Manchester United survived a nervy 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford to begin the 2015-2016 Premier League season. While it was a less than convincing display from the Red Devils, their supporters will feel far better than they did after last year’s 2-1 loss to Swansea in the opening fixture.
While it is still early in the season, Louis van Gaal will be able to take away a lot from the match.
1. Chris Smalling is undroppable, Blind not so much
Chris Smalling put in a Man of the Match-worthy display, making 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 7 clearances while completing 46 passes. Last year’s impressive form seems to be no fluke, as he was rock solid despite being playing in front of a debutant goalkeeper while paired with a converted full-back/midfielder. He is an excellent marker with the passing range and quality than Van Gaal desires, making Smalling his team’s No. 1 option in central defence barring a big-money signing.
Blind was far less reliable than his partner; he is clearly composed with the ball at his feet, distributing well and clearing comfortably, but he is simply not good enough defensively to fit Van Gaal’s style. The high line exposes Blind’s lack of pace and he is not nearly physical enough to contend with larger center forwards. He was dominated aerially by Harry Kane and pushed off the ball too easily by Spurs attackers. Marcos Rojo should be strongly considered to start at Villa Park next weekend.
2. Juan Mata should be deployed centrally
United’s attack was blunt for much of the game as Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney struggled to link up. When Marouane Fellaini is not in the side to get on the end of crosses, United’s strategy of putting its creative players (Ashley Young, Juan Mata) on the wings makes far less sense. On the occasions that Mata cut inside and began to pull United’s strings, the attack sharpened and the Red Devils looked somewhat incisive. Depay and Young on the wings with Mata in the middle would open things up for Rooney and give United a little more pace down the wings where they need it.
3. Schneiderlin-Carrick pairing is too stagnant
Michael Carrick is an excellent technician, but he is simply at a point in his career where he cannot play next to another defensive midfielder like Morgan Schneiderlin. Despite his best efforts, Carrick does not have the energy or mobility to go box-to-box, which left a sizable gap between United’s midfield and attack against Tottenham.
Mata deployed in the hole would help mitigate that problem slightly, but an additional, more reasonable solution would be the inclusion of Ander Herrera or Bastian Schweinsteiger in the starting XI if Van Gaal continues on with his 4-2-3-1 setup. Both are fully capable of playing box-to-box and acting as the link between defence and attack, creating a more defined role for Schneiderlin and giving United’s defence a more advanced outlet as they build from the back.
4. Matteo Darmian is the long-term answer at right-back
With United’s three high-profile signings, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, and Depay, the Italian international’s addition flew under the radar, but he may prove to the best value out of all at 13 million pounds.
Darmian did not put a foot wrong, putting in a terrific performance that saw him named Man of the Match by United supporters. He linked up well with Mata and Depay while defending brilliantly against Nacer Chadli, Kane, and Cristian Eriksen. You could see his impact even more clearly when he was replaced by Antonio Valencia, whose poor defensive positioning nearly cost United the victory.
5. Sergio Romero Can Be the No. 1
Many people seem to forget that Romero featured in last summer’s World Cup Final and was Man of the Match in a World Cup Semi-Final. His club career has been tenuous, but the past two seasons have seen him loaned out to a Monaco side with an entrenched No. 1 only to return to Sampdoria where a starter was also in place. The last time Romero entered a season as the first-choice keeper, he started every game as Sampdoria earned promotion from Serie B.
The Argentine, who has been outstanding for his country, just needed the proper situation, and Old Trafford seems to fit the bill. His distribution needs a lot of work, but considering he’s only trained with the first team for two days, you have to be impressed with his performance. He was decisive in the air, made a couple of crucial saves, and was quick off his line to close down would-be scoring opportunities. David de Gea is clearly a superior goalkeeper, but if Real Madrid pay United’s asking price on the Spaniard, Romero has the pedigree to be the No. 1 going forward.