Transition continues under Van Gaal
Soaked to the skin in the Moscow rain, Manchester United players celebrated. It was the small hours of the morning of May 22, 2008, and the club had just won a third European Cup.
Six years on, only Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick remain of the starting XI. Substitutes Anderson and Nani both scored in the penalty shootout, but are seemingly headed for the exit door. Darren Fletcher, an unused sub that night at the Luzhniki Stadium, has made a heroic return from serious illness but still faces an uncertain future.
United remain stuck at the destructive stage of their rebuilding process. Their squad makeup resembles a renovated house with its joists still showing. The old guard is gone, with Carrick (33) now the elder statesman and Rooney (29 in October) cast as the time-honoured veteran of a club seeking a fresh start.
"When there is success you have a very good squad, and now I have to follow and the squad was broken I think," remarked the club's new manager, Louis van Gaal, during United's American tour.
Unless executive vice chairman Ed Woodward pulls some rabbits from hats, Van Gaal will enter the new season with a squad lacking quality and balance in key areas. Things could be worse. United entered the 1974-75 campaign having been relegated to the Second Division, with only goalkeeper Alex Stepney remaining of their 1968 European Cup winners. Finishing seventh last season, however, out of the European places, was tantamount to relegation for modern-day United.
United's attempted rebirth comes at least a year too late after the later seasons of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign saw his genius alchemise success by pairing aging legends with lesser talents. Slowly, the likes of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes took their leave. Of the Moscow heroes, only Edwin van der Sar has been adequately replaced -- by David de Gea. When the music stopped, David Moyes became the odd man out, though his failure now buys time for his successor to regenerate.
The summer departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra all had reasoning behind them. None of the three was near that 2008 peak, but to lose them together is beginning to resemble bad planning, especially as the club still remains bereft of a truly commanding defender.
With Arsenal refusing to do business on Thomas Vermaelen, Woodward now faces another race against transfer time, and cannot promise Champions League football to prospective new talent. That Vermaelen, not even first choice for Arsene Wenger, was top of United's list shows the difficulty of the market. The 50 million pounds that PSG paid for David Luiz is a mark of what a purported top-class central defender can cost.
United were linked with World Cup winner Mats Hummels last month, but Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp was dismissive in the extreme:
"What is the latest rumour -- Mats to Manchester United? And for how much -- 17 million [pounds]? For an amount like that you can forget about it straight away," he said last month. "If that's not a bull---- story, I'll eat a broomstick."
Mehdi Benatia, regarded as Serie A's finest, is another defender linked, but Roma would demand beyond the type of 30 million money that Luke Shaw cost United. Ajax's Daley Blind is a versatile player who might fill gaps in both defence and midfield while also useful as one of Van Gaal's favoured three central defenders.
United's new coach is believed to be particularly keen to get his compatriot on board -- Blind's father, Danny, was key for Van Gaal's Ajax team of the 1990s -- but the player himself has expressed public doubts about the physical challenge a Premier League move might entail.
In the absence of new arrivals, huge pressure is placed on incumbents with plenty to prove. Jonny Evans is 26, but always played as junior partner to Vidic and Ferdinand. Ferguson never left the house without two senior central defenders, going back to the days when, in 1989, he paired "Dolly and Daisy," as he called Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Unless Evans belatedly assumes that seniority, the departure of Vidic and Ferdinand looks like the end of a 25-year lineage.
Phil Jones last season continued previous campaigns' marriages of chaos with a lack of consistency and fitness. The same goes for Chris Smalling, who was wanted by Arsenal for the Vermaelen deal to happen. All three of the aforementioned are hardly strangers to treatment tables, which places great pressure on the use of a back three, even in the light of decent performances on the club's U.S. tour from Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett, the latter who looked most comfortable playing on the left of a trio. Van Gaal likes to blood talent, but exposing that pair through the rigours of a long season carries great risk.
Lifting the trophy with Ferdinand that Moscow evening was Ryan Giggs, already the elder of the old guard but a survivor beyond all of his contemporaries. On those rare occasions when a Moyes-led Manchester United clicked, it was Giggs at the vanguard, inspiring as a central midfielder, but it is now hoped that his influence can transpose from the sidelines as assistant manager. How Giggs fits into Van Gaal's autocratic approach is a leading subplot of a season in which United undergo the great change that Moyes was never capable of husbanding.
With revolution comes excitement. United look refreshed; though, without further recruitment, nights like Moscow now remain a distant dream.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.