“Over the last ten months, since Michael Carrick came back into the team last November, they’ve been the best defensive team in the league. People are asking the question about whether United can win the league and I do believe at this moment in time they’re short. But this is a really good foundation to build on” – Gary Neville, August 18.
It’s not unusual for football to make fools of us all, but even Neville must have smiled wryly as Michael Carrick dispatched the ball past Sergio Romero after just eight minutes at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. The evening soon became the stage for Memphis Depay to mark his arrival in glorious fashion, but Louis van Gaal will still be displeased with the manner in which his side conceded their first goal of the season.
As I pointed out when including Depay in our Top Ten players we couldn’t wait to watch this season, it’s easy to forget just how young the Dutchman is. Had he scored in the Premier League last season he would have been the eighth youngest player to do so. Having arrived at one of the world’s biggest clubs at the age of 21, patience was preached. You can start the hype machine now.
Depay was wonderful against Club Brugge. I have inadvertently become a Rooney-basher over the last few days, but the excitement provided by Manchester United’s new signing during the first-half highlights just how far expectations with the latter have fallen. Rooney has scored one goal from outside the area since April 2014 – Depay made it look easy.
‘Functional’ would for so long be seen as an insult to Rooney and his talents; now it seems like an aspiration. Just like Rooney all those years ago against Fenerbache, this felt like the evening on which Depay the boy became a man. Only the hat-trick chance was fluffed.
“I am happy to score and to win the game; I am a disappointed not to finish the [other] two chances,” Depay said after the game. If there is one thing Van Gaal will love, it’s a young player who is never happy with his lot. The manager spoke repeatedly last season at his desire for the “perfect performance”, but Depay has come closer than most in red over the last year.
Watching him pick the ball up from deep, run and beat defenders and threaten at almost every opportunity whilst wearing United’s No. 7 shirt will cause some to talk of Best and Ronaldo, but let’s hold our horses for a while longer. Brugge finished second in the Belgian Jupiler League behind Gent last season. Their record transfer fee paid was for Koen Daerden in 2006, and he cost them just £2.8m. That pays Rooney’s wages for less than 64 days. Depay must prove himself in the biggest games first.
Instead, a better comparison is with Angel Di Maria, so subdued and uninventive last season in comparison with Depay on Tuesday. This was the spark that United supporters have missed. This is the positivity that only a young, hungry attacker can generate. Old Trafford may have its new poster boy.
The sending-off of Brandon Mechele allowed United to push for a third goal, earned for them at the death via the head of Marouane Fellaini. The away goal makes a two-goal lead far from safe, but United supporters will sleep a great deal more sweetly. They are closer to once again drawing up a seat at European football’s top table. The food is good, and the wine flows late into the night.
However, forgive me for now skipping back to that Neville quote once more, and his claim that United are the best defensive team in the Premier League. It has evidential basis, of course – Neville is not a rent-a-quote pundit. Since November 1 2014, United have conceded fewer goals than any other Premier League side. Consecutive clean sheets at the start of this season has convinced Neville that it is United’s attack that requires more urgent surgery.
One must beware of false promises, however, and be wary too of relying on one statistic while ignoring another. Since that same date United have allowed 112 shots on target in the Premier League, more than Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Everton and Southampton. Their ability to concede so few goals owed much to the excellence of David de Gea.
Another figure stands out. Since that same date again, Manchester United players have made 18 individual errors directly leading to shots. It’s a total higher than Everton, Liverpool, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Leicester, West Brom, Aston Vil… okay, higher than every other team in the division. That’s astonishing for a team with the best defensive record over that time.
However, whilst United rank top in that time period for shots leading from errors, they rank 19th (ahead of only Bournemouth, Norwich, Burnley and Watford) in terms of goals conceded directly resulting from an error. Again, United owe much to the form of De Gea (and the profligacy of the opposition).
Forget the figures for a minute, and use your eyes. Against Brugge, there were again times when United looked disorganised and unconvincing in defence. Shortly after Carrick’s own goal, Dion Cools volleyed straight at Romero after being left free from a corner, whilst Tuur Dierckx’s cross flashed across the face of goal. In the second half Romero dallied over a Matteo Darmian back pass and was fortunate to be awarded a free-kick.
Neville may well be right in his assessment that United’s forward line needs investment. However, suggesting that the defence, in its current guise and in front of Sergio Romero, is a good foundation to win the league seems overly generous. There is a reason why Van Gaal was chasing Sergio Ramos.