For the first time in 27 years Manchester United are starting a season with a new manager but few significant changes were detectable on the pitch, where their shape and strategy looked almost unchanged from the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Wilfried Zaha was the only newcomer in David Moyes’ first starting selection as Manchester United manager, in the right-sided position where Ferguson struggled to find a permanent solution last season. Zaha was everything you expect from a 20-year-old debutant winger: energetic, eager and direct, but aside from one whipped near-post cross towards Danny Welbeck his final ball was disappointing.
More interesting was the role of Welbeck, particularly as he was playing in the support striker role more commonly filled by Wayne Rooney. Welbeck’s lack of goal threat remains something of a concern, but his touch, positioning and link-up play are always extremely impressive, and here he was particularly involved, drifting away from Ben Watson to receive balls forward from midfield, and encouraging others forward with simple, reliable short passes.
A consistent feature throughout Welbeck’s fledgling career – even when played wide, or when he spent a season on loan at Sunderland – has been his high pass completion rate, and here he misplaced just four of his 39 passes. If Rooney does leave Old Trafford this season, the more creative Shinji Kagawa will hope to receive more opportunities in that No10 role but Welbeck demonstrated here that he’s also deserving of a starting place.
Welbeck was also crucial in another impressive feature of United’s game, namely pressing high up the pitch, where he and Robin van Persie started the closing down deep inside the Wigan half. The FA Cup holders are accustomed to Roberto Martínez’s back three, featuring good passers capable of playing their way out of trouble, but Owen Coyle has assembled a more rudimentary defensive quartet in preparation for the more physical challenge of the Championship and the number of times United dispossessed Wigan’s defenders in the opposition half was particularly intriguing.
It’s dangerous to read too much into the tactics used in a glorified pre-season friendly, of course, but the natural attitude in such a fixture is for players to be passive, especially on such a hot afternoon at Wembley. The fact that Welbeck and Van Persie were so committed to pressuring opponents was doubtless because of instructions from the coaching staff, and probably an indication that Moyes wants his sides to press from the front once United start their competitive campaign at Swansea next weekend.
There was also a hint of Moyes’s Everton approach in the opening goal: Patrice Evra’s cross for Van Persie’s well-judged header was the type of strike Everton became renowned for, with Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini combining in such a fashion repeatedly over the past couple of seasons. It’s no coincidence they’ve been repeatedly linked with United in recent weeks, but regardless of their future, width and crossing might form an increasingly key part of United’s strategy this season.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2014