Worrying signs for United
Gleaming DeLorean at the ready, poised to drive into the future, Marty McFly receives some last-minute instruction from Doc Emmet Brown. "When this baby hits 88 miles per hour... you'll see some serious sh*t".
Well at Burnley on Wednesday night, we saw the future United-style; less style and speed, but the sh*t is every bit as serious.
Walking towards Turf Moor, things didn't look promising. Hot, sunny, decidedly un-United weather, with bicep-hugging t-shirts and fashion-victim pedal-pushers to the fore. And when they suddenly become chic, things are very wrong. But chic they were, set alongside replica shirts with "Owen" on them, worn both by adults who should know better and kids who rely on adults to know better for them.
Talking of which, I was faced with a similar conundrum once the game kicked off. The teenage lad standing next to me spent large parts of it texting his girlfriend, and it was tempting, in an older-brotherly kind of way, to point out that United will still be there for him when 'Harriet' is long gone. But with the boys on the pitch not exactly backing me up I felt bad breaking the news, so left him to his swt nthngs.
That aside, the usual clichés applied - attention-seeking mascot, stadium announcer blending kids' party entertainer with hip hop hype man, and loud music ruining the goal celebration. Turf Moor itself, though, is a decent place to watch football, if a little overpriced, which may account for the empty seats. Stands close to the pitch, the low roof that does a good job of keeping the noise in, although perhaps also stops it from travelling - the home contingent seemed surprisingly quiet, save for some noteworthy loud whistling before both half and full time.
As far as events on the pitch go, well played Burnley, who looked pretty comfortable for almost the entire 90 minutes. From a United perspective, you'd hope that for them to beat us, they'd have to play at somewhere close to their maximum, but in the event that wasn't necessary.
For most United fans of my acquaintance, the last few days have confirmed what thought they knew; all is not well. And, unlike the last couple of seasons, there's no confidence in the ability of the players and staff to rescue themselves after a slow start, despite how many times both have confounded us. Shorn of the get-out-jail card that was Ronaldo, if Rooney has a bad night, then winning games will be a struggle.
Although the summer's transfer business is part of the reason for this, it's also the result of over-addressing one problem and thereby creating another. United's current incarnation played easily its best football in 2006-07. A younger Paul Scholes was one factor, a fit Louis Saha was another, but so too was the threadbare squad; with the first eleven picking itself and its players significantly better than any potential replacements, consistency of selection was enforced, allowing the team to gather rhythm and hone the devastating combination play that destroyed disciplined defences.
Of course the quid pro quo was that come the end of the season, the team were knackered - limping over the line in the league and hammered by a not necessarily superior Milan side in the European Cup semi-final - so Fergie went to work beefing up the squad. This allowed him to change rafts of players from game to game, without significantly weakening the team, and even if it didn't work, the defence and Ronaldo could be relied upon to do enough. The result was two more titles, a European Cup, a final appearance, and an Intercontinental Cup.
But with Ronaldo gone, the squad now looks flabby, full of good players, but with very few of top class who aren't defenders; arguably, Wayne Rooney is the only one. Berbatov could be another, but he has suffered from the system more than most. Initially forced to integrate without a pre-season, instead of allowing him to build a relationship with his teammates, he and those around him were swapped in and out, keeping them fresh for further disjointed play later in the season. Compare with Barcelona: admittedly aided by playing fewer games in a slower-paced league, but also committed to changing very little from game to game, creating a well-grooved unit that extracts the utmost from the both individual and collective.
United's palpable lack of attacking cohesion last Sunday against another promoted club should have meant that the manager selected a similar team against Burnley, the players needing games, not a rest. Instead, five of the front six were rested, to predictably appalling avail, and no doubt the same will be so at Wigan on Saturday.
Unsure of his best eleven, Fergie seems equally unsure of the formation in which to deploy them. With a prosaic, pedestrian midfield, the onus ought to be on getting as many creative players as possible into the opposition half. A 4-4-2 formation simply isn't the best way of doing this, limiting the attacking capacity of those in the middle; 4-2-3-1 would do a much better job, with double the number of designated attackers and sufficient cover for the full backs to get forward too.
What's also glaring is the need for a coach. Anderson and Nani are undoubted talents, with imagination that might enliven the drudgery, but all too often it verges on the fantastical. Although both are now into their third seasons at United, neither is very much better than he was two years ago, and whilst they must take some responsibility, it's also a managerial failing.
But Fergie is no fool, and a lot of the above is probably as evident to him as it is to most other observers. The only feasible explanation is that he's not allowed to spend any more money - which makes the purchase of Antonio Valencia even less explicable - and if that is indeed the case, then he needs to try harder to get some. Otherwise, this season will be 2002 without the good football - which at least will mean no championship medal and fewer win bonuses for Michael Owen. And if that's the silver lining, then we're talking about one big old cloud.