By David Lynch
Writing off Manchester United is a popular pastime amongst fans of the Premier League, and Monday night’s defeat to Everton provided the perfect opportunity for further pessimism.
There’s always something wrong with the Red Devils going into a new season, a flaw that will finally get the better of the canny Sir Alex Ferguson despite his side’s status as enduring title challengers. “This is finally the year!” the cynics cry, and yet the fall from grace never materialises. The red half of Manchester often smiles come May.
However, during this season's opener at Goodison Park, an oft-referenced weakness finally told. A deficiency exploited by just one man; Marouane Fellaini.
The Belgian produced a performance of awesome physicality and delicate creativity and, most importantly of all, scored Everton’s winner. In short he embodied everything that United’s midfield lacked and perhaps has done for quite some time, a fact which will no doubt lead to suggestions that this is a gap which should have been plugged this summer.
Of course, Ferguson’s most recent purchases would be the envy of any club in the world when viewed in isolation. Shinji Kagawa was an intelligent addition from Borussia Dortmund, the Japanese forward providing the perfect link between an advanced Wayne Rooney and the United midfield.
But the arrival of Robin van Persie for the vast sum of £24 million has seemingly posed more questions than it has answered for the Red Devils, the most pertinent of which being: “What about the midfield?”
United’s lack of control in the centre rarely mattered for much of last season, as their remarkable strength in the final third proved enough to dispatch of the Premier League’s lesser lights. But this soft underbelly was cruelly exposed during the latter stages as a draw with Everton and defeat to Manchester City saw Ferguson’s men surrender their lead and subsequently their title.
Though Monday’s configuration of the United engine room undoubtedly missed the cool head of the hastily redeployed Michael Carrick, it was a lack of bite which again saw it splutter unconvincingly. How many of the club’s fans watched on in disbelief as an expensively assembled attack was undersold by a scarcity of control in the most important part of the pitch? How many perhaps wished that Fellaini had been targeted instead of a forward that might not have been entirely necessary?
Even the Red Devils’ bitter rivals Manchester City may well have been wondering if they have taken the wrong midfielder from Goodison Park.
Naturally, a first defeat in an opening fixture since 2004 should not cause panic at Old Trafford just yet. The team which suffered that 1-0 loss at the hands of Chelsea contained the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, Liam Miller and Quinton Fortune, a considerably less illustrious bunch than the class of 2012.
A trip to Everton also remains one of the more difficult fixtures in the Premier League calendar – the Toffees beat the eventual champions, Manchester City, by the same scoreline there last term.
But whether the problems it has highlighted can be fixed by August 31 is uncertain. Though significant amounts have been spent this summer, the spectre of the Glazers’ recent disappointing stock exchange launch looms large over a debt-ridden club. The shopping spree may be over.
That said, if Ferguson needs inspiration ahead of a season in which ‘make do and mend’ could well be his midfield strategy, then he need look no further than the man across from him in the dugout on Monday evening.
David Moyes has seemingly done it again, but this time before January.
A result such as this could well hand the Merseyside outfit the good start they have so often craved to precede their habitually strong finishes. Finally the Scot possesses a squad with genuine depth, as the introduction of Steven Naismith and Seamus Coleman proved late on. A Champions League challenge is a genuine possibility.
But for Ferguson, such trivial things as qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition are not a concern. Midfield problems or not, Manchester United will doubtless be involved at the very top of the table come the end of the season.
Yet, following a campaign in which his side lost the title with just 30 seconds remaining, the Scot will be fully aware of the importance of the finer details.
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