Manchester United's 2-0 defeat of Swansea in the Premier League was ultimately both impressive and encouraging -- ultimately because in the first half the away side had over 60 percent of possession, and it was only in the second period that United, having made one significant tactical change, truly imposed themselves on the proceedings.
That change bringing Shinji Kagawa in from the left wing, swapping him with Adnan Januzaj, and letting him play behind Danny Welbeck at No. 10, supported by Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in central midfield. This shift allowed Kagawa and Fletcher -- both of whom are excellent at finding space with and without the ball -- to link up effectively. According to the FourFourTwo Stats Zone application, the pair had the highest pass combination (15) of any two United players.
Payne: Man Utd still a work in progress
Fletcher: Tempo was key
This rapid exchange of possession in the final third made a sharp contrast with United's 1-0 home loss to Newcastle, where Javier Hernandez -- playing at No. 10, behind Robin van Persie -- and Tom Cleverley, in central midfield, were tasked with connecting the play between attack and midfield. The two of them exchanged only one pass in 69 minutes, before Cleverley made way for Anderson -- who, in the remaining 21 minutes, found Hernandez twice.
United's midfield woes have seemingly been lamented more times than there are cells in the human body, but even by this club's standards, that afternoon against Newcastle represented slim pickings.
The other benefit of this belated change was that it allowed Januzaj the freedom of the left flank, from which he was devastating. He was central in the moves that led to both goals, and subjected Angel Rangel, a right-back of no little quality, to a thoroughly unpleasant 45 minutes. Endlessly creative -- Januzaj attempted eight dribbles, whilst the next highest number was Welbeck with three -- he was by some distance the game's best player, and the only danger is that too much responsibility will be laid at his feet.
The reliance on his delivery from wide areas and set pieces -- he hit the bar with a majestic first-half free kick, and sent in several fine corners and crosses -- was so pronounced that it must have reminded David Moyes of the urgency to shell out this January.
The club has been linked with Ilkay Gundogan, Borussia Dortmund's marauding midfielder, and more plausibly with Valencia's Ever Banega. The Argentina playmaker has a peculiar off-field record, and given that he will most probably be passing Anderson in the revolving doors at Old Trafford -- with the Brazilian apparently due to depart for Fiorentina on loan, according to Sky Italia -- many will feel that the last thing the club needs is just another mercurial midfielder. In Banega's defence, though, he is in good enough form and temperament to be trusted by the coach of his national side, something which Anderson, also aged 25, has been unable to say for five years now.
Last transfer window, Manchester United's deficiencies in the middle of the field made many ignore their weaknesses on the wings, which was a remarkable achievement. Fabio Coentrao would provide great acceleration and attacking wit down the left flank, were he to arrive on loan from Real Madrid, though it is not clear that he would not be an appreciably better defender than Patrice Evra. (He would, at any rate, be far superior to Alexander Buttner, whose every appearance seemingly involves at least one act of utter positional calamity.)
Wilfried Zaha was again not called from the bench in the late stages of the game against Swansea, with rumours that he will soon find himself on loan at Cardiff, and the questions over his exclusion persist. It may be that Zaha has failed to impress in training, and in under-21 games; yet this is a man who was the Championship's outstanding player for each of the last two seasons and is still only 21.
The most compelling explanation for why Zaha is still in the cold is that the combination of Rafael and Valencia on the right wing is greater than the sum of its parts. After all, the prospect, for a left-back, of having Rafael tear past him on the touchline while Valencia muscles his way infield at intimidating speed is a uniquely challenging one.
It will be observed that Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie were absent, and that Swansea might have been more easily dispatched had they been on the pitch. Saturday, though, felt like a glimpse at the future: Rooney, after all, may not be at Old Trafford all that much longer, if inferences can be drawn from his reluctance to discuss a new contract till the summer.
Meanwhile, Welbeck, though he will probably return to the bench or the wing as soon as van Persie returns from injury, is at 23 years old producing the kind of goal-scoring form expected of a man who could lead the club's line for years to come. He has now netted six times in six games, eight in the league in total, and his latest strike -- following an agonising miss in the first half -- was an elegant flick that you might see on a Ruud van Nistelrooy highlight reel.
Onwards, then, if not quite upwards for Manchester United. How far they ascend, if at all, will depend largely upon the business they do in the next few weeks: a situation that their supporters will be watching with uncommon interest.