Manchester United closed out their home season by ringing in the changes. Eighteen-year-old striker James Wilson made a dream debut on Tuesday night, scoring twice to lead United to a 3-1 win over Hull. Robin van Persie added a late capper in a game that was far drowsier than the scoreline would suggest.
This was a lazy and bittersweet evening, a springtime game played out between two sides with little left to play for. Lazy, as both teams rested key players — in Hull City’s case, it was to prepare for the FA Cup final against Arsenal in ten days time — and also because both teams largely declined to tackle in a nod to propriety. Bittersweet as United captain Nemanja Vidic waved goodbye to the club he has served for 8½ years, off to Inter Milan in the summer. He is hardly alone: up to nine United players could be heading for the exit this summer at Old Trafford. Some of them — Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra — seem simply too old for the wear and tear. Others, such as Marouane Fellaini and Shinji Kagawa, don’t seem to be fitting in at all.
In a nod to the future, interim manager Ryan Giggs — whose own future is also in question — used the occasion to blood two youngsters, handing debuts to Tom Lawrence and Wilson and playing a youthful side. He placed himself on the bench, and left Vidic there as well, but the plan for a cameo for the venerable defender was foiled when Phil Jones was forced off early with a serious shoulder injury. Vidic would end up playing nearly 70 minutes while Jones went to a nearby hospital.
Wilson had a night to remember. He almost made an immediate impact, getting onto a header from Fellaini in the second minute, only to get the ball tangled in his legs from a yard out. Adnan Januzaj, a more regular presence in the squad, had a penalty appeal waved away shortly thereafter from referee Craig Pawson despite the fact that Maynor Figueroa clearly fouled him.
When Wilson’s goal came, after a long and aimless spell that United dominated without really doing much, it was off a very old-fashioned bit of play. Januzaj sent in a freekick that Fellaini headed straight down at the near post, allowing Wilson to run on to it and fire home. It was a rare bit of excitement for the home fans, but it soon turned back into ennui as the quiet, the empty seats and the half-hearted effort on display conspired to put most observers to sleep.
Wilson’s second, coming off a clean break on the hour mark, proved a bit more rousing. Januzaj was set free on the far flank, and crossed in to the lead-footed Fellaini. Fellaini side-footed his shot right at Eldin Jakupovic, but the keeper could not hold it and the rebound fell sweetly to Wilson for a tap-in.
United’s defensive frailties were on full display just minutes later when Matty Fryatt was unaccountably left open about 22 yards out, and allowed to fire a low shot right past David de Gea. It shocked the crowd and got Giggs off his touchline. In came van Persie for Wilson, and off the sideline went Giggs to warm up for his own cameo. When he entered for Lawrence in the 70th minute, it was to rapturous applause. He nearly made an immediate impact as well, spraying about crosses with an elan that belied his age. And van Persie finally iced the game with a classic bit of poaching, sinking his own rebound with three to play.
Giggs said in his pre-match program that he has not made his mind up about next season. At 40, his days of playing a full season are well past but the club is loathe to lose him. But with Louis van Gaal widely expected to be named as United’s new manager — possibly as soon as Wednesday — it is unknown whether or not Giggs is willing to work under the Dutch manager, widely known for his autocratic personality.
More striking was the fact that Giggs also hit out at the idea that the team needed a full rebuild, saying he felt the talent was already here. That read as a tacit swipe against the David Moyes regime, under which Giggs was known to have chafed. But on the evidence on Tuesday night — and indeed all season long — Manchester United does need a rebuild. More fodder for that could be also found in the pre-game notes, which somewhat hopefully noted that a Europa League place was still an "outside chance" for the club. That’s all the proof one needs of lowered expectations for a club unused to begging for scrap.
"We know it’s been tough this season and over the years we have been spoiled with the success we’ve had, but you’ve always supported the team," Giggs address the Old Trafford faithful after the victory. "I know the coming years will bring you more success. I’d just like to say keep supporting us, you’ve seen a little glimpse of the future, we always play attractive football — keep supporting us and the good times will come back soon."
Van Gaal is expected to change quite a lot, and will have the funds to do it. United are prepared to spend almost $300m over the summer on new faces, and the question now is will the team also make a clean break with the famed class of ’92? There is young talent here indeed — Janusaz and Wilson are evidence of that — but there is precious little guile and speed. If United can buy that, and van Gaal can mold it, perhaps they can be back at the top sooner than later.