Tuesday August 10th, 2010

It was, of course, only a friendly, and at times in the second half the game was played at little more than half pace, so it would be reckless to draw too many conclusions. But the happiest people after Sunday's Community Shield were probably Arsenal and Manchester City.

Manchester United beat Chelsea 3-1, and was worth the win, but neither side convinced. After a cautious World Cup, there was something both disconcerting and reassuring about seeing two teams attack each other and, for anybody involved with either side, something surely deeply alarming about how porous both looked.

Still, United did win and deserves credit for the things it did well, particularly as four of the last five winners of the Community Shield have gone on to win the Premiership title. Going forward, it was undeniably potent. Wayne Rooney looked like a different player than the inhibited, frustrated figure who had turned out under his name in the World Cup, and his reverse pass for Luis Antonio Valencia's goal was magnificent both in conception and execution.

For Valencia, this was a positive sign. It would be ludicrous to expect him to be Cristiano Ronaldo -- and last season he was rightly praised for his crossing and his diligence rather than being compared too overtly to the Portuguese star he replaced -- but if United isn't to be overreliant on Rooney again, goals have to come from midfield. Valencia will not hit the 20s and 30s Ronaldo regularly rattled in each season, but United needs him to score more than the five he did last season -- even if that did equal the most prolific campaign of his career.

That Rooney had to carry such a heavy load last season had less to do with Valencia -- who, goals aside, had a fine first season at Old Trafford -- than with Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian, with his languid style and his economy of movement, may be an easy target when things start going wrong, but last year he really was dreadful. And when his touch deserts him, his refusal to charge around the pitch clattering opponents means there isn't much else to offer.

The signs on Sunday, though, were promising. He didn't break into anything more than a trot, of course, but then that's not his style, and to ask him to become a surrogate Carlos Tevez is as ridiculous as asking Valencia to become Ronaldo. Better rather to appreciate what he does, which is to move intelligently, pass smartly and, when chances such as the one that came his way in injury time present themselves, take them with such nonchalance that the deftness involved looks somehow ordinary.

At other clubs -- perhaps at United in different times -- the underperformance of last season would have meant major surgery. As it is, United's only response has been to bring in 21-year-old Mexico striker Javier Hernandez. He looked lively during the World Cup and reinforced that impression on Sunday, buzzing with energy, making astute runs and scoring the second goal, albeit by hooking the ball away from goal before inadvertently following it in with his head. His broad grin afterward at least spoke of a measure of self-awareness; there was no attempt to disguise his good fortune. Still, it would be unfair to expect him to make a regular impact in his first season in the Premier League, which is why it is critical for United's hopes that Berbatov achieve some measure of consistency.

The lack of spending generally is telling. Neither side had a new signing on the pitch at kickoff, which says much for the mood of austerity that has settled over the Premier League. Ronaldo was sold for about $120 million a year ago, with Valencia costing $24 million from Wigan. Since then, United's net spending is only around $18 million, with the most expensive signing being center back Chris Smalling, brought in from Fulham for $15 million. Sir Alex Ferguson has insisted the Ronaldo money is available to spend, but if it is, and interest repayments on a debt that stands at more than $1 billion are not a concern, two questions emerge: Why were the promising Ben Foster, Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic off-loaded so quickly, and why has Ferguson not moved to bolster his midfield?

Paul Scholes was the game's outstanding player on Sunday, but he is 35. Alongside him was the 36-year-old Ryan Giggs. Edwin van der Sar, who made a number of fine saves, is 40. Ferguson has stood in defiance of plenty of the game's conventions before, but surely not even he can make his players immortal. That Chelsea has an aging squad that requires rejuvenation -- seven starters and two substitutes Sunday were 29 or older -- is widely accepted, but United's reliance on veterans is extraordinary. During the World Cup, the performances of Germany's Mesut Ozil drew comparisons with the young Scholes; perhaps significantly, Ferguson has refused to rule out a move for the $21-million-rated Werder Bremen playmaker.

So the forward line shows promise, and the midfield creaks on, but the real worry for Ferguson must be the back four. When Chelsea finally roused itself after Didier Drogba had arrived as a 60th-minute substitute, it created numerous chances, and the ease with which Salomon Kalou scored Chelsea's goal from a rebound after a van der Sar parry spoke of a lack of alertness. Fine player though Jonny Evans is, he is prone to such lapses -- think of the dressing-down Ferguson gave him from the touchline in Milan last year -- but he is not alone in the United rearguard in needing to rediscover his snap.

If Rio Ferdinand returns from his back injury -- and when a 31-year-old is reduced to just 12 league starts, as he was last season, with a persistent problem there must be concerns as to whether he will ever fully recover -- and when Patrice Evra is restored at left back, United should improve, but it is far from the awesome force of two or three seasons ago. The positive for Ferguson is that Chelsea looked even more flawed.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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