Fulham vs. Manchester United: What Fans Want to See from United on Saturday
No, not this. Jonny Evans played in both the matches against Fulham last season, both of which United won, with an aggregate 6-0. Surprisingly the away match was the 5-0 drubbing we would like to see on Saturday.
That would be some reverse for Fulham, but their past appearances against United don't augur well. In fact, with Dempsey out and other players attracting interest, the biggest factor in their favour may be the manager, Martin Jol.
He is still in the process of re-engineering Fulham, part of this exercise being due to factors beyond his control. Mohammed Al Fayed would like to keep tight financial rigour, so reasonable bids for players will be listened to.
Jol may not have been averse to Danny Murphy leaving at 35, but Sir Alex will be delighted because the ex-Liverpool midfielder has been a constant thorn in United's side since his days at the Reds.
Last season's results were in keeping with recent history. United have won four of their last five, not conceding a goal; and Fulham have lost their last eight matches at Old Trafford without scoring in the last five.
Who would have thought that going into this match Fulham would be sitting on top and United near the bottom of the EPL. The season won't finish that way of course.
Norwich were frankly awful at Fulham last week, and Jol will surely guard against complacency, but their defence wasn't stretched last week in the way that United will pressure them.
The key player could be Brede Hangeland—but in the United box—although in 2010 he managed to score at both ends in 10 minutes. He is even taller than Marouane Fellaini.
If you were wanting to avoid two fixtures at the start of the season without a centre back, they would be against Everton and Fulham because of Fellaini and Hangeland.
Let's hope lightning doesn't strike twice...
A Proper Defensive Lineup
It could easily be two matches, two defeats by five o'clock on Saturday. Frankly, the only way to avoid that may be with a magnificent attacking game. We'll consider that later.
Anyone watching the managers' press conference this morning on MUTV will have had that sinking feeling. Asked about the defensive situation, Sir Alex said the squad would be the same as on Monday.
Taken at face value, that would mean Michael Carrick playing at centre-back once again. The manager said Phil Jones has only just started training (which is good news because he was not expected back before 15 September).
Every week I check to see what the injury situation is, and today it had that familiar look from last season with already five players injured (including of course Darren Fletcher), four of whom are central defenders.
Now significantly this has not changed since a week ago, and Jonny Evans is listed as returning on 25 August, i.e. Saturday.
So is it possible Sir Alex was playing mind games with Martin Jol? We already know that his statement wasn't strictly correct because with Alexander Buttner beside him, he made quite clear the Dutch left-back would be in the squad and would get some game time but wouldn't start.
He also didn't mention Jonny Evans at all, and Phil Jones' injury was apparently down to "back spasms." Rio Ferdinand has had this problem in the past. He was sent home from the Norwegian tour on 6 August, which is almost three weeks ago.
If it was a muscle tear, that could be a six-to-eight week job. If, as is more likely, he has had a muscle strain in the lower back, spasms are the problem and these can be controlled by anti-inflammatories. The danger is if it conceals the pain and causes him to damage it further.
He was fit for Norway, having been in Euro 2012 but without any game time, so it could take him only a week to get fit, making him eligible for next Sunday's match at Southampton.
So the question is about whether Sir Alex is keeping us all guessing? It's pretty critical for two reasons:
First, to give stability at the back and keep yet another clean sheet against Fulham.
Second, because although Carrick had a sterling game against Everton, but for the goal, it is not just that he is not a centre-back. What is more important is that Sir Alex sees him as the rock in midfield. We shall return to that.
Likely Team Sheet
We will definitely see two Dutchmen at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Buttner will not start, but he will be on the bench; partly because he can cover right-back as well as left-back. As Sir Alex has pointed out, Patrice Evra has played an average of 48 games a season for the last five years. He is super fit, but after some indifferent performances last year, needs a "gee-up."
Patrice is also 31, and succession needs to be in place. It is clear that Sir Alex is confident enough in his new signing to throw him straight in at the deep end. Game time against Fulham, Southampton and Wigan in the next few weeks is a godsend before the big guns come along, starting with Liverpool.
So, if Sir Alex was being straight with us, the lineup is not likely to change much, but with one or two significant moves, allowing Valencia to play where he should be. Van Persie will start of course:
Rafael, Carrick, Vidic, Evra
Valencia, Rooney, Young
Lindegaard, Buttner, Keane or Wootton, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Hernandez
However, if he has been kidding us, I expect something more like this:
Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra
Valencia, Cleverley, Carrick, Kagawa
Rooney, van Persie
With the same bench.
Evans started training a week ago and should be given a start. Don't rule out Sir Alex giving either Wootton or Keane a start, however.
A Fluid Offense That Clicks into Gear
These will be key to a result on Saturday, whatever the formation or lineup.
Personally, I don't like the word "offense" in relation to football, except the American version. In this case, however, it sums up the way United will play against Fulham, following a similar pattern to the Everton match. It includes the midfield and the strikers.
Take Fellaini out of the equation and United would have walked it on Monday. They had 64 percent of possession. Yes, it wasn't good enough that they didn't find the back of the net.
That was in some senses a little surprising for two reasons: neither the starting nor finishing formation had played together in preseason, and the latter also showed that United's strikers are still rusty. In fact, Welbeck looked slow, which is why he should be benched.
Ferguson will continue to play a more fluid formation this season. If he says that Carrick will be pivotal, that means out-and-out attacking football, like Barcelona but with an English take.
That doesn't mean that he won't welcome back Darren Fletcher against City if he returns to full fitness, to counter YaYa Toure's physical dominance. If DF is not available, you can expect Phil Jones to be prepared for that role.
But in either case it will be alongside Carrick.
Whether in these columns or on MUTV, the cry simply won't go away: "Where's the new Roy Keane?" Or "We need a defensive midfield."
So if United signed a player like that, who would he replace? OK, plenty of you would say "Carrick" but you're wrong according to Sir Alex, because he's not a DFM, nor even a holding player really. He's the conductor of the orchestra.
People don't seem to understand that United play uncompromising attacking football, except for the occasional pragmatic formation. There is no way United would have played the way Chelsea did against Barcelona and Bayern in the Champions League.
The mantra at United is that "attack is the best form of defence." Now Ferguson isn't daft, so while every player he has bought recently has pace and can attack (including especially Buttner), he also trains them to defend.
Anderson, Valencia, Nani, Rooney, Young, Kagawa, Berbatov, Hernandez either didn't or couldn't tackle before they came to Old Trafford.
Being able to defend in depth is the key that makes United's offense work. You don't have to be a Daniele De Rossi, you only have to be able to disrupt the opposition and ideally win the ball, intercept or force a throw-in, to stop momentum.
ALL Academy players are brought up to play in either attack or defence, whether they are naturals in one sphere or another. Look at how many times Michael Keane was the last man in the opposition penalty box on the preseason tour.
Scott Wootton scored a delightful lobbed goal against Stoke last weekend for the U21s.
At the same time, Valencia has become a pretty useful wing-back when needed.
There were plenty of positive signs to take out of the Everton match. Kagawa was excellent and fed any number of through balls and defence splitting passes. As his colleagues get used to him, he could be the top player for assists in the EPL this year.
Van Persie will thrive off Kagawa, but also I'm drooling at what he will do with the service he gets from Valencia. Think of Michael Owen and Berbatov combined at their very best. This is a very clever footballer.
The rest of the attacking players will play a very fluid game of football. Whether zonal or man to man, each and every one of them has the ability to be a match winner.
And just when Fulham think it can't get any worse, on could come Welbeck and Chicharito.
A Return to Form for Rooney
Let's be blunt. Rooney looked unfit and overweight on Monday. That's just the way he is built.
Opposition supporters may call him "Shrek" or "Desperate Dan," but when he's fit, he is a machine who covers every blade of grass.
Two things will change for Rooney starting on Saturday, whoever is at the back:
He will have somebody to take the huge burden off his shoulders of having to score every game. If anything, van Persie is an even better goal scorer than Rooney.
Second, Rooney will be able to play where he wants without that sense of responsibility that he should be up front scoring goals. That release might just lead to him relaxing and scoring even more!
He knows when it is appropriate to be last man in defence or when he needs to go and find the ball from deep to start an attack. Kagawa also showed in preseason and on Monday that he can do that.
Rooney is very demanding of himself and others. He rightly criticises Nani when the Portuguese player makes the wrong calls as he did on Monday.
I remain convinced that Rooney can be United's next captain.
It's not surprising that he gets stick from opposition fans. That always happens with players they fear. Any one of those fans would sign Rooney for their own team. Real Madrid or City would pay £60 million for a player who at 26 has 10 years at the top under his belt already.
His best years are yet to come.
He will be rightly angry that United lost to his old team and will drive United forward against Fulham.
Like all the best strikers in the history of the game, he is a streak player. Time to go on a run Wayne.
RVP to Score; United to Win
It's possible that RVP is the most influential signing since Eric Cantona. You can safely expect him to make a similar contribution and in much the same way.
With one exception: He will score more goals.
Last season, injury free, he was arguably one of the top three strikers in the world.
He single-handedly dragged Arsenal into a Champions League place.
United are much better equipped in depth than Arsenal. The Gunners also play pretty football, but with not enough end product and a vulnerable defence that conceded 47 goals last season.
How can you be at your best when the service is too slow and you're always having to back track to try and help out in defence?
Van Persie will be told to be selfish and "goal poach." Not just because he's an ace striker, but also because by occupying the opposition he will help restrict their own offence.
Van Persie will score, probably in the first twenty minutes. United will win. It doesn't matter by how many, because they need to get to when the defence is fit.
With any one of Evans, Ferdinand or Jones back, van Persie and United could have a field day against Southampton and Wigan.
Footnote: On Saturday at 3 p.m. I shall be in my seat in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand as usual, drooling at the prospect of van Persie, nervous as hell about the defence.
If you can't get there, don't miss it on TV. It should be the start of the next era at Old Trafford.