would consider this to be wise words; luckily, it would seem, one of those hotshots manages Manchester United.
There are things, yes, that still need to be addressed. United’s last home game to date against Blackburn Rovers is famous in internet terms for Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to play both Rafael da Silva and Park ji-Sung in central midfield, which even Paul Scholes admitted had concerned him (the quote is here, but — warning — it is a Sulia link). Old Trafford had witnessed a revolutionary new tactic — the ‘false central midfielder’ — that they had hoped, but not believed with full conviction, to never see again. There is also the situation at left-back, but first-choice Patrice Evra appears in more club games a season than United are even allowed to play to expose the lack of adequate cover — especially with Fabio da Silva wandering around aimlessly in Hammersmith. But, for the moment, it is worth delaying the thought. United have made a grand statement.
Some things never change. Political conflicts in the East, the author’s relationship status on a social networking site and Ferguson’s love affair with wingers and forwards, and it would appear he seems reluctant to change that. The Scot does things his own way and clearly favours the two-striker system even if the rest of Europe scoffs at it. He is not necessarily a tactician and tends not to overcomplicate things; but like everyone else, he is a lover of attacking play and sees such a signing — a marquee one not since Dimitar Berbatov — as one that would lift the club back on top. He is looking to build a fearsome arsenal similar to the one that had conquered the continent in 2007/08, and went so close a year later.
His best teams had a wealth of attacking options. Further to the side a few years back, there was, most famously, 1998/99. The assumption that he kept the four of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer happy might have been greatly exaggerated, but they succeeded anyway and the manager might then take the view that such a set-up remains resistant to evolution. Having depth is better than no depth at all (this point stands if Berbatov and Macheda leave). As football has shown us several times, luxuries – that is, in this case, the gift of several options and great depth – can instantly disappear, and become crises. Just look at Manchester United’s defence: there are doubts over certain players’ fitness meaning that, ahead of their first game of the season at Everton, Michael Carrick may well partner Nemanja Vidic in central defence. When all fit, United possess five fine first-team centre-halves to choose from but they will be lucky to have even two on Monday. In the case of their strikers, more is more, not less.
Van Persie is also good for Wayne Rooney. The Dutch daily De Telegraaf ran with the headline “Fatman and Robin” on its sport page this morning but it may be the Englishman forced to play the role of sidekick. Rooney had his best goalscoring season last year but you’d find a very real reason for concern looking beyond the goals. He admitted as much. The Dutchman’s presence means Rooney is droppable — at last! — though it is key that United play both together, and be patient with the two as a partnership. United could try to cater for all by playing Van Persie on the left, or Rooney, like Welbeck had done a few times in the 2011/12 season. While Welbeck develops, Rooney could seek to put that particular partnership on hold, though flourishing, and start a new, better one with Van Persie until Welbeck becomes the player they all predict him to be.
Crucially, there is much to like about Robin van Persie. If you ignore the fact he’s filthy with Gunnersaurus’ paw-prints, he looks reassuringly like someone who could do the role of the red Power Ranger justice. He is also, amusingly, the very same thing as Nick Sobotka from The Wire. And not only is he quite good at kicking a football, he’s a specialist at manipulating it, too. David Winner once told Sports Illustrated that he “goes to where the ball will be, before anyone knows it will be there, and that’s a mysterious gift to have. Bergkamp never had that, and nor did Van Basten.” His age, 29, is important, but not as much as some say; after all, the club signed a much older Teddy Sheringham, the only difference being that was for peanuts. Realistically, Van Persie has another four years at the highest level — all fans have to hope for now is that the striker can liberate himself from the injuries that could have made him the player he is now, years ago.