Manchester United began the 2015-16 Premier League season with a narrow 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. The Red Devils learned from their troubles at home to Swansea on the opening weekend of the previous season by taking very few risks and getting the job done through a Kyle Walker own goal despite a few nervous moments.
Five of Louis van Gaal’s summer signings made their competitive debuts as Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Bastian Schweinsteiger all pulled on the famous red jersey for the first time.
It made for a completely new look United team after a summer overhaul which saw high earners Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and Nani all leave the club. Meanwhile, David De Gea looked on from the stands amid strong interest from Real Madrid. The squad may not be as star-studded on paper but it does appear to be more balanced.
Here are five key thoughts following the opening day success over a tough Spurs side.
1) Room for improvement but a great win to start the season
United will have to improve to become a force in the title race, there is no doubt about that, but this was a day where a positive result would do; there is plenty of time to sort out the performances. Van Gaal’s methodical approach paid dividends as a clean sheet was achieved by a new look backline which included Daley Blind in an unfamiliar central defensive slot, where the Dutchman had featured throughout the tour of the USA this summer.
There was a significant lack of fluidity and creativity from United but they were extremely solid, which is a good sign. It means they have a platform to build on, if they can continue to keep such a strong shape, the goals will flow in time as the players get used to the way each other plays. Remember – it is always better to start slowly but get results and save your best performances for later in the season, rather than peak too early.
2) Chris Smalling has turned into a leader but he still needs a partner
Smalling continued his phenomenal form from the backend of last season and was one of the best players on the pitch here. The much-maligned defender is developing into his potential and has become a leader of the backline. Phil Jones’ latest spell on the side-lines will further enhance Smalling’s position in this United side. He could easily fill in as captain should Wayne Rooney pick up a knock at any stage this season.
What United do need to add to their squad though is a partner for Smalling. Blind filled the role here admirably but he is not a sustainable option at centre back in the long term. The Dutchman’s versatility is invaluable but he does not have the height, the pace or the strength to be part of a title-winning defence.
3) United need two more signings to win the title
As well as a new defensive addition, United also need a striker to aid Rooney in the quest for goals this season. James Wilson is a talent but he is not ready for regular first team appearances whilst Javier Hernandez should be moved on for a better option. With four competitions to compete in this season, there is no way that Rooney can play in every game this year. He always picks up a few niggles every year and although he can be relied upon to score 15 league goals, he can be utilised behind the main striker too.
Harry Kane, Karim Benzema and Edinson Cavani are just three of the options which could interest Van Gaal as we enter the final few weeks of the transfer window but he does seem reluctant to sign anyone else who is not a superstar. These types of players are extremely difficult to find so he realistically may have to settle for a slightly lesser option because United do need one reinforcement in that area of the pitch now Di Maria, Falcao and Van Persie have been moved on.
4) Is Memphis wasted in the centre?
Memphis Depay was a superstar on the left wing last season as he fired PSV Eindhoven to the Eredivisie title. However, Van Gaal has opted to hand him a central role at the beginning of this year with Ashley Young keeping his position on the left-hand side. Despite Young deserving his place in the side currently, Depay is at this best when he uses his pace and power to run at defenders.
The Dutch flyer would undoubtedly get more space to do this on the flank and although it would be harsh to drop Young, Van Gaal may have to, to get the best out of Memphis. The 21-year-old is the future of this United side and although he may not have got off to a fast start in the opening game, I have no doubts that he will set the league alight this season.
5) Darmian looks like a shrewd acquisition already
Last season, the marquee signings did not turn out to be the best buys. Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo outshone Di Maria and Falcao, who both disappointed before being sold just a year later. This year, with all the attention on Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Depay, could it be right-back Matteo Darmian’s time to shine. He certainly showed enough on his debut to suggest that he should be United’s first choice going forward.
Many aren’t huge fans of Antonio Valencia but I think he did well last year minus a howler of an error against Arsenal in the FA Cup but Darmian is a natural right-back, who is on another level to the consistent Ecuadorian. He is very strong going forward, having played wing-back on several occasions for Torino but equally as sturdy defensively. Van Gaal appears to have found a gem and Darmian appears to be an extremely shrewd acquisition.