'Dodgy keeper' De Gea is the only chink in United's armour
West Bromwich Albion 1 Manchester United 2
The vast yellow jersey dropped on David de Gea's slender shoulders is certainly one in which he looks lost. His uncultivated beard and quiff is as much a sign of youth as the way his face seems to telegraph his anxieties. It is unclear whether the English lessons, with which his manager says he is progressing so well, have acquainted him with an understanding of the term "dodgy keeper" but when it was being blasted out only 35 minutes into his competitive English career yesterday it was hard not to fear for him.
The 20-year-old will pick up the terrace vernacular soon enough and he certainly knew by last night about the unsparing environment of the Premier League. The goal which allowed West Bromwich Albion into the game and which, barring the pretty desperate defensive lapse which allowed Ashley Young to score a late winner, should have brought them a point, cannot have failed to cause Sir Alex Ferguson some old, familiar pangs of doubt.
Ferguson knows from painful experience that the search for a new goalkeeper can be the hardest and potentially most disastrous part of recruitment. Some of the flapping displayed by Ben Foster in the West Bromwich goal early on yesterday only went to show that those he has tipped for greatness in goal don't always make it. A second clanking error from De Gea, to go with his statuesque reaction to a 30-yard shot in the Community Shield a week earlier, is not enough to rush to judgement, but those trying to chase United down will take some mighty hope that there is a chink in the armour.
At Wembley a week ago, there was evidence that this slight 20-year-old Madrileno, who had only a season for Atletico Madrid behind him when Ferguson decided to spend £18.3m on him, does possess reflexes. Nothing looked terribly convincing yesterday, though.
The clearance that a generally uncertain Rio Ferdinand skied into his own penalty box went unclaimed. There was a clutch at thin air from De Gea, rather than at the ball James Morrison lofted over in the first 10 minutes of the game. Even the shape of a clawing save from West Brom's exciting striker Somen Tchoyi was an odd one – De Gea seeming to dive too early and then needed to right himself. Yet it is the image of Shane Long's relatively innocuous 37th-minute shot eluding De Gea's despairing clutch, puncturing United's dominance and shifting the balance of this game, which is the abiding one.
De Gea knew that the Premier League has a way of finding a player's weakness and offering no sanctuary. Three long-range shots had been fired in the first half-hour, in recognition of his slip at Wembley. Halfway through the second half here, he was flat on his back as Roy Hodgson's strikers went wading into him.
It wasn't how the game seemed destined to shape up. United's opening half-hour of the season had been actually a testament to youth and to Ferguson's judgement of it. The third-youngest Manchester United starting XI of all time – average age 24 years and 161 days – began the defence of the 19th title on a sun-dappled pitch, in a way which suggested some more wonderfully golden days in the nine months ahead.
It is 16 years since Alan Hansen made his contribution to broadcasting infamy by declaring on the opening day of the 1995/96 season that the United side who had just lost to Aston Villa offered proof that "you can't win things with kids". Yesterday's team was collectively a year and 118 days younger than that one but the evidence of the opening half-hour suggested that Hansen won't be making the same mistake twice.
It was the fourth-oldest player in the side – the one with a little more hair on his head these days, who was captain by the end of the match – who anchored the young faces around him and who needed only 12 minutes or so to open his account, when last season he needed a full half-season before scoring in open play. Wayne Rooney's exquisite backheel found Ashley Young, whose slightly inaccurate return pass did not prevent Rooney from turning back to collect, control and shoot well through Gabriel Tamas' legs and well to Ben Foster's left.
A profligate Luis Nani should have added to the score twice before Chris Smalling allowed a fraction too much time to Long, whose shot reminded us that replacing a goalkeeper requires the judgement of Solomon.
For all that, United's opening to the campaign has been more convincing than any of their rivals this weekend. Rooney looked wonderfully sharp. "He looks fine, he was everywhere," Ferguson said. Tom Cleverley commanded midfield again. Ashley Young was heavily involved and, understandably, his contribution left Hodgson finding it "hard to swallow my frustration." Young was allowed a criminal amount of space before his shot cannoned in off Steven Reid and Gabriel Tamas.
After 11 draws in the last campaign, Ferguson has reason to smile. But memories of the long struggle to replace Peter Schmeichel after 1996 – Tony Coton, Raimond van der Gouw, Massimo Taibi, Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll, Ricardo and Tim Howard came and went before Edwin van der Sar – will be lurking at the back of his mind.
Man of the match Rooney.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Jones (Cheshire).
Footballers fail to score: Goals a rarity in dull start
The opening weekend of the Premier League proved to be something of a damp squid. With tonight's game at Manchester City to come, just 14 goals have been scored, making it the worst opening in the Premier League era.
The previous worst start came in 1998/99, when there were four goalless draws and Wimbledon topped the early standings after a 3-1 win over Spurs.
1992/93 30/11 /2.7
2011/12 14/8 /1.75
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