FT:- 1-2 (Long 36; Rooney 12, Young 81)
Ref:- Mike Jones
West Brom:- Foster, Olsson, Shorey, Tamas, Tchoyi, James Morrison, Brunt (c), Steven Reid (Jara 85), Mulumbu, Scharner, Long (Simon Cox 87). Subs Not Used: Fulop, Craig Dawson, Dorrans, George Thorne, Marc-Antoine Fortune
Bookings:- Steven Reid (38, Foul), Scharner (86, Foul), Cox (91, Simulation)
Man Utd:- De Gea, Rio Ferdinand (Phil Jones 74), Smalling, Vidic (c) (Jonny Evans 51), Fabio Da Silva, Anderson, Nani, Ashley Young, Cleverley, Rooney, Welbeck (Berbatov 65). Subs Not Used: Lindegaard, Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, Carrick
Bookings:- Young (55, Foul), Anderson (78, Dissent)
Utd got their defence of the title up and running with a hard-fought away victory over an organised and obdurate West Brom. Ashley Young capped a fine performance with a late winning strike, courtesy of a deflection off of Steven Reid, but injuries to both Vidic and Ferdinand, and another basic error from young goalkeeper De Gea will give Sir Alex Ferguson plenty to ponder before the visit of Spurs in 8 days time.
Proceedings started brightly for Utd, who attacked WBA with pace and aggression from the kick-off. For the first 5 minutes the Birmingham side could barely get out of their half, with the dynamism of Anderson, in the centre of the park, dictating play and Young providing a constant threat from out on the left flank.
Just as West Brom appeared to be getting to grips with their afternoon’s task their attacking pretensions were curbed by a neat little goal courtesy of Rooney and Young. With the game starting to go the way of the Champions League final WBA had begun to push Scharner further up the field, which gave Rooney acres of space to steam-roller into on the counterattack. A neat little flicked pass from Rooney found Young out on the left, where he skirted past Olsson and played a measured return pass across the edge of the area. Rooney, criminally given plenty of time and space by Tamas and Brunt, teed the ball up with his left foot then struck a low shot into the bottom right corner of Foster’s goal.
Following this early breakthrough WBA then had to withstand some serious pressure with Rooney going close almost immediately after scoring and Nani compounding a disappointing performance with a couple of profligate misses. The only serious worry in the first thirty minutes, for Utd, was the apparent thigh injury that Vidic seemed to pick up in the 17th minute (and eventually lead to his substitution early in the second half). However this was a first half in which the tale of two wingers came to the fore. If Young was a constant, and seemingly uncontrollable, thorn in WBA’s leftside, then the powerful running, movement and ball retention of Somen Tchoyi was becoming an increasing menace to Utd’s makeshift fullbacks, as he ran down either wing, studiously looking for defensive frailty.
Just as Utd seemed to be cruising WBA broke through Tchoyi, whose strength brushed him past Ferdinand and located Long on the leftside of the Utd penalty area. From this innocuous position Long, making his debut for WBA, cut inside and drifted a daisy-cutter under a flapping De Gea and into the bottom right-hand side. De Gea will have to take a hefty portion of the blame for some poor goalkeeping, but he redeemed himself late on in the half, with a superb save from a dangerous cross-cum-shot from the outstanding Tchoyi.
The second half saw Hodgson significantly amend his defensive tactics. Having seen Young ripping holes in Reid and Olsson during the first half, Hodgson assigned team captain Brunt to operate as a slightly unorthodox man-marker, attempting to relieve Reid of much of his defensive duties, so he could provide the extra width that WBA had been lacking. Impressively this tactical shift seemed to swing the match in WBA’s favour, for even though Utd retained more than sixty percent possession Young became evermore peripheral and isolated.
With the removal of Vidic for Jonny Evans and the lack of joy that Young was now experiencing down the left flank, Utd began to move increasingly further in field, where their passing deficiencies were magnified by the strong deep-lying cover offered by Mulumbu and Scharner. Now Utd were looking as out of ideas as they had against Barca back in May. Anderson was still striving to move the ball around precisely and at pace, whilst his midfield partner, and, if the gushing commentary is to be believed, England’s latest great white hope, Tom Cleverley was having an efficient if uninspiring day. Yet Nani had gone missing for much of the match and continued to offer little threat down the right and Danny Welbeck had done little more than pester Ben Foster on corners and breakdown promising Man Utd attacks with his seeming lack of basic ball control. Ferguson had to change something and on 65 minutes he brought the ineffectual Welbeck off for Berbatov.
The effect of this substitution ultimately lead to Utd’s winner, as with the arrival of Berbatov Utd recalibrated the side so that Rooney moved into a deeper-lying midfield role. With Rooney effectively looking to exploit the space that Brunt had left to focus his attention on marking Young, WBA’s captain had to make a decision. Did he stick on Young and potentially allow Rooney the space he needed to link-up play with Berbatov, or did he look to come off Young and anchor WBA’s defence alongside Scharner once more? The fact that West Brom were just beginning to dominate proceedings, with Long posing a serious attacking threat and Tchoyi’s sterling efforts being supplemented by the runs from deep of Morrison, Reid and Mulumbu, further complicated this decision, which might explain why Brunt appeared to take up a half-and-half response.
With De Gea coming under increasingly aggressive pressure from set-pieces and crosses there was a real sense that as the game moved into the final fifteen minutes West Brom could snatch a victory. Rio Ferdinand had joined Vidic on the bench, after picking up an injury attempting to shield Tchoyi away from goal, so Phil Jones and Jonny Evans were now at the heart of Utd’s backline. However, as in the first half, just as WBA were at their most dominant, a little bit of indiscipline crept into Brunt and Scharner’s play and Utd broke clear with brutal efficiency. As Young picked up the ball on the leftside of the area, he reminded all watching that he isn’t just a crossing machine, using his devastating turn of pace to leave Chris Brunt in no man’s land and drive straight into the heart of the Brum defence. From about ten yards he unleashed a powerful low shot, that nicked inside the far post, off the leg of an unfortunate Steven Reid.
Although Utd rode out the remaining ten minutes with authority, impressively West Brom were not cowed and if it hadn’t have been for Tchoyi’s desire to take six touches too many, when he had both Jones and Evans on the hop, then they might still have salvaged a point their performance deserved. In Shane Long, Hodgson appears to have himself a centre forward reminiscent of a Celtic-era Chris Sutton, who utilises his strength and deceptive mobility to upset defenders and bring the attacking midfielders around him into the game. On the strength of this performance you’d be surprised if The Hawthornes is looking at a relegation dogfight come April, whilst this unimpressive early away win is just the kind of result that fashioned a title for Utd last time out.
My MOM:- Ashley Young – Despite a tenacious display from West Brom’s Tchoyi and excellent work from Anderson, Long and Brunt, Young’s first half display was imperious, offering up the attacking-midfield outlet that Utd have craved, whilst his second half goal was all about his ability to take tiring defenders out of a game. Potentially the best bit of business of Utd’s summer and with the potential to be a season-defining signing.
And Another Thing… : – Rooney’s latest haircut seems designed to promulgate the kind of ‘spud-u-like’ chants from opposition fans that had only just begun to recede (unlike Wayne’s rapidly disappearing barnet). It also makes him look like one of the no-neck freaks from a Daniel Clowes comic strip.