Follow David: @DavidGee26
Manchester United opened the 2015/16 Premier League campaign with a narrow victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. There were a few nervy moments but in the end the Reds probably just about deserved the three points.
The game began with the home side on the back foot. Spurs were comfortable in possession and should have gone ahead when Harry Kane cleverly found Christian Eriksen only for the Dane to lob the ball just over the bar.
United grew into the game and got their reward for pressing high up the pitch when Wayne Rooney was found in the box, only for the striker to make a meal of things. Fortunately, Kyle Walker inadvertently placed the ball beyond Michel Vorm and into his own net and the home side took the lead.
Chances were then few and far between and it was by no means a convincing or exhilarating display. Nevertheless, here are five things we learned from the Reds’ victory over the North London side.
1) Solid Smalling
Debate over United’s centre back positions has rumbled on for some time now. Many (including this author) believe that an experienced, top quality centre half will still be needed if the club are to mount a serious challenge for the title this season, but once more Chris Smalling showed his quality.
It was slightly bemusing that the former Fulham man appeared to have been ousted by Phil Jones in pre-season but if there was any lingering doubt, Smalling’s performance against Tottenham put a marker firmly in the ground.
The centre-half was assured, quick and vocal, something which has been a criticism of his game in the past. Perhaps a few outings as captain have benefitted the defender, who looks to have embraced added responsibility. Tottenham never threatened too much in truth, but if Smalling can find consistency and stay injury free he will prove a valuable asset this campaign.
2) Debut Delights
5 players made their Premier League debuts for Manchester United on Saturday afternoon and there were some impressive and encouraging displays amongst them,
The standout was right back Matteo Darmian, who showed no signs of requiring a bedding-in period to life in the Premier League. The Italian was calm, assured and defensively solid with his obvious pace proving a real asset. It was telling that Tottenham began to find success down United’s right following the former Torino man’s withdrawal. It is, of course, early days in the full-back’s United career, but those who predicted that Darmian may prove to be the club’s most astute addition this summer are all looking spot on after Saturday’s display.
Morgan Schneiderlin added real steel to United’s midfield, tenacious in the tackle and got about the pitch well. There were a few sloppy moments in possession that could have proved costly but overall it was an encouraging start. Sergio Romero did all that was asked of him after a surprise start in goal and Bastian Schweinsteiger showed glimpses of his class after replacing Michael Carrick. There is no question that the German’s guile and experience will prove invaluable and it was impossible not to notice the former Bayern man orchestrating things from the second he stepped onto the pitch.
Memphis Depay is clearly a raw talent and there is no questioning his attitude. The Dutchman was tangibly disgruntled when he was substituted but that speaks volumes of his desire to impress; and his manager alluded to that afterwards with claims that perhaps the former PSV man was trying a little too hard.
Much cause for optimism, then, as it looks like United have strengthened well in a number of areas. It was by no means a convincing performance, but the early signs are positive ones.
3) Depay’s Deployment
Throughout pre-season, and again on Saturday, Memphis Depay has been deployed in a no.10/second striker role behind Wayne Rooney. Louis Van Gaal clearly believes it is a role that Memphis can excel in given time but it’s hard to understand why the youngster hasn’t been given more of a chance in a wide-left role having proved so incisive in the position for his former club.
One reason, perhaps, is the form of Ashley Young but it’s certainly odd that a player who thrives in the no.10 role, Juan Mata, is forced out wide whilst a natural wide man is learning his trade through the centre.
Van Gaal has talked at length about balance and about pace up front and in the wide areas. It is hoped that Memphis is afforded opportunities in wide areas moving forwards as it is likely to bring a better balance and greater fluency to the side.
4) Midfield Fluency
United got the all important result, but certainly not the fluid performance many would have been hoping for. The current 4-2-3-1 being deployed by the Reds’ manager carries a feeling of imbalance, with the aforementioned Memphis playing out of position (or learning a new one).
Following the young Dutchman’s withdrawal, replaced by Ander Herrera, the Old Trafford outfit assumed a more fluid look in both possession and transition. Whilst Memphis is more of a forward playing in midfield if deployed at no.10, Ander Herrera is the opposite, a midfielder breaking forwards to supplement attacks.
Arguably, the Spaniard’s introduction delivered a minor switch to more of an orthodox 4-3-3 and the fluency of United’s play increased as a result. The Reds looked more balanced and more controlled and it will certainly have given Van Gaal food for thought, particularly away from home.
5) Business Not Over
It was in many aspects an underwhelming and lethargic performance and on another day United may well have left Old Trafford without 3 points. Opening day games are notorious for knee-jerk reactions and fickle statements but it would be very surprising if the club were not active once more in the final weeks of the transfer window.
Firstly, the goalkeeping situation needs resolving. It’s one thing to refuse to sell David De Gea, but it’s another to then not have a player in the position to represent the club, mentally or otherwise. Pride and fees become a moot point if the asset you are holding onto is no longer a valuable asset because they are unable to deliver what they have in previous years.
A centre-back remains a priority and with the departure of Di Maria it would not be surprising to see further attacking additions. Pedro has been widely mooted as a firm target and the Spaniard would certainly add pace and versatility to United’s forward positions.
Nothing can really be judged for the season ahead from Saturday’s game but it is always welcome to grind out a win when not playing well. Further additions may arrive and they will need to if Manchester United are to mount a serious challenge on all fronts. For now; against Spurs it was simply a case of job done and move on.