Manchester United got their pre-season underway yesterday with a somewhat convincing win over Celtic at Toronto yesterday. A number of first-team players as well as a few up-and-coming youngsters got a chance to show their ability in the absence of United's World Cup players from the tour.
It is not always advisable to look too much into a team's performance after the first match of the pre-season. However, if the team demonstrates good play and chemistry, then it becomes worth it.
Given below is an analysis of individual players as well as the overall gameplay of the team based on their performance against the Bhoys:
Paul Scholes: The 'Ginger Prince' absolutely lit up the pitch with his passing and vision in the first half. He made the Celtic midfield look pedestrian by comparison. It almost seems like Scholes picked up from where he left off last season, with a full range of passing on display. Additionally, he slotted well into the 4-4-2 formation, which he had been unable to do last season.
Everything points to a vintage season from arguably the best midfielder in the Premier League.
Dimitar Berbatov: Leading the line with Mame Biram Diouf, Berbatov's touches, ability to keep the ball, and link-up play complemented Diouf's pace perfectly. Feeding off Diouf's knockdowns, Berbatov will consider himself unlucky to have scored only once. He opened up the Celtic defense repeatedly and smashed the ball wide once.
However, he seemed to be everywhere in the final third. Along with the demonstration of his exquisite skills, he displayed the graft and hard work which was missing last season. He scored a superb goal, and also provided the assists for United's other two goals with superb play-making. He was rightly awarded the Man-of-the-Match award for his display.
The hunger and the desire are writ large in the Bulgarian's demeanour. This season, the League's best second striker might well be topping the charts in goals and assists given enough time on the pitch.
Gabriel Obertan: A superb display of wing play from the Frenchman, whose only negative point is his finishing, wasting two superb chances in the first half. He demonstrated blinding pace, superb skills, and a good chemistry with the team. More importantly, with the right back Rafael da Silva, he tracked back several times to help out on defense.
Given more chances, Obertan will cause a ton of trouble on the wings this season, whether on the left or right. He has already shown in the Reserves that he can score good goals.
Johnny Evans: A tremendous display at centre back from the young Irishman, who was the oldest in the United back line in the first half, at 22. Celtic did not get more than a couple of long range shots on target with him around. Very assured on the ball and positionally brilliant off it, he handled Marc-Antoine Fortune's pace and trickery, tackling cleanly several times.
On this showing, Rio Ferdinand can take all the time he wants on the treatment table. His successor is in outstanding form.
Mame Biram Diouf: He has improved his ball control and link-up play significantly from the last time he played. He ran the Celtic defense ragged on several occasions with his extreme pace. Combined with Berbatov in the first half, and, if not for a better first touch, would have scored a couple of goals.
His pace and improved chemistry with the team can be devastating if used effectively this season.
Ryan Giggs: The evergreen 'Welsh Wizard' seemingly has a well of magic, which never seems to empty. A good display on the left wing, with beautiful touches and a superb understanding with Scholes and Berbatov, Giggs even found the time to trick his way past a couple of Celtic players, which is unusual from him. A very welcome display, nevertheless, because it shows his confidence levels.
Should Nani and Valencia be in good form as well, Giggs could well be utilised as an impact substitute if his good form continues into the season.
Darren Fletcher: An untiring engine, Fletcher is indeed trying to live up to his statement of trying to emulate Scholes. He took his time on several occasions, noted the teammates' positioning and impending runs, and made some telling passes, both long and short.
Of course, troubling the Celtic midfield players when they were in possession was a given, and he did it effectively enough. He was named Captain for the game, and essayed that role effectively. A pointer to the upcoming season, perhaps, even with Giggs and van der Sar in the side ?
His hard work means that he does not rely on form, if at all, and seems to be adding the patient, yet gilt-edged passing of Scholes to his repertoire. No question, Fletcher is going to be a key player again this season.
Rafael da Silva: A future United right back, Rafael demonstrated both good defensive and attacking ability down the right wing, including picking an Obertan run superbly which should have resulted in a goal. Nevertheless, Shaun Maloney did cause him problems on several occasions, even though no damage was done.
He should be able to build on this display as the season progresses, and a couple of good games in pre-season will do him a world of good.
Fabio da Silva: He is the definitive successor to Patrice Evra for the left-back position, with a superb display. Fortune got no change out of him when trying to run the channels, and he also got forward on several occasions, though his crossing was not top notch. Defensively, an absolute rock.
Considering that he is coming back from injury, a couple of games to get him up to speed might very well result in Evra taking a number of days off. If he is on form and free from injury, United will definitely not miss their premier left back during the season.
Chris Smalling: Though liable for making the odd mistake, Smalling more than ably demonstrated why United splashed out on him. He combined well with Evans to snuff out Celtic in the first half. Were it not for Wes Brown's poor covering in the second half, might not have had to concede the penalty. Nevertheless, his ability to bring the ball out of defense and pass it forward is definitely a strength which Evans can benefit from, should the two be played together.
Smalling will definitely get chances to play this season. He seems to have it in him to make it big at the club. We might have just seen the formation of United's future first choice centre-back pairing for the first time yesterday.
Edwin van der Sar: Unlucky to concede a goal, since the Dutchman looked his usual assured self in goal. He looks fully fit, and age has just not dimmed his reflexes and ability, considering that he was positionally superb for all of Celtic's long range attempts. He even dived correctly for Samaras's penalty, though it was struck a bit too well to be saved.
Tomasz Kuszcack and Ben Amos have a big fight on their hands to take the first choice goalkeeper's slot from the ageless Dutchman even this season, on this showing.
Wes Brown: A poor showing from the veteran defender, which included him getting booked and making tackles on Fortune without the ball being anywhere close to the player. Did not look completely match fit, but it is understandable after having been out through injury for so ling.
Brown will definitely become sharper as match practise increases. Injuries notwithstanding, should play a vital role in the United rearguard when called upon.
Ritchie de Laet: Slotted into the right back role as a substitute for Rafael, he played a good solid game, apart from one occasion when Samaras absolutely flew down that wing to the touchline. Became better as the half progressed, and eventually got forward to good effect.
A decent showing, considering that he is letf footed and suited to the left of defense. His versatility might prove to be a boon for United this season.
John O'Shea: Replacement for the lively Fabio at left back, O'Shea was his usual solid, dependable self, someone not overly committed to attack. Did not seem like he had been away at all. His presence in the squad means that there is adequate cover for Evra at left back, unless he is chronically injured.
Just like de Laet, his ability to play in a number of positions in defense means that should he remain injury free, he will play significantly this season.
Darren Gibson: Someone who showed an increasing maturity in his game, when compared to last season. Apart from one attempt on goal and a wasted free kick, looked to keep things solid in midfield, and helped keep the team ticking over with Fletcher in the second half.
While he did not provide Scholes' incisive passing through the middle (who can ?), he provided a solid defensive cover along with Fletcher as United attacked down the wings. His development is the reason United have not pursued Sami Khedira, given that their games are very similar. He will certainly provide adequate cover in midfield this season, and should get a lot more chances as his development continues.
Tom Cleverley: The big young hope for United this coming season, Cleverley did not start off all that well, giving away the ball on numerous occasions and not passing cleanly to teammates. However, once he switched wings with Danny Welbeck and moved to the right, he improved significantly and was finally awarded with a goal for his efforts, albeit a deflected one.
A player who seems to be Lampard-esque in his ability to score goals from midfield, Cleverley will definitely get more chances this season. A decent return of 5-8 goals from the youngster should cement his place in the United first XI in the coming years. He's off to a good start, anyways.
Danny Welbeck: Deployed primarily as a winger, Welbeck continued to impress as he made some good runs, played some beautiful passes and linked up superbly with Berbatov. His tenacity was finally rewarded as he scored a goal which was laid on a platter for him by the Bulgarian. Had a couple of shots on target blocked.
He will go out on loan this season, but has the ability to play in most of the mid-to-lower-table sides in the Premiership regularly. His loan to such a team will be crucial to his development, and he is well on his way to being a United regular as well.
Frederico "Kiko" Macheda: The man who is regarded as the next superstar-in-development at the club, Macheda played well enough after coming on in the second half, though he seems to lack the outright pace of the other United forwards. He was robbed off the ball by Cha Du Ri, the Celtic right back, during a United counter-attack. Nevertheless, he looked sharp, and used his strength and skill to almost bulldoze his way through the Bhoys' rearguard on one occasion. He had a definite goal saved through a timely reaction by the Celtic keeper.
His development this season will continue in the first team itself, through the various club competitions as well as occasional League appearances. If he avoids injury, this can well be a big season for him. Might gel with a striker who has pace and is liable to make runs into space, such as Diouf or Owen.
Overall team assessment:
For a team whose pre-season training started four days ago, United were particularly effective and their usual attacking self in the first half, when Scholes was orchestrating the play from midfield. All of the first XI looked sharp and hungry, and there was no lack of effort or skill from the players.
Team chemistry was tremendous, and the team played like the United of old. One very good point to note was that various avenues for attack were being tried, such as from the wings as well as through-balls or quick one-twos. This bodes well, since United had become very one dimensional last season.
After the substitutions at the start of the second half, the play became increasingly disjointed, especially when the lively Samaras was making runs at the United back-line. However, United slowed the pace of the game down late in the half, as they started retaining possession again. They started using counter-attacks against Celtic.
While Berbatov has been criticised for his lack of pace in counter-attacks, he changed his role in the sense that instead of leading the counter-attacks, he was initiating them by dropping deep, and passing the ball to the runners. With the goal-scoring threats of Gibson, Macheda, Welbeck, and Cleverley making the runs, he could afford to stay back.
Also, Berbatov's skills proved invaluable in the final assessment, since it was he who created space out of nothing on both occasions when the second-half goals were scored. The Bulgarian seems confident, and should he remain in this mood, he will perhaps be the most dangerous opponent for any opposition, except maybe Paul Scholes.
On current evidence, United seem to be well covered in most areas, including attack and defense, especially if Ferdinand recovers and Vidic stays. In midfield, a replacement for Scholes is a definite requirement, since no one seems to possess his ability to direct play and find teammates with superb long and short passes. I think Sir Alex would have noted the same.
Should the Red Devils' pre-season go well, we can expect a flying start to the Premier League campaign. Most of the players seem to be in good touch, and are eager to get going. United in their usual mood will definitely be up to challenge for all the honours this season, and I think Chelsea will be the first to suffer at the Community Shield. Let's pray for a much improved Wembley pitch, then.