By Mark Young.
After a week of bad news around the country, Premier League football is finally back. Manchester United travel to the Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon to take on Roy Hodgson’s men. West Brom were the only team to take any points off the champions at Old Trafford last season, drawing two all, after some uncharacteristic mistakes from the ever reliable Edwin Van der Sar.
The meeting at The Hawthorns on New Year’s Day was another tense affair with James Morrison hitting a stunning equaliser after a Wayne Rooney header had put United ahead. West Brom were then given a penalty but Peter Odemwingie missed his opportunity. Javier Hernandez hit a winner for United after coming off the bench and scored what proved to be a vital victory on the road.
A common theme of Man United’s away form last season was the lack of cutting edge; they will be hoping to avoid the same fate this season with a good start away from home on Sunday.
United have added Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David De Gea to their ranks whilst the Baggies have consolidated their team with ex United goalkeeper, Ben Foster, Republic of Ireland hot shot Shane Long and ex midfield star Zoltan Gera.
In terms of team selection both managers have a few headaches. The under rated Mulumbu is a doubt as is star man Peter Odemwingie for West Brom. The Baggies have strength in depth in midfield and with the likes of Morrison, Chris Brunt, Jerome Thomas, Gera and Graham Dorrans all capable of doing a job at the very least they will still look a very strong outfit.
Hodgson played a 4-2-3-1 system last term which had previously served Roberto Di Matteo well but with the recent acquisition of club record signing Shane Long, Hodgson will be moving towards a 4-4-2 when both are fit. As for Sunday, expect to see Hodgson start with what he knows in the 4-2-3-1 formation with Shane Long heading the strike force. If Hodgson did want to go 4-4-2, Simon Cox or Marc-Antoine Fortune would be partnering the Irishman. New number one, Ben Foster will start and he has a point to prove to his previous employers.
Team Selection Thoughts
Foster was once touted as the successor to Van der Sar but after a couple of months in the side he looked nervous and as soon as the Dutchman returned from injury, Foster was out. The man trying to fill that vacant gap at the minute is David De Gea. The Spain under 21 international who cost the Red Devil’s £18 million had a shaky start in the Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday after a long shot from Edin Dzeko, which should have been dealt with, hit the back of the net. He will have his critics and he will make mistakes but there is no doubt that he is a talented and an exciting prospect. He is 20 years of age and the sooner he gets the mistakes out his system, the better but it will be how he reacts to these mistakes which will determine if he is a suitable long term successor to Edwin Van der Sar’s number one shirt at The Theatre of Dreams.
United are without last season’s winner, Javier Hernandez who is not expected back until the end of August after concussion. Danny Welbeck started up top with Rooney on Sunday but last season’s top league goal scorer Dimitar Berbatov may well get the nod this time around. It is expected that United will stick with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-4 that served them well against the noisy neighbours at City with Tom Cleverley or Michael Carrick partnering Anderson in the centre of midfield.
Sir Alex rushed Carrick’s return following a slight muscle strain for the Community Shield highlighting the esteem and importance the manager holds for his midfielder, although as a consequence Carrick was subdued during the first 45 minutes.
Energy, drive, positional awareness, one touch simple and incisive passing are footballing phrases that can be associated with Cleverley, which could be seen by his influence on proceedings last Sunday. The suggestion he is the immediate answer to midfield concerns following the performances against Barcelona and Manchester City is perhaps a little hasty. However, he could easily become this season’s Hernandez where Sir Alex simply cannot afford to leave him out of the starting line-up.
Anderson – the in-between performance
Anderson has enjoyed a full pre-season and his performances to date have justified the claim an injury free pre-season is needed. His showing last Sunday was understated compared to the dominating performances witnessed at Old Trafford last season; he kept things relatively simple and when required demonstrated his ability to create.
Many consider the forthcoming season an important one for Anderson and if he is to establish himself as a regular starter for United he will have to show that he can perform on a consistent basis. Last season he was magnificent in the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford, but was equally dire against Newcastle United at St. James’ Park. He either dominates or struggles to stamp his influence. If Anderson can eradicate the below par performances and replace them with comparable showings to that of Sunday; the in-between performance if you like and continue to command games a la Blackburn he will have a real opportunity to cement his place and lessen the vocal need for new blood.
Ashley Young and the mightily impressive Nani should retain their place on the wings and Chris Smalling will also be pushing for a spot at right back after impressing on Sunday. Sir Alex tends to favour a taller right back to compete/counter teams that possess an aerial threat, as seen on Sunday. In the two fixtures against West Brom last season two shorter right backs in Rafael and Gary Neville (later replaced by Fabio) was preferred therefore, one of the da Silva twins starting on Sunday is a possibility.
The Baggies have been fairly average during pre-season. The highlight being a defiant performance against Olympiakos in which our defence looked woefully out of depth in the first 20 minutes and came back to draw 2-2. Most importantly the squad is going to be fit and sharp by Sunday aside from minor injuries to Odemwingie and Mulumbu by which they should have recovered.
I am filled with start of season optimism but we realise we have a very very tough start to contend with, being away to Chelsea the following week then our obligatory home defeat to Stoke and then away to two of the promoted clubs. Sunday is one of those games we will be hoping to get points from. Hodgson this season seems to be gradually moving away from the 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 so we may line up 4-4-2 with Odemwingie and new acquisition Shane Long up front. Our main weakness is undoubtedly in defence, sometimes our wingers can be quite reluctant to support our full backs.
2010/11 squad compared to 201/12 squad
For a promoted side we had a fairly strong squad that proved to be good enough for the Premier League and only really needed tinkering. However we only managed a rather alarming two clean sheets last season that would suggest if we stopped scoring goals we would be in trouble. Most seem to agree that we still need a centre back but some seem to think young Craig Dawson may be able step up the plate this season after two strong seasons with Rochdale. If that fails we do have a former Spain centre back in our squad… Shane Long and the return of Zoltan Gera stand out as very exciting acquisitions and I fully trust Hodgson can get the best out of those two. Everything has gone quiet on the Owen Hargreaves front in the past week or so but it is rare that a player of his calibre is available to us in spite of his well documented injury problems.
This season is all about consolidation and avoiding the dreaded second season syndrome. It would be nice to be able to build on what we did last season but I would be over the moon with a similar placed finished. After the rollercoaster ride of the last ten years I could definitely get used to a bit of mid table mediocrity, especially if it means a repeat of some of the fine performances of our last campaign.
Hodgson is the right man to push us on to the next level and has proved time and again he is a very good manager when working with so called ‘average’ players and getting them to overachieve. He will always be remembered fondly as the man who finally broke our Liverpool and Villa hoodoos. Sacking Roberto Di Matteo was ultimately the right decision for me; we had the same defensive errors that were costing us matches week in week out throughout the winter period. We went through a period of 9 league games in which we conceded at least two goals before getting the sack. Saying that the overwhelming majority of Albion fans still hold him in high regard for the promotion and some fantastic performances away to Arsenal, Man United and Everton.
Three Key Battles
Ben Foster Vs. David De Gea
This isn’t so much a head to head battle but new goalkeepers sometimes take a while to settle in and we have two prime examples on show on Sunday. De Gea has shown he is vulnerable and West Brom will now no doubt be aware of the same. Foster is also prone to a mistake and therefore, whoever is the most solid out of the two on Sunday will probably end the game with three points for their teams.
Shane Long Vs. Nemanja Vidic
Shane Long will be looking to hit the ground running for his new club but will have to get past the formidable United captain first. The Red Devil’s struggled on the road last season and Solidity at the back will be priority number one this weekend. Long is a good finisher and if Vidic gives him a sniff he is more than likely to finish the chance off. Debut goals are not a rarity.
Jonas Olsson Vs. Wayne Rooney
Rooney has been in magnificent form during pre season and will no doubt be playing off of a main striker and causing not only the Baggies captain problems but most of the side. It is likely to be Olsson’s job to keep an eye on Rooney but if United’s number ten is on his game there is likely to only be one winner.
Travis Warwick, a West Brom fan said, “I’m confident we are good enough to stay clear of the relegation zone this season as we have made some very good signings in Ben Foster and Shane Long. Hodgson will hopefully make us more difficult to break down as out defending is the worst part of our game. I would like to think that we could get a draw at the weekend but even if we give them a tough game, like last season and still lose I’ll be happy as they looked very good against City last weekend.”
It will be a tough encounter for the champions in the Midlands this weekend. Sir Alex Ferguson will be looking to push forward early on this season and will be looking for an improvement on United’s away form this season. Hernandez will be a big miss for United as the potential loss of Mulumbu will be for the Baggies. A tight game is expected at the Hawthorns on Sunday but Ferguson will be reminding his players that it is a marathon and not a sprint. 38 games away from title number twenty.
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