As Manchester United struggled to their first win of the season, courtesy of a brilliant Robin van Persie debut goal and Shinji Kagawa putting his name on the Old Trafford score-sheet for the first time as well, everything good and bad about how this season could turn out for Alex Ferguson’s men, including a nasty injury to Wayne Rooney, unfolded through the 90 minutes.
First, the good, and the front four, supported by Rafael on the right back were extremely good for most of the match. Shinji Kagawa looks like a spot on purchase, fitting perfectly in his role behind the striker, showing fantastic off the ball movement, positioning and passing-distributing skills, working the striker and the wingers to full effect. He needs to get a little bit selfish, like he was for Dortmund, scoring 21 goals in 49 appearances for the German club, but it’s still early, he’s trying to be a team player first, and he’s already got a goal.
Ashley Young isn’t the most elegant player to watch, unlike Nani (when he’s actually good, which isn’t the case at the moment) or the flashy Antonio Valencia on the right wing, but he creates so much trouble on the left wing as he cuts to the middle that it’s hard to give up on him. Young didn’t score, but kept Fulham’s right side quite busy for most of the match.
The same could be said for Valencia, back in his more attacking role, constantly keeping the pressure with his strides down the flank and low crosses that were hard to deal with. He drew attention from two men constantly, aiding the streaky Rafael to be very involved and score a goal that eventually was the difference maker.
And then there’s Robin van Persie, who wasn’t brilliant, but showed a pretty good understanding with Kagawa on his first start for the club, putting his stamp on the match with a beautiful volley to score United’s first goal of the season. He did have a bit of trouble finding space inside a very crowded Fulham penalty box, but it’s hard to find a better goalscorer than him at the moment in the Premier League, not to mention what he adds in set pieces.
But behind the front four begin the problems. We’ll start with Wayne Rooney, who wasn’t in the starting lineup for the match, coming on after 68 minutes only to see luck turn against him and suffer from a severe gash in his leg from a studded boot and will now miss something like 4 weeks (although United players always seem to come back a bit sooner). This will pretty much make it a certainty that Van Persie and Kagawa start every match as they both grabbed Rooney’s place in the lineup. When he returns, don’t be surprised to see him making a return to the left wing instead of Ashely Young.
While David de Gea is constantly criticized for bad rushing out decisions and the quickness in which he loses his confidence in matches after mistakes, the young Spanish goalkeeper made some big saves against a bust Fulham attack, led by the destructive Moussa Dembele. De Gea’s coordination with the returning Vidic is far from perfect, while Michael Carrick himself isn’t adding to the cause by putting more pressure on Vidic by missing assignments and not playing in his natural role.
The big problems come from the midfield. Tom Cleverley and Anderson simply couldn’t hold the fort during Fulham’s good minutes, when Dembele left them time after time in the dust. Anderson himself keeps getting chances to prove he’s not the bust most think he has become, but I don’t remember a single good match from him in over a year. Cleverley needs a bit more time to return to himself, but he seems to be a bit fearful when going into physical confrontations, which might be disastrous as a holding midfielder. There’s not that much need from the two to support the attack, but their ability to hold possession and keep counter attackers away from the goal or stall them at least, whoever the duo may be, has to be much better.
Alex Ferguson still can’t be happy. Manchester United aren’t playing well enough to make him smile, while Wayne Rooney is now out for a month. But better signs of a very fruitful attacking combination came out of the 3-2 win over Fulham, which will hopefully be contagious to other parts of the team.