United find reassurance in Kagawa’s soft feet and De Gea’s hard hands
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.