Everton upset RVP unveiling
A fictional Robin was a sidekick, a footballing one a sideshow. Robin van Persie's bow may have been the most eagerly anticipated debut for Manchester United since Wayne Rooney's introduction eight years ago but Sir Alex Ferguson's signature signing was overshadowed by Everton's record buy. This was an underwhelming unveiling.
United were subjected to a unique phenomenon: trial by Marouane Fellaini. And they failed. The method of their downfall was predictable from the first set-piece, the Belgian's fright-wig exerting a magnetic effect on the ball, and his header meant United's bid to reclaim their title got off to a false start just as Van Persie's Old Trafford career began inauspiciously.
The £24 million man was the evening's most expensive substitute - the £30.9 million Dimitar Berbatov was the costliest unused replacement - but his was a quiet cameo. The massed ranks of a resolute Everton defence snuffed out the double Footballer of the Year.
Having vowed never to lose the title on goal difference again, Ferguson's summer recruitment has been concentrated on adding still more firepower to a side that scored 89 goals last season. But an attacking imbalance has been exacerbated by misfortune.
Overflowing with forwards, United are suddenly shorn of centre-backs. While Ferguson had so many strikers Javier Hernandez did not make the bench, he had so few specialist stoppers, with four out injured, that Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia were pressed into service in the rearguard.
For one, in particular, it was a thankless task. "Michael did well," Ferguson insisted generously after the game. Carrick was Fellaini's designated bodyguard, a mild-mannered midfielder charged with halting a force of nature. Unsurprisingly, he floundered. Fellaini looked to isolate himself against Carrick; surprisingly, he received United's assistance. Whoever deputed the unfortunate Carrick to mark the man-mountain at set-pieces has to share culpability for the goal when the Belgian headed in Darron Gibson's corner.
Before then, he outmuscled Valencia and bundled his way past Carrick before striking the outside of the post. He was idiosyncratic, ubiquitous and untouchable. "Unstoppable," said his captain, Phil Neville, and colleague, Phil Jagielka. "He is a handful, he is a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball forward to him," added Ferguson rather gracelessly. "That's all they did."
But Fellaini was the focal point and the intimidating outlet, angular and awkward, elbows jutting out and, on one occasion, colliding with David de Gea's jaw. Two knock-downs presented Leon Osman with chances: one half-volley was brilliantly saved by the Spaniard, another struck the bar. "In the first half David de Gea made a couple of great saves," said David Moyes.
Osman and Steven Pienaar, the midget gems, showed size does not always matter and that Everton are a blend of the deft and the direct. Fellaini provided the physical element, Pienaar the technical. What they shared, along with their colleagues, was a commitment, a collective determination to hassle and harry and an intimidating intensity. "An all-round good performance," said Moyes, with a hint of understatement. There were zealous efforts all over the pitch but while Fellaini earned the lead, another protected it and Moyes paid tribute to the ''outstanding'' Jagielka. A display of steadfast defending included a goal-line clearance to thwart Tom Cleverley, it was evidence of the anticipation that makes Jagielka the finest English central defender available now.
While injury-hit Everton sides have long featured players out of position, his excellence provided a comparison with a United team featuring a playmaker as an auxiliary stopper. Yet Ferguson's attacking ensemble still required halting.
These are experimental times for United. Advocates of 4-4-2 last season, they switched to 4-2-3-1, with Wayne Rooney as the spearhead on his return to Goodison Park and Danny Welbeck shifted to the left flank while the expensive newcomer parachuted into the starting XI, Shinji Kagawa, began behind the sole striker. He provided perhaps the pass of the match, for a sliding Welbeck to shoot wide. Otherwise, however, it was a brutal welcome to the Premier League. "It will be good experience for the future," Moyes said diplomatically.
With a quarter of the game remaining, Ferguson made a upmarket reshuffle, sending for Van Persie, putting him alongside Rooney and focusing on all-out attack. But Everton were unyielding, creating a blue wall in front of Tim Howard's goal and, Ferguson lamented, United did not play to the Dutchman's undoubted strengths.
"We played around him too much," he said. "We didn't show enough penetration and with Robin you want to use his ability against centre-backs in situations he is very good at. But we didn't use him enough." So Rooney and Van Persie, United's version of the dream team and a 71-goal strike duo, drew a blank in the brief first outing. Rather than Everton's worst nightmare, the alliance of their old boy and the newcomer, that man and Robin, Fellaini was Goodison Park's superhero.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Marouane Fellaini. Unstoppable. As Moyes pointed out, he can play in several positions, but at the moment the Belgian is the new Tim Cahill, operating behind the sole striker and doubling up as talisman and top scorer. The ovation when an exhausted Fellaini was removed in injury time was deafening.
EVERTON VERDICT: They have now taken 38 Premier League points in 2012 and, as Moyes pointed out, their excellent form then should not have made this result such a shock. But traditional slow starters are off to a rare flyer after a typical Everton display. Every player put a shift in and Moyes felt the continuity from the last campaign was important. Ferguson was not the only manager to keep a newcomer in reserve and Steven Naismith, so impressive in pre-season, made a late debut off the bench.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The biggest bonus was the performance of De Gea. If he still does not look totally confident against the crossed ball, the Spaniard made some superb saves. It should encourage United, too, that Nemanja Vidic - who really should have been marking Fellaini at set-pieces - came through his first competitive game for eight months unscathed. Further forward, Ferguson has enviable choices, but the difficulties lie in finding the correct combination. The chances are that Welbeck will not be on the left again when Fulham visit Old Trafford on Saturday. Potentially, Van Persie could lead the line with Rooney behind him and Kagawa shifted to a wider role.