The Manchester United team that edged—when it should have cruised—past Cluj on Tuesday was adjudged to be Alex Ferguson's strongest possible lineup in the circumstances.
Yet I’d be inclined to argue that, if shorn of either Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney, United might well be beaten by the pick of those players who didn’t make the trip to Transylvania.
And rather than a sign of strength, it illustrates why this is the poorest United side in two decades.
According to Irish TV pundit Mark Lawrenson, United flew home from Cluj-Napoca on a plane fitted with 30 beds, courtesy of their official carrier, Turkish Airlines.
Watching the second half of the match-day two tie was certainly sleep-inducing stuff—apart from those nervy last few minutes when the Romanian champions almost snatched an undeserved equalizer.
It’s a scenario the visitors should have ensured against rather than seeking to stroll through a game highlighted by two-goal Van Persie’s exquisitely conceived and executed winner.
But the level of competition encountered in midweek isn’t where it’s at. Cluj, while technically adroit and worthy of their short-lived lead, are nowhere near the standard United should be gauging themselves against.
To read too much into the result (a third win in eight Champions League matches) or the relatively improved performance is an exercise in delusion.
For, to this seasoned observer, this is the most mediocre Manchester United collective since the late 80s, never mind the treble-clinching 1999 squad.
Put it like this: Would the latest Red Devils beat the side that lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup 21 years ago? Not a hope in hell.
Extract the aforementioned front two from Tuesday’s starting XI and you’re left with a rag-tag collection of journeymen, spurious prospects and others (Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra) whose best days are, like too many opposition strikers, behind them.
Let’s start in midfield—once United’s nerve center. It’s heartening to see Darren Fletcher back in the thick of it, but time for a reality check.
The Scot, for all his dependability and work rate, was never close to filling Roy Keane’s boots before his illness; even less so now.
Apropos of which, that we’re still seeking someone to assume the inspirational Irishman’s mantle seven years on is, frankly, scandalous.
True, Keane was a once-in-a-generation player—a human forcefield. But how many midfielders have come within United’s scouting radar since he was jettisoned? Plenty, presumably.
This makes the club’s failure to make an all-out effort to replace him (while waiting way too long for Owen Hargreaves to hopefully heal) an unmitigated, unsolved mystery.
The extended confidence displayed in any number of others is doubly baffling. Anderson will always flatter to deceive. Michael Carrick (laid low with a virus) is 31 and the epitome of the merely middling Premier League pro.
Unfortunately, his brilliant brace against Roma well over five years ago was but an aberration. Like Alan Smith, another hero of that 7-1 win, Carrick has never come close to repeating that performance. It should have been a launchpad, not a peak.
The highly rated Tom Cleverley is a nice player but no matchwinner, and, in contemporary terms, definitely not in Jack Wilshere’s league. Newcomer Nick Powell, 18, looks a better bet, though these are very early days in his development.
And so the last drops are being squeezed from Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Not because they are still terrific players—for all their enduring quality, they are long past their late-nineties peak—but because the rest are so awfully average.
With Luis Nani a perpetual frustration, and question marks remaining about the evenness of Ashley Young’s influence on games, only Antonio Valencia has met the Manchester United quality mark.
His absence was conspicuous in midweek, with United lacking the natural width that’s proved so profitable going back to the early Champions League era of Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis, before the position was reinvented by David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Excusing long-term injury victim Nemanja Vidic, the capable but jittery Jonny Evans, together with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, would appear United’s main hopes of finding a partnership to rival the Serbian’s understanding with Ferdinand.
That alliance—as formidable as Jaap Stam’s with Ronnie Johnson, and previously the iconic Steve Bruce–Gary Pallister pairing—has been in decline for a couple of years now due to their respective injury woes; primarily affecting Ferdinand.
That veteran defender Mikael Silvestre has been training with United at Carrington is indicative of the treatment-room procession and unfulfilled potential Fergie has had to contend with.
After nine mixed years at Old Trafford, the Frenchman was regarded as something of a liability when United let him go to Arsenal in 2008. Now 35, and without a club, he’s a symbol of how desperate things have become, and may yet get.
History suggests it will be unusual if both the slick-looking Smalling and Jones make the grade—even if the powerful but injury-prone Phil (billed initially as “another Duncan Edwards”) was an overly-expensive purchase rather than an academy prodigy.
For whatever reason, the fact is that Man U, who once had similarly high hopes for John O’Shea, have almost always had to invest heavily in centre-halves.
Outside them, Brazilian Rafael veers between attacking brilliance and defensive brainstorms; while Dutchman Alexander Buttner has yet to dislodge United’s stand-in captain in the other full-back berth. Which could prompt some to suggest: If he can’t now, he never will.
Oh for the days of “dependable” Denis Irwin and “boring” Gary Neville; both of whom were so adept, whether on the front or back foot. Rewind to their prime and they would walk into the United team now.
Not up to scratch
At the other end of the field, Javier Hernandez seems to be suffering from the previously undiagnosed Third Season Syndrome, even if some of his link play against Cluj was an improvement on his recent anonymity; though not the headless timing of his runs.
Danny Welbeck has a lot of positive attributes. But you can generally spot a Type-A United striker pretty quickly: Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer plus, of course, Wayne and Robin—and, we hoped, “Chicharito.” To my mind, Welbeck comes up considerably short.
He is not alone. United’s evident struggles this season are symptomatic of more than a slow start. The campaign is already two months old. The sort of confused, porous performances that necessitated escape acts against the likes of Southampton, Liverpool and Galatasaray, were—and will be—exploited by better sides, even ones as unspectacular as Everton and Spurs.
Players respond to having very good—and better still great—footballers, and leaders like Keane, around them. When United’s veterans look to the four corners these days they see a mixture of misplaced confidence and lack of conviction.
What the better teams might inflict on United’s ambitions when we reach the business end of UEFA’s elite competition remains to be seen.
Of course, that presumes United reach the knockout stages; something, thanks to David De Gea’s alertness, that now seems more likely.
But for me, United are patently regressing, not progressing. And the fear is that Sir Alex no longer has the time, nor the money, to effect the requisite momentum shift.
*Footnote: Surely Wayne Rooney shouldn’t be taking corners? His once-trademark cannonball shooting seems to have been tempered (for the worse) in recent years, but United would be better off stationing him in or on the edge of the box for such set-pieces. That no-one else can seemingly be trusted to deliver a dangerous ball from the corner flags speaks volumes.