There is something about the vibrancy of youth that is Manchester United’s signature, from the Busby Babes to Fergie’s Fledglings. It is a cliché of course but one that supporters buy into with full heart. Yet, in truth some of that youthful vigour had been lost from United in recent seasons, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad aging before our eyes.
No longer. The rash of retiring and released stars over the past year, together with youthful acquisitions this summer, has transformed Ferguson’s squad and reinvigorated its outlook. The United team that overhauled Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley on Saturday was aged on average just 22 in the second period, with 13 players in Ferguson’s matchday squad aged 23 or under.
Youthful abandon is not simply an empty soliloquy though. In football the lack of fear in youth so often translates to freedom of expression on the pitch. Indeed, United’s vibrant second half display not only sent thousands of Reds home happy but, arguably, for the first time since 2008, points towards a dynamic shape for the coming season.
United’s front four interchanged with such bewildering regularity that City simply could not cope. That Roberto Mancini at one stage resorted to fielding four central midfielders said much for both United’s attacking shape and the Italian’s defensive outlook.
Little surprise then that Ferguson praised his young team, which fought back from a two goal deficit at Wembley to secure victory in the final minute of injury time.
“For us I think it just confirms what I’ve thought,” Ferguson said.
“People were saying that we’re not the best United squad and things like that but you’ve got to remember a lot of young players will improve. We are very confident with this group of young players.
“I always wanted to expose Jones, Cleverley and Evans to that big-match environment. It was a big challenge for them and they did well. I’m very confident with this group of players.
“De Gea and Jones give us a good future. They are outstanding. Young was good as well. He is 25 and a mature player after playing for Aston Villa but he’s new to the type of challenge he is getting at United.”
United was the better side for much of the game, save for a period in the first half when City’s power in midfield threatened to overwhelm Michael Carrick and Anderson. While eventually Anderson offered his finest performance in a United shirt for some time, Tom Cleverley stole many headlines with a stand-out second half display.
The midfielder, who spent last season on loan with Wigan Athletic, offered the kind of central midfield dynamism that United has lacked for so long. Basingstoke-born Cleverley played a series of incisive one-touch passes, moved into space and – crucially – frequently ran ahead of the ball from central midfield. It is precisely the kind of incisive midfield play that was so lacking in Carrick’s performance during the opening 45.
“Cleverley has come back from Wigan and we brought Welbeck and (Mame) Diouf back from loans as well. These boys are good players,” Ferguson added.
“We toyed with the idea of starting Cleverley but I thought Michael Carrick’s experience was better suited to the game. Cleverley can get forward from midfield though and we probably needed that type of player.”
United’s flexibility with Cleverley, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Ashley Young in the side was no better illustrated than in the Portuguese’s equaliser. The slick, one-touch, move cut City’s normally parsimonious defence open with a passage of play that was more than a little reminiscent of Barcelona at its very best.
That each of the aforementioned quintet is comfortable in a variety of positions recalls United’s 2008 Champions League winning side, with Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo interchanging at will.
Chris Smalling’s excellent performance at right-back and Phil Jones’ assured contribution during the second half simply adds to the confidence Ferguson will have gained from Sunday’s victory.
If that is all positive then City’s ability to over-power United in midfield reared its ugly head in the first half. Mancini’s team nominally had an extra man of course, although Rooney’s ability to drop deep augmented United’s resources. But Carrick in particular was unable to cope with the sheer physicality of the Blues for periods.
Then there is the David de question. Ferguson’s €20 million acquisition from Atlétics de Madrid this summer is the subject of much criticism in this morning’s papers. But the Spaniard had little chance claiming David Silva’s outstanding delivery in the 38th minute for Jolean Lescott’s opening headed goal, although the 20-year-old could surely have done better with Edin Džeko’s 35-yard drive just moments later. The late dip and swerve, together with Nemanja Vidic’s failure to close down the attacker, certainly did not help. But on these small details are major games sometimes won and lost.
“City are a big team and the delivery of the ball was good. Goalkeeper no chance with that,” Ferguson claimed.
“The second goal I thought we could have closed them down but the shot swerved a bit and just caught the goalkeeper on the wrong foot. But I think that you have to cope with these things and he’s [got] no problem.”
Indeed, moments earlier de Gea had claimed a high ball under pressure and the Spaniard’s distribution with foot and hand was excellent throughout. During the second period de Gea also made two outstanding saves, which augers well for the youngster’s confidence in games to come. The suggestion, made in more than one media outlet, that Ferguson will now drop his new ‘keeper in favour of Anders Lingegaard is nothing short of rumour-mongering.
Ferguson will also be delighted with Nani’s contribution to the game following an outstanding pre-season. Starting on the right, Nani drifted inside, frequently swapped with Young and contributed heavily to United’s victory. As with last season, Nani’s output is now outstanding.
So too Young, whose delivery from set pieces is a cut above anything in a United shirt since David Beckham left in 2003. Indeed, the former Aston Villa winger created Chris Smalling’s goal with a pin-point free-kick in the 53rd minute.
“Nani had a fantastic season last year,” said Ferguson.
“He contributed 18 assists and scored nine goals. He was unfortunate that Antonio Valencia came in at a time when we needed a bit of freshness and a boost to the squad. But you have seen Nani’s form in pre-season and again today. He will start the season.”
It is a campaign for which United started favourites but will now have gained even greater confidence at City’s expense.
“This shows who the best team is,” Rooney boasted in the wake of victory.
“All game we dominated. The difference the young lads made was outstanding. We never know when a game is finished. We took them apart. The scoreline is deserved. We’re champions and we’re the team to beat. We want to prove that.”