If United started the Community Shield with questions hanging over the squad, then the penalties defeat to Chelsea left many unanswered. Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, fans awaited a positive response to the summer’s developments; a sign that United has a plan for the new era. Instead, the team began the game with none of the close season signings in the starting XI and without its first choice goalkeeper and central defender.
For all that United started the game well, dominating possession and taking an early lead through the bright Nani. Lining up in manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s newly reinstated 4-4-2 formation, United used the channels well against a narrow Chelsea diamond. Yet the team’s early promise gave way to an unconvincing performance after Chelsea’s equaliser. Defeat in normal time would have followed the Londoner’s controversial second bar for a late well taken Wayne Rooney goal.
But if fans were looking for a statement of intent ahead of the new season then the Community Shield provided scant comfort. In particular manager Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped for a good performance from those players who have most to prove – Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen Nani and Ben Foster.
The Bulgarian, whom Ferguson stated he intends to build the team around this season, started the game strongly. Like most of the team, the forward – save for one outrageous piece of skill when plucking a long ball out of the air – faded out of the match as it wore on. He was substituted in the 75th minute for Michael Owen’s competitive debut in a United shirt.
Foster’s contribution was more telling on the result but rarely in a positive way. From poor play with his feat, to a weak flap at the cross that led to Ricardo Carvalho’s equaliser, Foster looked nervous and uncertain. Worst still the Lemington-born ‘keeper failed to get a strong hand to Frank Lampard’s drive for Chelsea’s second. Foster’s talent is undoubtedly better than this performance but he can’t afford too many more games like Sunday’s. Ferguson was certainly charitable when blaming Foster’s performance on ring-rustiness.
Nani, however, put in a strong claim for a starting spot before being removed with a suspected dislocated shoulder. The winger, who has flattered to deceive in two years at Old Trafford, was positive, creative and scored a high class goal before leaving the field following John Terry’s robust challenge. It’s too early to know whether this will be the winger’s breakthrough season – we’ve been here before with Nani – but Ferguson can be hopeful on this evidence.
Tactically United were less fluid but more compact than in recent seasons. While Ferguson would have been disappointed with the two goals conceded, United’s attacking play was good for the most part. Whether Ferguson will continue deploying two forwards – especially in more meaningful matches than this one – is a moot point. If Sunday’s match was a forbear for the season ahead then this United side may be more functional that Ferguson’s previous iterations, by building on strength in defence.
One match does not a season make, of course, but this was an average start against what will be one of United’s principal challengers in the coming campaign.