Opening weekend of the 2019/20 Premier League season could equally have left Manchester United fans feeling fabulous or even fallow.
Yes, a 4-0 thrashing of rivals Chelsea – an opponent United have struggled hugely against in recent times – was exhilarating, epic, exactly what was needed. Other more pessimistic fans, however, would perhaps have concerned themselves with the fact the margin of defeat was harsh in the extreme on the visitors, who were the better side for the majority of the 90 minutes.
Depending at which end of the spectrum they dwell – seeing as some consider it to have been a frustrating, while others would call it a fulfilling summer – United fans could well be planning to attend a Premier League title parade in May, or a group therapy session for dropping out of the top six.
The opening day win told us lots, and also little, of what to expect from United this season.
Harry Maguire will have tougher afternoons in a red shirt. But on his Red Devils bow, the 26-year-old England centre-back was resplendent. Despite the scoreline it was not all calm seas and plain sailing for the Sheffield United product.
In fact there were some choppy moments for United’s defence, especially in a first half that the visitors started brighter and looked in control of before Kurt Zouma’s clumsy concession of a penalty.
Frank Lampard’s side rattled Daivd De Gea’s woodwork through Tammy Abraham and Emerson, with Abraham and fellow budding Blues star Mason Mount looking comfortable after stepping up from shining in England’s second tier last season.
And yet, Maguire – already looking like he could be a future United captain – skippered the back line brilliantly as he and Victor Lindelof steadied the ship. United stayed afloat and, with Chelsea as well looking not totally comfortable as they search to find a new identity under record goalscorer Lampard and with star man Eden Hazard departed, eventually cruised to victory.
Maguire led United players – all players in fact – with seven clearances, four interceptions and two blocked shots (Chelsea’s Pedro also recorded four interceptions). While Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James had spent the summer bedding in at their new club, Maguire arrived only five days before the Chelsea game. And yet he played as if he’d been part of that back line for a decade, so smooth was his transition and so commanding his presence.
At right-back, Wan-Bissaka arguably impressed even more. The former Crystal Palace defender’s five clearances trailed only Maguire, he had one fewer interception while ‘Spider’ made six tackles, the best of any player on the pitch.
At 21 he already looks like he could be a commanding presence at the club for the next decade. In an attacking sense refinement is required but as seen in pre-season when he got on the end of a precision Paul Pogba pass to lay on Mason Greenwood’s goal against Leeds, it is an aspect of his game he and the club seem committed to enhancing.
For now that is a minor concern. Of major concern for United heading into this summer was improving their defence – one that shipped 54 goals last season, a worrying increase of 26 from the previous campaign. If that’s concerning alarm bells should be bellowing upon the revelation you have to go back 40 years – to 1978/79 – for when United allowed more goals in the league, 63.
It’s just the first game but a line-up of De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof and Luke Shaw looks far superior to any back five that has started a game for United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
And it’s telling that United’s first clean sheet of the season at home is already only one fewer than they managed in 19 games in front of their own fans last season.
A small mention for De Gea too, who also put in a promising display that hinted at better to come. His legacy was certainly besmirched by an uncharacteristically error-strewn 2018/19 campaign that followed a poor World Cup.
Having ascended to become the world’s No1 goalkeeper from 2015-18, his stock fell starkly last season and he has now slipped a level below the likes of Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Jan Oblak.
But he was sturdy on Sunday and stellar saves from Emerson and Ross Barkley were ones routinely part of his repertoire once upon a time. A new contract is already believed to have been signed, despite no announcement by the club. But a stronger-looking four in front of him will give the 28-year-old the confidence to recover his reputation.
There was also enough on show further up the pitch to suggest a new hope ahead for United’s attack. Despite adding two quality players to a creaking defence over the summer, United fans’ ire after the closing of the transfer window last Thursday was directed Ed Woodward’s way due to no addition of a midfielder or striker.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion but the eruption of emotion appeared over the top. Sure, big name players like Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku have left and not been replaced. But when it’s suggested a successor for Marouane Fellaini has not been found, you know supporters are clutching at straws.
Whereas United’s defence has always been suspect in the post-Ferguson years, their attack has seemed more dormant. There are several weapons there, but they’ve been unable or unwilling to fire as one.
Anthony Martial’s first season at the club – he was 19 – remains his most productive and United fans wonder whether he will ever truly prove his worth. Marcus Rashford has his own issues, chiefly dealing with being a Manchester lad and the burden of becoming the next local hero.
Despite the fact he has surpassed many league and club records – scoring more goals (26) from 100 Premier League appearances for United than Ryan Giggs (25), Wayne Rooney (24) and Cristiano Ronaldo (19) – the fact United have fallen on faltering time means patience is in short supply.
But when it clicked in the second half on Sunday, Solskjaer’s attack looked sublime and in sync. Martial and Rashford dovetailed delightfully as they switched between the central striking role and the forward cutting inside from the left flank.
Jesse Lingard – another figure of fun and frustration throughout his United career – came alive and buzzed around the pitch with intent, while Welsh flyer James proved when he came on that he can give United an added dimension in attack.
He made N’Golo Kante – admittedly far from 100 per cent fit – look like he was standing in cement as he won a foul late on. The former Swansea man might not relish the prospect, but he’s surely going to be spending a lot of time on the floor this season.
Fans may fume that while not the most mobile or technically gifted it was foolish to let Lukaku leave for Inter Milan with only 17-year-old Greenwood as back-up to Martial and Rashford – there’s also a certain Chilean waiting in the wings after a red-hot Copa America performance.
But it’s clear from United’s new high-pressing energy and slick attacking structure the laborious Lukaku did not have a future in Solskjaer’s system, and that the manager is also happy to back his emerging stars.
Let’s hope the fans’ enthusiasm for this season and this new-look team is similarly speedy.
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