Berbatov showcases United depth
One central defender was actually a central midfielder. The other was a diminutive left-back. One central midfielder was a 38-year-old winger. The other was Darron Gibson. It was Manchester United, but not as they normally look.
Not that it mattered though. Carling Cup and Champions League exits have been accompanied by criticisms of the fringe players, but Premier League progress was secured by the stand-ins. As United drew level on points with Manchester City at the division's summit, and radically improved their goal difference, they did so with an illogical recipe for victory.
With Ryan Giggs, admittedly hugely accomplished in his secondary role, and the aforementioned Gibson paired in the middle of midfield, and Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick performing impromptu impressions of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the back, this was a Yuletide game of musical chairs.
When Jonny Evans departed at half-time, making it 11 players sidelined with injury and illness, United were without a specialist centre-back. They kept a clean sheet and won 5-0. "We have had a nightmare the last few days," said Sir Alex Ferguson, though a glorious few hours followed as his side won and Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all dropped points.
Resourcefulness, suggested the beaten manager, is an age-old strength, the greatest secret to United's success. "What they achieve as a team is what every team wants," Roberto Martinez argued. "They can react towards the adversity you find in football. Probably the biggest strength Manchester United have had in the last 25 years has been that mentality."
Another asset has been the accumulation of wonderful talents. Few have perplexed more than Dimitar Berbatov, but while the Bulgarian's gifts are rarely persuasive enough for his manager to pick him, he remains an elegant destroyer of inferior sides at Old Trafford. Bringing reminders of how he won the Golden Boot last year, a second league start of the campaign brought a hat-trick; his has been a slow-burner of a season, but then Berbatov has always moved at his own pace.
"He's not had the best of starts to the season in terms of selection," said Ferguson, suggesting a rare appearance owed much to Berbatov's height and apparent use defending set-pieces. He is, however, far more proficient at the other end.
His first two goals were the products of deft turns and sharp finishes. The first was provided by Gibson - supplier and scorer had one previous league start between them this season - whose cross the Bulgarian flicked over Antolin Alcaraz before converting. Antonio Valencia provided the second, with Berbatov evading Gary Caldwell to rifle in. His treble was completed from the penalty spot with idiosyncratic insouciance.
Yet this was a tale of two strikers. Conor Sammon's afternoon lasted 39 minutes until a flailing arm made contact with Carrick. Referee Phil Dowd, unlike most others, deemed it violent conduct. "I'm gobsmacked," added Martinez. "An incredible call." Berbatov, insisted the Wigan manager, was guilty of a similar non-offence later and was rewarded with a goal.
"If you want to show those standards, do it and you will leave both sides with six or seven players," said the Spaniard. He was left pondering Wigan's strangely bad disciplinary record at Old Trafford, where their last two visits have resulted in three red cards on another awful afternoon against the champions: 14 games have brought 14 defeats.
Even with 11 men, his side trailed. Before being relocated to the centre of defence, Evra scurried to the byline to set up his good friend Park Ji-Sung - one of four wingers in the initial side. Another, Valencia, was used at right-back, but forayed forward energetically and effectively and scored against his former employers, drilling in from Carrick's pass as two makeshift stoppers found attack the best form of defence.
The assured Carrick's deeper role highlighted the shortage of central midfielders but Ferguson refutes all suggestions he should recruit. Striking a strange note in his programme comments, he talked about the number of blogs and tweets suggesting he buy. Ferguson has long liked to monitor and contradict his critics, but this seemed to be taking his constant quest for vindication to another stage. On such occasions, however, he tends to win the argument. United's is definitely a big squad and, on days like this, it looks a deep one, too.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Dimitar Berbatov - The Bulgarian may remain a distant fourth in the striking pecking order, but his special talent shows he offers a unique option. While Ferguson often praises Berbatov when the latter scores, actions speak louder than words and he normally drops him.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: An easy afternoon and an emphatic victory for a side who had plenty of impressive individuals, in Berbatov, Carrick, Valencia, Nani and Evra. Ferguson hopes Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will be fit to face Blackburn, but Evans is likely to be out for a fortnight. The composed Carrick looked a better option at the back than the Northern Ireland international, anyway. Wayne Rooney, left on the bench for the first hour, should return, but goalkeeper David de Gea, a substitute for the second successive game, offers more intrigue.
WIGAN VERDICT: Moaning managers often do not deserve to elicit sympathy, but Martinez may have a point: Wigan appear to be especially unlucky with decisions against the top teams, a trait that dates back several seasons and alongside the Sammon decision, the penalty, given when Alcaraz tripped Park, was dubious. They remain in the relegation zone but a characteristically positive manager is encouraged by their results in the rest of December. One perennial problem is the lack of a predator - as several fine crosses by Ronnie Stam showed, even when they had 11 men - while Victor Moses had his moments on some solo runs.