|Wayne Rooney lifts Manchester United's 21st Shield |
The one element you feared that Manchester United have desperately lacked in their pre-season was a raw British test. It's why the called off Manchester derby was always seen as a huge blow to United's preparations for the new season.
On Sunday, United finally got in that in the shape of Champions Leicester City who were desperate to win the Shield on the occasion of their first appearance at the new Wembley. The Champions attacked United with hard running from all angles and sought to expose United's presumed deficiencies at the back. That directness is exactly what United will come up against next week at the Vitality Stadium. To emerge as victors therefore will hearten the manager in terms of his squad's readiness for the big kick off. That new signing Eric Bailly turned in a quite 'Vidic-esque' performance to neutralise the threat of Jamie Vardy will have further pleased the manager. United look like they finally have a dominant centre back on the books.
Being the first British test under the new management, it was always fascinating to see who the manager would pick in his first eleven. When the team news came out, it was just as anyone who knew Jose could have predicted. The Foxes are one of the tallest teams in the division with a few six footers and and an eye for aerial balls. The nature of the game to come therefore meant that Henrickh Mkhitaryan or Juan Mata or Ander Herrera were never going to start the game. In Marouanne Fellaini, Micheal Carrick and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the manager effectively cancelled out the height advantage of the opposition.
On the pitch, United still looked decidedly ponderous with the players instinctively intent on recycling possession when the opposition backs off. The manager has asked for time to get his side more direct in terms of their play, but what will not need time for any adjustment is the fact that in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United finally have a dominant number 9.
Wes Morgan will win just about every aerial duel in the league next season, but he will not often come up against a player taller than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To put it into perspective, the Swede towers above Marouanne Fellaini, albeit by just centimetres. It means that even from a standing position, like it was yesterday, Zlatan was destined to cause Morgan all sorts of challenges when the two competed for that Valencia cross.
United do not have a striker with his dominant qualities in the box and so it makes sense when Jose says that he has the perfect balance of forwards at his disposal. Late on, whilst United were wobbly, trying to deal with the hard yards of Gray, Musa and Vardy, Leicester were left occupied at the back dealing with the enduring threat of Zlatan and the slippery feet of Marcus Rashford. In the end, the exchanges of punches fell in United's favour as first; Zlatan was a shade offside and second, he, unlike Okazaki in the first half, managed to get the inside of the post to give Schmeichel no prayer in goal.
Manchester United were at Wembley in the first place because of Jesse Lingard's charm of the pleasantly unexpected. His Wembley winner to win the Cup in extra time was quickly added to the club's famous highlights reel. On Sunday, he made a stake to the list of the club's all time best Community Shield goals. There were 7 blue shirts between him and goal when he started out on that mazy run 45 yards from goal at the half-hour mark. He rode just about every challenge until he was clear but also kept a cool head to slot past Schmeichel with his right instep. Lingard, remained buzzing throughout the game until his substitution. He certainly looked fitter and ready to go than the rest of the lot.
More than anything, the Shield win serves to add a spade of confidence to United ahead of a season when the pressure will be squarely upon the club to make a return among the country's elite. Crucially, there is reason to look ahead with genuine optimism.