By Nathan Thomas.
The smell of Bovril, the Pools, the not so dulcet overtones of Alan Hansen; all things equated to being intrinsic with the start of the season. Now, you may be thinking that I am a week late with statements of this ilk. However, for most Reds the season does not officially kick-start until the first game at Old Trafford.
This belief is particularly pertinent given the disappointing open day defeat against Everton last Monday. Suddenly, what may have been considered a nice home-banker against Fulham, took on much more importance. If you add into the equation Fulham’s 5-0 demolition of Norwich at Craven Cottage on the opening day then you would be forgiven for having shot a nervous sideways glance as Damien Duff gave the Cottagers a 1-0 lead within three minutes of the kick-off.
It was however, to be a (relatively) minor blip in a game that showcased 45 minutes of ruthless attacking football from a United side who, for the first time, had their attack spearheaded by new signing Robin van Persie. It was to take the Dutchman a meagre ten minutes to register his first Manchester United goal – and what a goal. The way van Persie majestically swept his left foot finish passed Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal made me recall Alan Smith’s home-debut sizzler against Norwich – some eight years ago. Based on the 112 minutes that we have seen van Persie in a United shirt, I for one, expect this home-debutant to be much more of a fulcrum in the United side than the latter.
Although the former Arsenal man is still lacking a smidge of match-sharpness, a fact he openly admitted after the game, he showed more than a glimpse of his wily ability in and around goal. During the second half, with United shooting towards me (not literally me, although some of Giggs’ shots when he came on as a late substitute may question that notion) I decided to watch van Persie during his time off the ball. It was rather odd at first, van Persie seemed to be capable of achieving 100% visual attention from the Fulham defence despite moving about in a manner that can be only categorised as a ‘skulk’. How much this is down to his fitness will be undoubtedly be revealed at a later date, but although he moved in away akin to his predecessor in the role of marquee striker Dimitar Berbatov; he did not for a minute looked disinterested and he displayed a very relaxed, dare I say, Dutch, way of doing things. Similar to van Nistelrooy, United’s latest favourite Dutchman appears to championing the mantra ‘minimum effort – maximum impact’.
His movement, although it may have appeared slow, was excellent. He continually dropped deep to link up with the buzzy Kagawa, who himself enjoyed a fine home debut. He would then drift out to the wide left, holding up the ball as the Reds front two waited for attacking reinforcements from the likes of the reinvigorated Evra and the brilliant Rafael. With Evra and Rafael being accompanied in defence by the unfamiliar central defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick-bauer, it appeared that United had adopted the stance mentality that attack was the best form of defence. It could certainly typify the first half.
In fairness to Fulham, they came to Old Trafford and had more than a good go. The physical prowess of Moussa Dembele and Bryan Ruiz caused problems for the tireless midfield duo of Tom Cleverley and Anderson, but the latter two gave their fair share back. Anderson pulled out one of his best performances in a United shirt for a long while and alongside the aforementioned Cleverley and the right-wing powerhouse that is Antonio Valencia helped to cause Fulham a multifarious amount of defensive problems.
However, for all United’s attacking nous, which yielded two further goals before the half-time whistle (an opportunists finish from Kagawa after a stinging Cleverley drive and a header from unusual goal-scorer Rafael) worries over the defensive side of our game persist.
Of course, the return of Michael Carrick to his usual haunt of the United engine room will ease things along a little; particularly given the fact that his move up yonder will come as a result of the return to fitness of Jonny Evans or Phil Jones. But many Reds, including myself, worry for the physicality – or lack of – currently in our midfield. We were exposed against Everton, and at times against Fulham, their powerful midfield was able to penetrate the rather unintimidating one of our own.
Watching Dembele controlling Fulham’s possession play with both physicality and technical precision must surely have registered on Ferguson’s reinforced psyche, but if we take the manager’s ‘no more signings’ statement as verbatim then how do we fill this perceived need for a rum-bugger with a brain?
On the face of what we currently have at our disposal midfield-wise, you may struggle to find someone who fits this description. However, I ask, could Anderson not be this man? Ok, we have had years of expectation placed on this guy and he has not once delivered, I hear you say. But surely, he is someone who could get about the opposition, in a similar way to which Ramires operates for Chelsea. Possibly a big six-foot + bruiser is not the way we necessarily have to go. And although fans persist in their downright obsession with a need to buy a midfielder, I struggle to believe that a manager of Ferguson’s experience who has also just spent £24 million on a player that we could have arguably coped without anyway, would not buy if he felt it was needed. Based on this perception one can only ascertain that the player is already within the ranks. Who? Nobody knows for sure, with Ferguson stumping even the finest football minds and the most clued-up of journos.
I am tempted to reserve full judgement until our defense resembles something akin to normality, but despite some nagging concerns, early signs are good. I am excited by United again. That horrible day in May will probably take a twentieth league title to render the feeling it gave me redundant (and possibly more than that). However, with some exciting acquisitions flourishing early on and United linking up extremely well – signs are good.