Comment: Cover, intercept, tackle - Schneiderlin exudes quality
This is apparently what we have been pining all summer for: a scrappy, unedifying scramble of few chances, little adventure and limited skill, settled by an own goal.
Yes, the Premier League is back in full flight. And for our delectation we were served up a game at Old Trafford in which the edge of the seat remained unoccupied territory, 90 minutes in which two bustling, busy teams strived to do nothing more than cancel each other out. This was an opening match that will live about as long in the memory as a new ITV reality show involving sheepdogs.
Still, it was not all bad. At least we got to see Bastian Schweinsteiger trot off the bench sporting a pair of shorts sizeable enough to act as a mainsail on Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup yacht. And we were witness to both United’s Daley Blind and Tottenham’s Nacer Chadli modelling the season’s must-have fashion accessory: a top knot.
But for Manchester United fans there was one pleasure to be drawn from the afternoon: at last the club appears to have addressed a most sizeable hole in its resources. On his competitive debut, Morgan Schneiderlin demonstrated precisely what it is that United have been missing since Owen Hargreaves succumbed to a debilitating series of injuries back in 2009. At last, they have what might prove to be a proper defensive shield. At last they have a midfielder who can win the ball back.
Among the quartet of new signings Louis van Gaal paraded here, Schneiderlin was the most significant addition. Sure, Memphis Depay, Sergio Romero and particularly the new right-back Matto Darmian had their moments. But it was Schneiderlin who looked immediately at home. From the moment he stepped out into his grand new surrounds, the signing from Southampton exuded excellence in everything he did.
True, in the tradition of Frenchmen gaining employment at Old Trafford, this is not the new Eric Cantona. A showreel of his contribution is unlikely long to deter the compilers of television highlights. But his presence could prove vital to United this coming season. Cover, intercept, tackle: they may not the most glamorous of footballing arts, but every team is the better for having someone master them. Standing tall in the middle of the field, Schneiderlin did all that with a comfortable ease. Disciplined, controlled, entirely self-effacing, he provided constant cover for his back four. As soon as Blind ventured forward from centre-back, for instance, he slotted in to the space that opened up, an instinctive acknowledgement of his position.
How such alertness was needed. Tottenham, following the diktat of their manager Mauricio Pochettino, never stopped pressing, snapping, charging at any United player in possession of the ball. Blind, Depay, Juan Mata, all of them were caught out by eager Tottenham closing. But Schneiderlin was always around to win the ball back. And then pass it on to more elevated colleagues.
What he does is something that has not been done as effectively for the past six seasons by any United side. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson – perhaps in an attempt to make light of his deficiency in that department – claimed as recently as 2012 that the defensive midfielder was obsolete, no longer required in a game in which the interception had become more important than the tackle.
But in his every contribution, Schneiderlin suggested otherwise. Given that when Schweinsteiger came off the substitutes’ bench it was to replace Michael Carrick, the suggestion is it will be the Frenchman who plays the majority of games, anchoring the midfield with one of the two veterans sharing the load alongside him. If that is the plan, it will not make United a weaker side.
One thing about him, though. However good he may be at the negative work, Schneiderlin is not going to supply this United team with oomph or forward momentum or box office glitter. This is Sergio Busquets, not Lionel Messi.
For sure, there was a hint of the philosophy, the process as he might call it, that Van Gaal wants to bring to United on display during this game. There was Darmian and Luke Shaw marauding down the wings, Mata and Ashley Young cutting in, Depay shimmying and jinking in the middle, while behind them Schneiderlin bound it all together. But it was clear throughout this encounter there is still a major component missing. Someone to supply the unexpected, be it a can opener pass or a glorious individual goal. But, even while he is aware something more is needed, Van Gaal made a fair point.
“The most important thing is we have won,” he said. With Schneiderlin in his ranks, holding on to victories, however underwhelming, has just become a whole lot easier.