As the Champions League music rang out on Tuesday night, Manchester United fans were forced to confront the reality of a season out of Europe's big time—but in Daley Blind and Ander Herrera, they may just have a midfield axis who can lead them back to glory.
There were higher-profile summer acquisitions at United in the form of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria.
However, the arrival of Blind and Herrera will be a key piece of the puzzle that allows Falcao and Di Maria, and thus United, to thrive.
Against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, United were nominally playing a midfield diamond, with Di Maria on the left, Blind in the holding role, Herrera on the right and Juan Mata at the tip behind the strikers.
However, it was far from a symmetrical diamond. Di Maria spent much of the game operating as an orthodox left winger, hugging the touchline. There was a good deal of fluidity, too, as all four players interchanged in both attack and defence.
Blind and Herrera looked like a midfield two at times, especially when United did not have the ball. They did not give QPR a moment's rest. A look at their combined tackles shows them covering the breadth of the pitch.
What the data cannot show explicitly is the intensity with which they performed their task. However, it was evident in person and is implicit in the data, especially when it is compared with the combined tackles of Herrera, Darren Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini in United's opening-day defeat to Swansea.
Fewer tackles—in a much more restricted area—represent United's much lower levels of combativeness in that game, which was evident to those watching.
Given the opposition's relative lack of quality and the fact that it was Blind and Herrera's first outing together, it is, of course, too soon to say for sure that they will be the partnership that helps steer United straight back into the Champions League.
However, the raw ingredients certainly look to be in place, and for their first game together, the twosome certainly appeared to have a good understanding.
We have seen their contribution to getting the ball back for United, and when they did win the ball back, they used it extremely effectively.
This is where the caveat about the opposition needs to be at the forefront of the mind, however, as QPR did not apply a great deal of pressure until United reached the final third.
Partly as a consequence of that, Blind and Herrera were able to maintain very high levels of passing accuracy. Blind was constantly active with the ball, distributing possession to all of United's attacking players, as evidenced by his highly impressive pass map, which can be found here.
Herrera's distribution was excellent, too, slightly more wayward than Blind's but with more deliberate cutting edge. Their combined pass map makes interesting viewing when combined with the combined map of Herrera, Fletcher and Fellaini in the Swansea game.
There were far fewer passes and a much higher percentage of long passes against Swansea. QPR's reticence to press United in midfield was understandable given the constant threat of Angel Di Maria when he found himself with space to run with the ball.
It was a joy to see United's midfield unit looking so functional, and it made a great deal of difference to both United's attacking and defensive play.
Because it appeared that Blind and Herrera could find their man at will, and because Di Maria's running was so devastating, QPR were forced into a degree of caution, which gave United even more freedom.
Because Blind and Herrera worked so hard to win the ball back, the defence was under much less pressure.
As United's season progresses, the two men will be crucial. It is much to be hoped that they are not called upon to cover elsewhere, because in midfield, United may have finally found a combination that works.
All data visualisations and statistics per Squawka.com.