As part of our new Premier League Snap-shots feature, Mark Buckingham reviews Manchester United's 3-2 win over Fulham and is impressed by Moussa Dembele
Last Updated: 25/08/12 9:12pm
Robin van Persie marked his first start for Manchester United with a stunning goal, and a sign of what is to come, while Rafael's buccaneering display against Fulham was also rewarded with a goal.
Fulham more than contributed to an entertaining encounter at Old Trafford and Moussa Dembele's performance was particularly eye-catching in his team's 3-2 defeat.
United made four changes from the team which lost 1-0 at Everton, with Wayne Rooney the most notable omission as he was replaced by Robin van Persie. The defence was bolstered by the inclusion of Rafael at right-back, which allowed Antonio Valencia to move into his more accustomed right-wing role. Ashley Young came in for Nani, Anderson replaced Paul Scholes as Danny Welbeck was also relegated to the bench. The changes ensured United were much less pedestrian in their play compared to the other night at Goodison Park.
Martin Jol would have wanted to stick with the team which thrashed Norwich City 5-0 last week, but was forced into one change at left-back as John Arne Riise was replaced by Matthew Briggs, who was starting just his fifth Premier League game. There was still no place in the squad for the wantaway Clint Dempsey, but you would be hard-pressed to say he was greatly missed.
Though Ferguson altered his team, he stuck with the 4-5-1 basis which started against Everton, with Shinji Kagawa playing the supporting role to Van Persie. There was a great fluidity about United's attacking midfielders, with wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young often popping up in the centre, while there were occasions when Van Persie dropped deep to get involved. The combination of Rafael and Valencia down the right was a fruitful source of openings throughout the game before second-half substitutions saw United revert to a more traditional 4-4-2.
Fulham lined up in a similar fashion as Bryan Ruiz was handed the floating role in behind Mladen Petric. Moussa Dembele also got forward regularly from midfield and was a particular threat when running with the ball. Second-half changes saw Dembele pushed up to support Petric, and then Hugo Rodallega, with Damien Duff switching to the left and Ruiz moving out to the right.
United made a double change midway through the second half when Rooney and Welbeck were introduced for Kagawa and Welbeck. Rooney's one positive contribution was to find space to collect a Tom Cleverley pass before curling a shot over prior to being stretchered off with a nasty cut to his leg, while Welbeck worked hard as always. Ryan Giggs came on for the last 10 minutes for Anderson and smashed one cross out of play for a throw-in when United had numbers in the box.
Steven Sidwell was the first sub used by Fulham to replace Alex Kacaniklic just past the hour and his introduction allowed Dembele to probe further forwards. Rodallega looked sharp when he came on for Petric and saw a shot charged down by Michael Carrick, while Chris Baird slotted in for Mahamadou Diarra late on.
Sir Alex Ferguson says he has no plans to make any more signings before Friday's transfer deadline and the recruitment of Alexander Buttner ensures he has cover in every position. However, fans have been crying out for a top-class midfielder to be signed and I wonder if the performance of Dembele gave him food for thought. Dembele was superb in possession, showing grace and poise, allied to great strength to both retain the ball and win it back.
For Fulham, perhaps much of the activity will focus on departures, with Jol waiting for a bid for the wantaway Dempsey, who has not been particularly missed in the first two games. Keeping Dembele will also be a priority for Jol and much of the incoming talk has centred on whether the Cottagers will sign a striker, with Marseille's Loic Remy reported to be a target.
Kevin Friend had a relatively stress-free game and saw his assistant get two key decisions right, firstly in allowing Kagawa's goal to stand and then ruling out Rafael's close-range finish for offside. Friend did play an excellent advantage in the first half when Rafael counter-attacked, but his only yellow card for Brede Hangeland was perhaps harsh. However, this was offset by the fact he could have shown Hangeland a second yellow for a challenge from behind on Van Persie in the second half.
David de Gea was criticised last season for his susceptibility at dealing with crosses into the box and he again made a complete hash of Matthew Briggs' centre on 64 minutes. De Gea got nowhere near the ball as he failed to get past Petric and it resulted in Nemanja Vidic scoring a comical own goal. However, De Gea did produce several smart saves and also appeared to learn his lesson when coming out confidently to punch a late free-kick into the box. There is clearly still a weakness in De Gea's game, but a more settled defence should help the Spaniard to become more commanding.
Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is at the opposite end of his career to De Gea and he perhaps would have been disappointed with his role in United's second goal. Schwarzer appeared a little unsighted when Tom Cleverley's shot came in from the edge of the box, but he could have done better than just push the ball straight out to Kagawa, who had a simple finish after Fulham's defenders were slow in coming off the line.
A welcome, if nervy, first win for United and the sooner Carrick can return to midfield and a natural centre-half is fit to play alongside Vidic the better as far as Ferguson will be concerned. Jonny Evans was on the bench and he should be ready for the next game against Southampton. Rafael was a constant threat going forward, but he still has plenty to learn about the defensive side of things, while Cleverley and Anderson combined well in the centre of midfield as they did at the start of last season. The injury to Rooney, who is likely to be out for four weeks, could prove to be something of a blessing as Kagawa clearly thrives playing behind the main striker and Van Persie will only improve the more he plays with his new team-mates.
Despite the result, Fulham should take great confidence from the way they played, especially in the second half. Jol suggested that his side were perhaps a little overawed in the first half, but the style of Fulham's play means they have no reason to fear going to any ground or being prepared to go toe-to-toe with the Premier League's elite. Dembele was immense and on that form the Belgium international would not look out of place in any team in the division, given his willingness to receive the ball and be prepared to take players on. A top-10 finish should be the minimum ambition for the Cottagers this season and they have the balance within the squad to aim a little higher than that.