Due to injuries (Vidic, Ferdinand, Valencia and Hernandez), demotion to the bench (Park, Carrick, Giggs and Fabio) and a retirement (Van Der Saar) only Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra remained in the starting line-up from the team that commenced the Champions League final at Wembley in May. However, last night’s home opener against Spurs provided a tantalising glimpse into the future for United fans; the starting XI’s average age of 23 the club’s youngest in the Premier League era.
A second half onslaught inspired by the dynamic Mancunian youngster Danny Welbeck served notice of the potential of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest group of fledglings. While Hernandez and Vidic will almost certainly force their way back into the starting line-up when fit, it is currently a stretch to see squad members like Carrick or Park as central figures this year.
Even Rio Ferdinand, the man who lifted the European Cup in 2008 might lose his place sooner than expected. Phil Jones’ exemplary performance in commanding the United defence displayed poise and considerable ability. Showcasing all the attributes of great United centre backs of the past like Pallister, Stam and indeed his immediate predecessor, Ferdinand; Jones was assured in the tackle, quick across the turf and elegant in possession.
Swaggering out of defence like Ferdinand in his pomp and passing the ball confidently Jones belied his youthful years and appears to be an enticing, and immediate, prospect. While he is by no means the finished article (and it is worth remembering that Jonny Evans started his United career with similar promise before suffering an alarming, prolonged dip in form) Jones betrayed no nerves on full debut and is certainly en route to permanent first team football in the near future.
Evans and Chris Smalling, playing centrally and on the right side of defence respectively, also turned in assured performances. Gareth Bale was marshalled comfortably by Smalling who also showed a pleasing desire to get forward and married this with some clever touches in the opposition half. Evans also looked composed in the centre nullifying the threat, albeit muted, of the Spurs central attackers and as usual was more at home playing alongside a footballing centre-half like Jones as opposed to a pure defender like Vidic.
In goals, David De Gea returned his first clean sheet for the club. At the tender age of 20, De Gea had already been vilified for two early season errors. Described by Spanish football expert Guillem Balague as: “special”, De Gea had displayed few signs of this ability in being beaten by Dzeko’s speculator at Wembley and Long’s daisy-cutter against West Brom.
However, last night, under the watchful gaze of the retired Van Der Saar, De Gea began to win over the Old Trafford fans with a confident showing comprising immaculate distribution and sure handling. The young Spaniard’s concentration remained unbroken by Defoe’s late challenge and the total command of his penalty area capped an encouraging performance sure to boost his previously fragile confidence.
While Jones and De Gea were signed at extravagant prices United’s attacking threat was engineered by two homegrown, but similarly youthful players: Tom Cleverley and Welbeck. After a frustrating first half where Cleverley struggled to gain a foothold in the midfield and Welbeck’s relatively heavy touch contrived to spoil several promising openings, the pair conspired to open the scoring after an hour; Cleverley’s delightful clip nodded into the far corner by the soaring Welbeck.
With United fans clamouring for the signing of Wesley Sneijder from Internazionale Cleverley’s early season form has rather quieted the demand from the stands. While he may never reach the great heights scaled by the imperious Dutch maestro, Cleverley does possess many of the same attributes as Sneijder. The ability to receive the ball in space and play the killer pass was lacking in United’s midfield last season particularly when Giggs was absent. Cleverley offers this ability and has the footballing brain and all-round potential to become the long-term replacement for Paul Scholes; and this at a fraction of the total cost of one Wesley Sneijder.
In addition, more experienced performers like Rooney and Anderson exerted considerable influence on proceedings. Anderson appears ready to finally fulfil the immense promise that he showed in his first season at Old Trafford and completed a performance of intensity, drive and no little skill with a rare goal. Rooney was his usual effervescent self, proving impossible for the Spurs backline to shackle and utterly relentless in his search for space in which to cause damage. If they can continue this form, Rooney – inevitably, and Anderson – surprisingly, will prove the key players on both domestic and European fronts.
United’s football to start the campaign has been its most attractive and attacking since the first half of the ‘06/07 season when Ronaldo, Rooney, Saha and Scholes caused consternation in Premier League defences. Last night this attacking verve was evidenced by the flooding forward of Smalling and Evra from full-back and occasionally Jones from central defence; with the forward players eventually washing the Londoners away on a tidal wave of youthful vigour.