Manchester United fought their way to a hard-earned win against an impressive display from West Bromwich Albion, although the manner of the victory highlighted both the strengths, and potential weaknesses, of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side as they seek an 20th English league title.
A youthful United side – including the likes of Chris Smalling, Fabio, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck – started brightly; Wayne Rooney looked sharp throughout, and put United ahead in the 12th minute with an astute finish following neat build-up play that included a sumptuous back-heel from the Englishman to Ashley Young on the left wing.
Although Albion troubled United’s defence early on, the Red Devils took firm control of the first half; between the 25-35 minute mark, United held 90% of the possession, with only Nani’s profligacy in front of goal sparing Roy Hodgson’s men a pasting. Twice the Portuguese wasted presentable chances with the goal gaping, and it seemed only a matter of time before United’s movement and interplay proved too much.
However, possession counts for nothing unless chances are converted, and predictably, West Brom drew level. David de Gea made a fine point-blank stop from a rampaging Paul Scharner, but the Spaniard was soon culpable for gifting Shane Long with a goal after diving over a speculative daisy-cutter. The promising keeper is only young, yet he will have to stamp out these types of mistakes if he is to prevent Anders Lindegaard from taking the number one jersey. De Gea was due for more rough treatment later as the game progressed, with Albion’s target men teaching him the intricacies of jostling for high balls in England’s top division with a few elbows.
As the half wore on Albion grew in confidence, with Somen Tchoyi in particular proving a handful for the likes of Fabio, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. As with the Community Shield tie with Manchester City, neither United’s first-choice centre-back pairing made it through the 90-minute mark at The Hawthorns; both succumbed to injuries and were taken off in the second half, leaving United with a back five completely different to the first choice players of last year. In fact, the enforced substitutions merely emphasized the strength in depth at Ferguson’s disposal, and while Albion more than held their own in the second half, United began to turn the screw.
The introduction of Dimitar Berbatov for the energetic Welbeck allowed Ferguson’s men more time and space during build-up play, and it was the Bulgarian who fed Young before the English winger tricked his way into the box and caused Steven Reid to deflect an enticing cross into his own net.
A home defeat on the first day is far from ideal, yet Roy Hodgson will have much to take from this defeat; Albion were the stronger side closing the half, and more than held their own during the second half – while the winning goal was perhaps justified, Hodgson will still feel hard done by. Shane Long – the club’s record signing from Reading – proved a real thorn in United’s side all afternoon, and continually found space in behind Cleverley and Anderson. With the expansive football that West Brom look to play, they should provide Baggies fans with entertainment and goals throughout the season – however, despite an impressive rear-guard action throughout, it’ll be points that Hodgson is most desperate for.
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