Manchester United kicked off their title defence on Sunday, with an impressive performance by Ashley Young helping them secure a 2-1 win over West Brom at the Hawthorns.
The summer signing looked very comfortable in his new United colours, and offered a constant threat all afternoon, culminating in his deflected cross finding the net to give the champions the victory.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men took an early lead courtesy of Wayne Rooney, when his low drive found the corner of the Baggies’ net, but despite dominating the majority of the game, a mistake by new goalkeeper David de Gea let West Brom back into the game.
De Gea, who was widely considered to be at fault for at least one of the two Manchester City goals at Wembley last week, allowed a Shane Long shot to slip under his hands, giving the Irishman a debut goal following his £7 million move from Reading earlier in the week.
United re-established their dominance in the second half, and Steven Reid’s own-goal sealed the points for the Red Devils with 10 minutes remaining to take at least some of the unwanted headlines away from De Gea.
There was a lively atmosphere at the Hawthorns, where West Brom hoped to continue to be a thorn in United’s side, having drawn both games with the champions last season.
Roy Hodgson started new signing Shane Long in attack, but the absence of Peter Odemwingie was a big blow to the Black Country club, who had former United-keeper Ben Foster in goal, beginning a year-long loan spell from Birmingham.
There were a couple of changes from the United team, which defeated Manchester City in last week’s Community Shield, with Tom Cleverley coming into the starting lineup to partner the energetic Anderson in midfield.
Both midfielders were solid, with Anderson working tirelessly and Cleverley impressing with his movement, passing and willingness to always receive the ball.
Fabio started instead of the injured Patrice Evra at left-back, while his twin brother, Rafael, was replaced by Chris Smalling at right-back, having been ruled out for 10 weeks after dislocating a shoulder in training.
Danny Welbeck partnered Rooney in attack, with Ashley Young and Nani offering support from the wings in a very attacking lineup, which meant Sir Alex Ferguson’s bench played host to the talents of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov among others.
Despite a long-range effort from Paul Scharner coming close, it was United who dominated possession in the early stages, and it didn’t take them long to turn their possession into goals.
Ashley Young, booed throughout due to his Aston Villa ties, was set free down the left flank by Fabio, and pulled the ball back to Rooney on the edge of the area.
The England striker set himself and struck a left-footed effort low into Foster’s net for his first goal of the new campaign.
United began to turn the screw after Rooney’s goal and should have doubled their lead when Nani blazed over from 10 yards, after a lovely United move involving Rooney and Welbeck.
The Portuguese winger had another chance a few minutes later, too, again firing over after Foster failed to claim a Young free-kick; he struggled to replicate the form he displayed at Wembley, often giving the ball away and failing to capitalise on good positions through indecision or a poor final ball.
Despite all the possession, West Brom looked dangerous in attack, with Solomon Tchoyi proving to be a real handful.
Paul Scharner forced a great save from De Gea when he unleashed a powerful strike from just inside the box, which the Spanish keeper palmed away with one hand. Shortly after, though, the Baggies were level.
Having dealt with Scharner’s effort well, De Gea was beaten by a relatively tame effort from Shane Long, who made himself some space in the area to get a shot away.
The weak effort slipped under the keeper’s hands, and the mistake, coupled with a questionable performance last week, will not fill fans with confidence.
De Gea partially redeemed himself when he was forced to turn away an over-hit cross, which looked destined for the net moments later, but West Brom continued to test the keeper after the break, pressurising him at corners, where De Gea wasn’t particularly assured, although he did appear to be fouled on more than one occasion.
His slim stature may hinder him in these situations; Ferguson might be well-advised to give him extra time in the weight room before United face Stoke later this season.
Helping to relieve the pressure on their new keeper, the champions soon re-established their dominance in possession, although chances were at a premium thanks to some solid defending from the home team.
West Brom might have sensed an opportunity at an upset when starting centre-halves Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were both forced off with injuries, replaced by Jonny Evans and Phil Jones.
At 23, Evans was comfortably the oldest member of the defence, but the back line looked very confident and assured, dealing with West Brom’s greatest second-half threat, Solomon Tchoyi’s crossing, well.
The news that Ferdinand will miss around six weeks with a calf strain, and Vidic may be out for the next fortnight, will not be welcomed at Old Trafford, but there is a feeling that they have more than capable replacements in Jones, Evans and Smalling, who was solid playing out of position at right-back.
With limited chances at both ends, it was a moment of good fortune that eventually proved the difference.
Young collected the ball on the left flank and burst into the box before firing in a low cross, which was deflected twice, the second touch coming off Steven Reid and finding the bottom corner of the net.
The winger celebrated the goal as if his own, although replays suggest he may have a hard time claiming it, as the ball was going away from goal before the first deflection.
Regardless of the goalscorer, it proved to be the decisive moment, and the champions will be pleased to get off to a winning start; a win away from home is even more encouraging, given United’s struggles away from Old Trafford last season.
West Brom may have been disappointed to come away without a point, having equipped themselves well to deal with United’s threats, and defended solidly throughout, but the performance will have encouraged Roy Hodgson.
United, meanwhile, will have been delighted to come away with three points, and will feel it is no less than they deserved, having dominated both possession and territory for the majority of the game.
The impressive showings by Phil Jones over the last two games will go some way to dispel any fears over the injury-ravaged back line, and Young’s fine start in United colours is very encouraging.
Young’s direct play and dangerous deliveries caused problems for West Brom all game; his new boss will be very happy with the performances he has already turned in for Manchester United.
Rooney’s movement and link-up play was back to his best too—a world away from the Rooney who started last year’s campaign. This will encourage United; Rooney will be vital to their chances of securing their 20th league title in May next year.
David De Gea’s form is a worry, but it will take him time to settle into the English game due to his age, expectations, experience in Spanish football and very limited knowledge of the English language.
Both he and Sir Alex will be relieved that United’s attacking threat is producing the goods early this season, even without Javier Hernandez, who should return in the next two weeks, as it has helped relieve some of the pressure on the keeper.
For now though, the champions will be very happy to come away with three points from a potentially tricky away tie, and their solid performance is something they can build on with more difficult games against Tottenham and Arsenal coming up next.
Foster (6), Reid (5), Olsson (7), Shorey (7), Tamas (6), Tchoyi (8), Morrison (5), Brunt (7), Mulumbu (5), Scharner (6), Long (6).
Subs: Jara (n/a), Cox (n/a).
De Gea (5), Smalling (6), Ferdinand (6), Vidic (7), Fabio (7), Anderson (7), Nani (5), Young (8), Cleverley (7), Rooney (8), Welbeck (6).
Subs: Evans (7), Jones (7), Berbatov (5).
Man of the Match: Ashley Young
Ref: Mike Jones (8)