On the opening night of the season at Old Trafford, Manchester United extended their unbeaten league record at the famous old stadium to 22 games, stretching back to the start of April in 2010. Spurs proved willing adversaries in an entertaining game but were ultimately undone by United’s attacking potency. Goals from Welbeck, Anderson and Rooney ensured the three points stayed at Old Trafford and that the Red Devils joined Manchester City and Wolves at the top of the league after two matches.
United started with a makeshift defence in the absence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand; Phil Jones and Jonny Evans deputised in central defence and Chris Smalling continued at right back. The front six was filled with pace and attacking verve which eventually proved too much for Tottenham to handle. The uncertainty surrounding young Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea might also begin to dissipate after an assured performance comprised of safe handling and accurate distribution. The Spurs outfield ten were unchanged from the Europa League demolition of Hearts in midweek, with Brad Friedel replacing Huerelho Gomes in goals.
The 40-year old American goalkeeper was Spurs busiest performer on the night with United racking up 17 shots on target. He was called into action in the opening minutes as Cleverley surged through the centre after Phil Jones had instigated a counter attack, an early example of the latter’s comfort in possession. Cleverley’s low curling effort was tipped round the post by Friedel with an athleticism that belied his years. It was merely the first of a multitude of acrobatic saves from the experienced custodian.
After withstanding an initial period of pressure, Spurs gained a foothold in the game and had slightly the better of the ball in the first half, despite a lack of serious attacking threat. Niko Kranjcar perhaps summed Spurs up on the night, neat and tidy in possession but lacking the cutting edge to open up United’s youthful central defence. In truth, when they were tested, Evans and particularly Jones looked assured and composed. Jones made two vital blocks during the game, displayed speed and strength, and carried that ball out of defence with authority – something United have lacked whenever Ferdinand has been unavailable in recent years.
In goals, De Gea began restoring his fragile confidence with some impressive mid-range passes to his full-backs and then more importantly with two smart saves; firstly to his right from Bale’s scuffed strike and then to his left from Van Der Vaart’s rising drive. The young Spaniard grew in confidence over the 90 minutes with the Old Trafford faithful unceasing in their encouragement and they will have been further heartened by De Gea’s aggressive reaction in fronting up Jermaine Defoe after a snide kick from the Spurs striker in the closing minutes of the match.
United’s best chance of a fairly quiet first half fell to Ashley Young whose header slid inches wide of the far post following a measured cross from Rooney. With Dawson and Kaboul defending resolutely and Danny Welbeck’s rather leaden-footed touches around the area, United’s attacks were rather snuffed out before they threatened Friedel’s goal. The first half meandered to its conclusion with United surprisingly devoid of inspiration, the story summarised in that the brightest points were De Gea and Jones.
Spurs started the second half as they had closed the first by dominating possession but generally going nowhere with it. Aaron Lennon managed to get round the outside of Patrice Evra on a couple of occasions but the winger’s delivery was unfailingly erratic; Van Der Vaart left infuriated more than once by Lennon’s inability to consistently pick out a teammate in the box.
Gradually United began to go through the gears and Friedel was called into action saving Anderson’s shot and then Rooney’s on the follow-up. Young was next to go close, volleying into the Stretford End from Welbeck’s flick on. Finally, on the hour mark, the previously indecisive Welbeck opened the scoring with a deft header from Cleverley’s inch perfect cross. It is early in the season but Cleverley’s composure in the central areas, coupled with what was to follow from Welbeck made promising viewing for Ferguson and the hordes inside Old Trafford.
After a period of intense pressure United wore Spurs down before sweeping them away. Welbeck’s acrobatic overhead kick was comforatably saved by Friedel before the American made another terrific double save, blocking Nani’s near post effort and Welbeck’s rebound.
The match was then illuminated by United’s second goal as Anderson played Welbeck in and the youngster finally allied his fleetness of foot to deftness of touch with an exquisite backheel that allowed Anderson, bursting beyond the Spurs midfield, to slot into an empty net. The peripheral vision shown by Welbeck to pick out the Brazilian was reminiscent of Old Trafford alumni like Cantona or Scholes and bodes well for the season ahead. With Rooney flitting between the lines dangerously and capping his excellent all-round performance with a late glancing header into the far corner to seal a 3-0 victory; Hernandez recovering from concussion to replace Welbeck and Berbatov waiting in the wings, Ferguson can now marshal a four-pronged attacking threat that he hasn’t had since Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer ran riot on the hallowed turf.
Spurs could have been embarrassed but for Friedel’s continued heroics and some unusual profligacy from Rooney, which would have been undeserved after an hour of composed play. Their lack of cutting edge will surely hasten Harry Redknapp’s search for a predator before the transfer window shuts. Diego Forlan or Fernando Llorente may be the answer for Spurs but offloading Luka Modric must be a necessity to fund a move for one of the Spanish based strikers. On this evidence the diminutive Croat will not be missed drastically as Spurs areas of concern assuredly lie in more advanced positions.
United’s first home match of the season finished with a final half-hour flourish of pace and panache that promises riches for the coming season. Arsenal may prove a sterner examination of this inexperienced United rear-guard on Sunday but the early signs suggest that City, Liverpool and Chelsea will have to raise their games to wrench the Premier League trophy from Ferguson’s grasp.