“They don’t like it up ’em!,” Lance-Corporal Jack Jones of 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army fame so often declared. Yet, it wasn’t Jerry, sent packing back to Berlin after invading the home counties, but Manchester United – 19 times champion of England – that was cowed at Goodison Park on Monday night. New season, same old story, as Everton bullied Sir Alex Ferguson’s team into submission.
It was oh-so-familar. Defensive injuries, a midfield over-run by a physically superior opponent, and a lack of penetration in attacking areas. Such was the pattern of United’s performance in defeat on Merseyside that many supporters were prone to recall the Reds’ collapse at the back-end of last season. Deja vu? Not half.
Yet, for all the trauma of defeat, this is, as the Lance-Corporal might add, no time for panic; a single game into the bright new season, there is much more to come from United. Certainly, Ferguson wasn’t helped by a glut of defensive injuries that robbed his side of four first team centre-backs in Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. The quartet’s return – any of them – cannot come soon enough.
Yet, for all the injuries that have enveloped the Scot’s squad in recent months, perhaps even years, United’s problems against Everton ran far deeper. Michael Carrick’s turn at centre-back was a mitigated disaster. After all, despite Carrick’s defensive nous the 30-year-old midfielder was too easily beaten for poor position in and around United’s penalty area. That is to say little of Marouanne Fellaini’s ability to single Carrick out for a through going over in the air.
It was little surprise when the Belgian outjumped his marker to score Everton’s winning goal on 57 minutes.
But if Carrick’s relative struggles in defence proved to be United’s undoing at a set piece, the player’s absence from midfield was even more keenly felt. Despite his many critics, Carrick’s ability to screen defensively, while recycling possession, is central to what control United exerts in midfield. Without the Geordie, Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley offered little protection to a back four that contained two midfielders.
In that there is also familiarity. Injuries, and the positional juggling that accompanies them, disrupts United’s rhythm. More often than not in midfield. Yet, while more than £40 million was invested in Ferguson’s squad this summer – a not inconsiderable sum by Glazernomic standards – none of it brought in a central midfielder to complement the plethora of injury-prone players already at the manager’s disposal.
Indeed, while Scholes and Cleverley put up impressive numbers on the night, helping United to secure around 70 per cent of possession away from home, neither was able to provide a platform for United’s attacking players to turn territory into chances, and opportunities into goals.
More worryingly still – and not for the first time in recent years – Ferguson’s team found itself bullied by a physically superior opponent. Marouane Fellaini’s brilliance was complimented by non-stop running from former Reds Phil Neville and Darron Gibson in midfield, and a superbly organised back-four.
Further forward, Ferguson can only worry about the fitness, form and – frankly – interest of star striker Wayne Rooney, who had ‘one of those games’ at Goodison Park. The £27 million striker’s performance was mirrored in its mediocrity only by Nani, who is unique among elite players in his ability drop to abject lows with such alarming frequency.
None of this is new to supporters. Been there, seen it, got the very well-worn and washed t-shirt. No surprise either that Ferguson used his post-match media duties to deflect attention away from United’s deficiencies, and on to Everton’s direct approach to the game.
“I have no criticism of my team tonight, they applied themselves well,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“They got their shots on target and our goalkeeper did very well. We had a couple of moments. I thought maybe Danny Welbeck was pushed as he went into the box. That was a big moment and Tom Cleverley had his shot blocked by Phil Jagielka on the line in the second half. We played really good football at times.
“Fellaini is a handful. He’s a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball towards him all the time. That’s all they did and they worked it from that base. But he got the goal for them so it’s justified.”
Yet, there were positives despite United suffering opening day defeat for the first time since 2004. While Cleverley maintained his normal up-beat pass-and-move style, Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa impressed with a range of passing and movement in the hole behind Rooney. Both auger well for the remainder of the season.
Kagawa in particular had fans intrigued; a player of the type Ferguson has never signed previously, deployed in the central position – floating between midfield and attack – that brought so much joy for Borussia Dortmund in the past two years. Any more of this and Kagawa’s £17 million fee will be the very definition of value.
Then there was Robin van Persie, who made a low-key debut as a late second-half substitute, but will surely contribute far more over the next nine months.
And it is the role of Ferguson’s new signings that fascinates most, with the 70-year-old manager needing to crowbar Rooney, Kagawa and van Persie into the side, while multiple attacking options compete for what might be just a single remaining place in the side.
In this there remains a problem – how to balance plentiful flair, with the need to exert some control in midfield. At Goodison United failed to square that circle, despite enjoying so much possession. But while ball retention may be nine-tenths of the law, United so rarely looked like troubling old-boy Tim Howard in Everton’s goal on Monday night.
The question now is both how Ferguson finds the right balance, but perhaps more importantly, how he compromises United’s better players the least. It may be no time to panic, but the after just one game of the new season old failings ring some highly audible alarm bells. Particularly through midfield.
A comfortable win over Fulham at Old Trafford next Saturday will go some way to dampening the chorus, but it is unlikely to be the last time this debate is aired over the season.