Manchester United started the season in rather unspectacular fashion, with Louis van Gaal's side squeezing past an energetic Tottenham Hotspur courtesy of a Kyle Walker own goal. It wasn't the sort of emphatic display that we'd hoped for, and many of last season's problems remained just as apparent this time around. But there are a few positives aside from the three points, too.
Despite Spurs seeing the lion's share of possession in the opening few minutes, United were good without the ball. Memphis Depay pushed up alongside Wayne Rooney to lead the press, and the result was that with the exception of the early Christian Eriksen chance, Tottenham struggled to convert their dominance of the ball into any clear-cut goalscoring opportunities.
But part of the reason Spurs were able to see so much of the ball was that United were sloppy in possession. Morgan Schneiderlin added bite to United's midfield and was defensively very useful, but a few cheap giveaways meant that the Reds' attacks broke down before they could come to anything.
To their credit, Mauricio Pochettino's side were good without the ball too. It's no secret that Pochettino is a specialist in defensive coaching, but this game only served to emphasise this impressive aspect of his side's game. They pressed high against both Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick, scarcely affording either the space to turn or trigger a quick counter-attack with a pass into the attackers. They only ever enjoyed sustained time on the ball when the dropped between the centre-halves, which left an unbridgeable gap between United's midfield and attack.
If not the entire game, aggressive pressing certainly characterised the first half, as Louis van Gaal alluded to in his press conference. "You had two high-level teams pressing high and neither team could cope with that pressure. That, we have to improve. We were lucky today," he said.
On the moments that United managed to bypass the Spurs press early on, it was Matteo Darmian's forays forward that seemed to offer the best chance of penetrating the Spurs defence. Juan Mata didn't have a particularly bright game, but his runs to a shorter position bought the Italian right-back space to maraud down the right flank, albeit with little end product.
But by and large, United were a little sluggish on the ball, and when Spurs' initial press dropped off, the hosts looked worryingly static through the middle of the pitch. Neither Schneiderlin nor Carrick showed a willingness to make life difficult for Spurs' midfielders with runs from deep, leaving Memphis Depay cut adrift in a sea of white shirts. He looked bright when he did receive the ball, but he touched it fewer times than any other starter than Michael Carrick (who was substituted 10 minutes prior to Depay himself). The fluid movement we'd seen in the attacking midfield zone in pre-season gave way to rigid positioning.
United were thus left trying to penetrate in the wide areas, which usually meant Ashley Young delivering poor crosses loosely in the direction of an isolated Wayne Rooney. We've have long struggled to break down deep defences, and this game was no different. Fortunately Kyle Walker lent a helping hand.
The second half was a little more encouraging, particularly once van Gaal had tweaked the midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger's movement was more dynamic than Carrick's, and Ander Herrera's introduction helped rebalance things. United remained pretty solid until a late wobble, probably not helped by the introduction of Antonio Valencia at right-back with Darmian's fitness waning.
To conclude, while there's not much to get excited about, there's still a bit to be pleased with. Aside from the three points, Darmian was excellent defensively and promising venturing forward; Sergio Romero was shaky in possession but looked a perfectly adequate shot-stopper; and tweaks to United's midfield personnel could help add the spark that was missing in the first half of this game. Things are still a work in progress, and it's too premature to reach definitive conclusions. It wasn't good, but improvements, however small, were evident.