So there it was at last. No, not David Moyes first win at Old Trafford. Nor, indeed, Marouane Fellaini’s first appearance in a Manchester United jersey, although the Belgian was deployed to good effect as a second half substitute on Saturday. The real talking point in United’s return to competitive action after the international break is reserved for Adnan Januzaj’s competitive debut. Composed, assured in possession, and prodigiously talented, Januzaj made ample claim for a major role in the season ahead as United beat Crystal Palace on Saturday.
The United manager will take much satisfaction from the weekend’s events, although less from the Reds’ actual performance against a limited, but willing Palace side. Indeed, not until referee Jonathan Moss’s borderline decision to award the Reds a penalty, and dismiss the visitors defender Kagisho Dikgacoi for denying a goalscoring opportunity, did Moyes’ side final stamp its authority on the game. After defeat to Liverpool a fortnight ago victory was the minimum demanded by a passive Old Trafford crowd.
Meanwhile, Fellaini, on as a 62nd minute substitute for the largely ineffectual Anderson, enjoyed an unexacting debut. The £27.5 million Belgian midfielder rotated possession well, remained tactically disciplined when required, and even got off one fine long-range effort.
There will be far sterner opponents than Palace’s Mile Jedinak, of course, but at least the new United man remained on the pitch; those famous Fellaini elbows kept close to the midfielder’s chest in an understated display.
More allure lay elsewhere though. It was 50 years to the day since George Best, the waif like winger from Ulster, made his United bow. Best became the finest to grace Old Trafford before or since. And while the future holds no guarantees for the nebulous Belgian Januzaj, the 18-year-old served to remind just how much the current United side is crying out for a little of Best’s sparkle.
After all, Ashley Young’s outrageous dive, for which the 28-year-old was righly cautioned, was only marginally more irritating than the former Aston Villa player’s consistent mediocrity. Upgrade urgently required.
The Belgian kid drew the foul from which Wayne Rooney cracked home United’s second in a performance of real verve, but not before reminding home fans of the vast potential already demonstrated on this summer’s tour. That Januzaj is yet to sign a new contract will also remind Reds of other supremely talented teenagers to have escaped United’s clutches in recent seasons.
Januzaj is impressively keen to receive the ball, possesses good balance and intelligence beyond his years. The goal threat is muted, but as the teenager fills out he should become more potent in multiple forward positions. It is little wonder that many observers believe the kid is the most natural talent to emerge from the Academy in years.
The teenager’s promise lay in stark contrast to United’s laboured performance for much of the piece; possession turned into chances, but so few of them clear cut, while the Reds’ finishing remained sub-optimal bar Rooney’s outstanding set-piece.
These are still early days in the new regime, of course, but as in fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool a sense of ennui pervades. Moyes’ tactical focus on function over form in central midfield and a traditional ‘width and crosses’ approach to creating chances will surely come undone against more astute opponents.
Moyes was happy enough to declare himself pleased with the performance, although United must certainly level up against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek.
“I’m very happy. I thought there was a lot of good play, in the early part of the first half we were very good,” said Moyes.
“We created a lot of crossing positions and goal-scoring opportunities which we didn’t take. We made it a little bit nervy, so I was delighted when we got the penalty kick before half time.
“We didn’t concede any goals, which is a great thing. At the moment, we’re looking strong defensively and that will be really important in the coming games.”
Meanwhile, compatriot Fellaini slotted alongside Michael Carrick for a half-hour cameo. It was an understated display, perhaps limited by the player’s debut nerves. Yet, the Belgian displayed none of the carelessness in possession that sometimes blighted his displays at Everton. The chest control and half volley just a few moments into his entrance a hint at the player’s genuine goal threat.
“It was a fantastic debut and we won. I was both nervous and excited. I thought I had to play my game and with my quality,” said Fellaini in the aftermath.
“The supporters helped me, it was important for me. We won today so it was good for our confidence ahead of the next game – because the next game is a big game, it is a Champions League game.”
Fellaini will surely start against Leverkusen on Wednesday – a game that Rooney should also make after surprising many by returning to action so soon after suffering a serious facial cut in training. The Scouser was less than his effervescent best, but the quality of pace and dip on the 81st minute free-kick will live long in the memory. That Robin van Persie also scored keeps up the pair’s better than goal-a-game ratio.
But the post match chatter focused on Januzaj, who will challenge both Antonio Valencia and Young for a place in Moyes’ starting side in the months to come. Januzaj’s development is a major bonus for the former Everton manager, whose likely strategy this season is to build a strong defensive base and trust United’s creativity to width.
“I think I did some good things, but it is only my debut so I have to keep doing well on the pitch,” Januzaj told MUTV.
“I appreciate the very good fans, they gave me a bit of power when I came on the pitch. I hoped to get a goal but I tried to do my best for the team and tried to give goals and score goals. Of course, I want more games to play and I hope I will have another chance to play for the first team.”
In that there is a warning of course. Last summer Paul Pogba departed, contract expired, complaining of limited opportunities in the first team.
“The boy’s going to be a good player, he’s 18 years old and he’s a good talent,” assured Moyes post-match. “I would have introduced him earlier if the games had suited. I considered playing him from the start.”
It is a promise fans hope the manager keeps.