The traditional season curtain raiser took place on Sunday as Premier League champions Manchester United took on FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic at Wembley in the Community Shield.
What can we learn from United’s win at Wembley?
Whilst the shield has diminished in popularity and importance in recent years, it is nonetheless still a great opportunity to examine how the Premier League holders are shaping up for the season ahead. Add in the fact that this was David Moyes’ first competitive outing in the managerial hotseat for the Red Devils, and you can see why the game was so alluring for the media and the spectators.
The game itself was a fairly drab 2-0 victory for United, but nonetheless it certainly was a useful example of United’s current strengths and failings.
Robin van Persie
The prolific Dutchman once again showed why Sir Alex Ferguson was prepared to pay £24m to bring the striker to Old Trafford as he bagged both the goals – one a beautifully placed header, and the other a strike that took a wicked deflection off an unfortunate James Perch. As the saying goes, ‘they all count’.
To say that all United’s hopes rest on Robin van Persie would be over the top, but what is quite clear is that the Dutchman was the difference last year. Van Persie hit 26 goals in the Premier League alone last season, and that haul was integral to United’s 11-point cushion at the top of the table. Moyes will be hoping with all his might that he can keep his star fit, as van Persie resides in a team that otherwise struggles for goals. Moyes is well aware of this fact, and this is likely to be reason why the Scot is so determined to retain the services of Rooney.
Rooney, however, is clearly unhappy to be regarded as a backup, and Moyes would do well to devote his efforts to resolving the Rooney conflict over the next week.
Zaha shines in a world of woeful wingers
One of the things that made United’s romp to last seasons’ title all the more incredible was that they did it without any decent wingers.
Of the wingers on United’s books Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were poor throughout the season, whilst Nani endured another campaign in which he was both inconsistent and injury-prone throughout. Ryan Giggs can no longer really be classed as a winger, with the Welshman still possessing a wonderful touch but failing to boast anything like the pace of his early career.
All of the stated reasons amounted to United’s need to purchase another winger this summer, and thankfully for David Moyes (who seems to be struggling sign any players at the moment), Sir Alex Ferguson signed Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace prior to the Scot’s retirement. Given his age and lack of Premier League experience, most expected Zaha to be used sparingly or sent out on loan to gain some experience, but following his performance at Wembley; it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the young Englishman gain a few more first-team appearances for United this season.
Zaha was lively at Wembley; always happy to receive the ball, and always keen to run at his opposite number. He got rather overexcited at one point, losing the ball whilst trying to backheel it, earning himself a ticking off from Giggs, but generally he acquitted himself well, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him start at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, when United take on Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City.
United need a midfielder
United’s performance against Wigan betrayed another fact that has been irrefutable for quite some time now: the Premier League champions are in dire need of a midfield presence. Whilst Michael Carrick has been quietly effective for a few seasons now, he does not possess the ability to take on a man or drive the ball up the pitch. Tom Cleverley flatters to deceive, with the only notable moment for the 24-year old coming when he hooked a golden opportunity wide of the right-hand post. Ryan Giggs can play in the middle, but as he nears his 40th birthday he can neither play a large number of games nor be regarded as a long-term option.
United fans may disagree with me and say that the current midfield was good enough to win the title last season and should be again, but it is worth bearing in mind that United’s closest competitors have significantly strengthened their squad in the close season. City have, most notably, acquired the services of Fernandinho, who is likely to improve the already impressive Citizen’s midfield quite considerably, and in fact, when you consider the Arsenal duo of Arteta and Wilshere, the Tottenham triumvirate of Sandro, Paulinho and Dembele and the addition of Marco van Ginkel to the already accomplished midfield at Chelsea, United’s midfield looks worryingly weak.
United failed to dominate in the middle of the park against Wigan, and consequently struggled to exert their own superiority on the game, with the two goals being rare highlights in what was otherwise a dreary contest. Given that Wigan are now in the Championship and United are the Premier League champions, the gulf in class between them should perhaps have been greater.
The good news for United fans is that David Moyes seems to be aware of these midfield problems. His dogged pursuit of Cesc Fabregas indicated that he is after a box-to-box midfielder who can tackle, pass and run; and although his hopes of landing the Spaniard have diminished, Moyes is rumoured to be after his ex-player Marouane Fellaini instead. The big Belgian would provide that drive in the United midfield that was so evidently lacking last season, and United fans should have their fingers crossed that Fellaini makes the switch sooner rather than later.
United missed Rooney
One of the things that was telling about the United performance is that they didn’t have the personnel to be able to link the midfield to the attack. Danny Welbeck was awarded the role of No.10 and was tasked with feeding the ball from midfield to Robin van Persie, but ultimately Welbeck failed to shine, and United failed to get in behind Wigan.
I have felt for a long time that United is too big a club for the modest talents of Welbeck, a player who has been favoured beyond reason by the United management simply because he hails from Manchester. The 22-year old is big and relatively strong, but he simply doesn’t have the guile or panache required to play in a creative position. The fact that the Englishman was preferred to Japanese star Shinji Kagawa was beyond comprehension, but there is another player who fits seamlessly into that No.10 role.
I am of course talking about Wayne Rooney. The most talented English footballer of his generation, Rooney has all the attributes required to be the perfect support striker for United, and indeed, this is a role that he has played to great effect many times before.
Welbeck’s performance will have cast further doubt in Moyes’ mind over his ability to be the link between the United midfield and Robin van Persie, and no doubt the Scot will be well aware of the suitability of Rooney for that precise role. Last season, Moyes’ predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson seemed unwilling to play Rooney there in the big games; a fact that has perhaps contributed towards Rooney’s desire to leave. If he wants to retain Rooney’s services, Moyes must convince Rooney that he is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Rooney may have designs on the centre forward position, but if Moyes can promise him regular first team football in the advanced role that Welbeck has frequently failed to deliver in, I think he’s got a good chance of keeping the England star at Old Trafford.
Can United retain their title?
A season cannot be judged on one game, but it must be said that on the basis of the Community Shield, United are likely to struggle this season. If the Red Devils fail to strengthen their squad (and particularly their midfield), then I wouldn’t fancy them to retain the title. Three weeks are left until the end of the transfer window, and David Moyes needs to get his hands dirty very, very quickly.