As Chelsea found a new resolve over Christmas, keeping four clean sheets out of five, so United’s season has unravelled, the year beginning with three successive 2-1 defeats in all competitions. Only the second half of Saturday’s Premier League match against Swansea City offered much in the way of hope.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it came in the shape of Shinji Kagawa. He has become the ghost of Old Trafford, a spectre more believed in than seen, somebody to whom desperate fans can turn and think, "if only we could find way of getting the best out of him."
Although the Japan international was wasteful in front of goal on Saturday, what that second half against Swansea demonstrated was that Rooney’s absence might actually prove to be an opportunity.
Rooney is a player of unusual gifts and, as such, he can become a problem for United. Because he is so adept at winning the ball back, so eager for the scrap, United can effectively play him as a second striker in the knowledge that he will still drop back and scavenge in midfield, become a tenacious first line of defence and that, in turn, relives some of the ball-winning pressure on the two central midfielders.
The issue is when he is not there, and there is nobody else in the squad—very few in truth in the world—who can replicate what he does.
David Moyes is left playing either a 4-4-2 with two strikers, or he plays an attacking midfielder and makes the shape an overt 4-2-3-1, as opposed to the hybrid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 he has been playing.
His use of Kagawa against Swansea seemed telling to the way he is thinking now. There is often an assumption that Kagawa, because of his comparatively slight physique, is something of a luxury player, somebody who fails to fulfil his share of defensive responsibilities.
Yet, according to WhoScored?, he’s made 1.2 tackles per game this season and, in his last season at Borussia Dortmund, when he led the press, he made 1.3. To put that in context, Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Shawcross and Michael Dawson have made 1.3 tackles per game this season.
Kagawa has also made 1.3 interceptions per game this season—the same number as Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta. The Japanese international won’t physically intimidate players but his ability to win the ball back shouldn't be underestimated.
Still, if it comes to Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick against Ramires, Frank Lampard (or Mikel John Obi or David Luiz) and Oscar, it’s hard to see any outcome other than Chelsea domination of central midfield—as was the case last season.
The other problem for United is that, of the players who will be available on Sunday, none has made more key passes than Patrice Evra, but his creative instincts are likely to be curbed by having to deal with the aggression and energy of Willian.
There is perhaps the option of playing Phil Jones—if fit—or Darren Fletcher as a holder to add combativity and ball-winning quality, but United essentially will be left trying to protect the back four, accepting Chelsea will dominate possession, and looking to spring breaks down the flanks.
It will be forced to play, in other words, not as one superpower meeting another, but as just another team accepting the greater strength of Chelsea and looking to cope as best it can.
The majority of sides are in that position, but for a team of United’s recent history, there must be something terribly humbling about the realisation that that is their best approach.