Manchester United 0 - 0 Reading
Q: How do you break down an 11-man defence?
A: With extreme difficulty, as Manchester United discovered. Or, not with John O'Shea in attack, anyway. At various times defender, midfielder and even goalkeeper last season, the Irishman tried a new trade at Old Trafford today: striker.
O'Shea possessed the best shots-to-goals ratio in the Premier League last season, but that does not make him a centre forward. United's utility man spent the majority of his cameo against Reading attempting to be one, before giving way to Nemanja Vidic in attack. Both were an indication of United's desperation for a goal as well as their shortage of strikers.
And now Sir Alex Ferguson has an indication how Arsene Wenger has felt for much of the past 12 months. United endured the sort of frustrating afternoon that characterised Arsenal's campaign last season as inferior opponents displayed admirable resilience.
Indeed, Reading produced a monumental rearguard action to preserve their clean sheet and thus a point. Central defenders Michael Duberry and Ivar Ingimarsson, both heroic, excelled, but they were still overshadowed by their goalkeeper. Marcus Hahnemann, making his competitive comeback after breaking his hand - and with 18 metal pins still inside it - was the outstanding candidate for man of the match.
'I think more goalkeepers are man of the match here than at any other ground in the country,' rued Ferguson. 'All credit to him, he made some fantastic saves.'
Despite the effectiveness of Coppell's 5-4-1 formation he needed to, particularly to deny Wayne Rooney in the first half and then both Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes in the final minute.
Coppell, though he did not need to, defended his tactics. 'You'd love to say 4-4-2 against 4-4-2 and see what happens, but we can't do that. We'd get hammered. This time last season, they played Fulham. [They were] four-nil up after 20 minutes. They can shatter your season dream very quickly. So we came with a game plan that was disciplined and we asked the players to be disciplined. We hoped to be more expansive as the game went on, but it never happened.'
It did not, but Reading never needed to score. United did, and Ferguson felt that the reason they did not was the half-time departure of their most likely scorer. Wayne Rooney has already suffered two broken feet. Scans will confirm if this was a third.
'The loss of Wayne Rooney was obvious,' Ferguson added. 'I think if he'd been on the pitch, we would have won the game.' Ryan Giggs had started in harness with Rooney in attack. Second-half configurations of his team, as Ferguson grew more and more ingenious, included, at various stages, Ronaldo, O'Shea, Vidic and Scholes there.
None are specialist strikers and, while Giggs struck the foot of the post with one volley and narrowly failed to bend a free kick inside Hahnemann's post, no one resembled one. Even when Rooney was on the pitch, his tendency to drop deep meant there was a vacancy for a predator to elude the massed ranks of Reading defenders; if few at Old Trafford miss Ruud van Nistelrooy, there were occasions when he was undeniably effective.
His successors are all doubts for the trip to Portsmouth on Wednesday.
Discounting Dong Fangzhou and depending upon Carlos Tevez's readiness for first-team football, Ferguson may not have a senior striker available for the visit to Fratton Park, though Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have resumed training.
The decisions to sell Alan Smith and Giuseppe Rossi met with little opposition at the time and both would have been marginal figures, but this was an occasion when either would have been useful. Wednesday might be another.
Reading, too, finished without an out-and-out forward. Kevin Doyle was the initial choice, but there were occasions when the Irishman needed a long-distance phone call to get in contact with his team-mates. On others, when Doyle chased back, there was no Reading player within 70 yards of Edwin van der Sar.
But after Doyle's removal, enter - and exit - Dave Kitson. His 37-second cameo was abruptly ended by referee Rob Styles, the replacement red-carded for a high challenge on Patrice Evra. Coppell conceded: 'It wasn't malicious, it was just mis-timed. But looking at it, he possibly did deserve to be sent off.'
Thereafter, Andre Bikey found himself Reading's equivalent of O'Shea, the ersatz, uncomfortable centre forward. The 10 men, even with a bemused makeshift forward, held on.
A more typical sight was that of Rooney crowded out by five defenders, one of many indications of Reading's devotion to their defensive duties. Not even Ronaldo's beguiling footwork could breach a wonderfully marshalled rearguard.
But, with Chelsea and Everton ahead in the next week in a particularly tough start to the season, Coppell is considering rotating. 'Going back to my economics background, I'd be suffering with diminishing marginal returns,' he remarked wryly.
After scoring 123 times last season, United are experiencing their own diminishing returns in front of goal.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Marcus Hahnemann - Normally the chants of 'USA, USA' from
the visiting fans at Old Trafford are taunts relating to the Glazer family.
This time, they were appreciative as the Reading fans celebrated their
MOAN OF THE MATCH: It doesn't strictly relate to the match, but there are
surely better times to close Manchester's Metro system than when 76,000
people are converging on Old Trafford.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They need no reminding that early-season momentum
is vital and set the tone for last season with their demolition of Fulham in
the first game. As Ferguson insisted, chances were created in abundance, but
the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer, particularly after Rooney's removal,
READING VERDICT: The fixture calendar handed them an unenviable pair of
early games - United followed by Chelsea - and, after an underwhelming
summer in the transfer market, it all pointed to a tougher campaign. This
was a 90-minute reminder of Coppell's qualities and the unity of his
IN WITH THE OLD: There is plenty of novelty value to the new season across
the Premier League signings. New signings abounded, but Old Trafford
provided an exception with none on the pitch at kick-off. Only one - Nani -
made an appearance at all.
OPENING DAY NERVES: It's fair to say Dave Kitson does not relish the start
of the season. Injured in the opening game against Middlesbrough 12 months
ago, he was sent off this time.
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