One of the top items this week on the Manchester United website, a week when the Champions League would normally dominate the club’s coverage, was a video entitled “Skills with a Samurai”.
It features Radamel Falcao, Marcos Rojo and Juan Mata ball-juggling with, well, a man dressed as a Samurai. Behind him is another man in a white jump-suit holding an over-sized fork and with a large red semi-circle, emblazoned with the name of a noodle company, for a head.
Depressing - or a sign of the times? Whatever your verdict the fact that it is Falcao, Rojo and Mata in the video, all big-name foreign players who have arrived for big money, only adds to the debate as to the direction in which United are heading.
There have been some forthright assessments on the subject in recent days but one that was particularly incendiary was the claim by Mike Phelan that the club’s “identity has been broken” with the £16 million sale of Danny Welbeck to Arsenal.
“They have probably lost the way of Manchester United a little bit,” Phelan told BBC Sport, a suggestion that even prompted United’s PR department to double-check what he had said in case he had been quoted out of context. He had not.
“The thread has been broken,” the former assistant manager added, suggesting that United, the club of the ‘Busby Babes’ who have had a youth-team product in every matchday squad since 1937, had moved away from the commitment to “create home-grown talent”.
But it is a myth that United have always had a team overbrimming with local players and youth team products – as Phelan should be among the first to acknowledge.
He was on the backroom staff for five years, and played for the club for five more. He was in the squad in the 1992-93 season, when United finally ended their 26-year quest to win the title.
That squad depended on Peter Schmeichel, Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Dennis Irwin, Lee Sharpe, Brian McClair, Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes. Only one of those - Giggs - was directly home-grown. Hughes had been bought back from Barcelona. Sharpe was signed from Torquay United.
The year 1992 is also one that resonates with United fans for another, even greater reason: the Class of 92. That group – Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, supplemented by Paul Scholes and Phil Neville – encapsulated everything the club desired. But that was a freak of nature, and one that is unlikely to be repeated at United or elsewhere.
Before them there were the so-called ‘Fergie's Fledglings’ who included the likes of Lee Martin, Tony Gill, David Wilson, Russell Beardsmore, Mark Robins and Deiniol Graham – as well as Sharpe. Only he and Martin made 100 appearances. The rest were moved on, or did not make it.
The point is that sandwiched between the ‘Fergie's Fledglings’ and the ‘Class of 92’ was a group of largely imported players who won the league and helped propel United back into the big-time, a policy which Louis van Gaal appears to be trying to replicate now.
He can hardly be blamed. Despite last Sunday’s 4-0 victory at home to Queens Park Rangers, this has been a chastening week for United. For a Champions League group stage to unfold without them hurts. They need to get back into it as soon as possible. “It’s not a case of rolling the dice for a few years and build because that’s not where we are at,” a senior club source admitted.
They are dealing in the here and now. They need a quick fix - which costs money - and there will be some collateral damage along the way. Hence the sale of Welbeck, who was commanding wages of more than £90,000-a-week.
Yet the club’s talk of preserving its DNA – with that commitment to youth but also with ‘swashbuckling’ football - is not hollow. As proof, they point to what Van Gaal has described as his own football philosophy. “One of the reasons why we hired Louis Van Gaal was because of his commitment to youth like we have,” a senior club source claimed. “Nothing has changed.”
That includes promoting those young players. Fourteen players have gone this summer, with United arguing that they have reduced the size of the squad while also building for the future by adding world-class quality and promoting the cream of their youth system.
Giggs – now Van Gaal’s assistant – has pointed out that 20-year-old Manchester-born Tyler Blackett, has played every minute of United’s four league games so far. The club have Reece James, Jesse Lingard and, most excitingly, James Wilson in the first-team squad along with Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and goalkeeper Ben Amos.
How many games will they play? Fewer than hoped – partly because United are already out of the Capital One Cup – but for all Van Gaal’s fire-fighting that commitment to youth remains. Whether this new crop, promoted by Van Gaal, become ‘Fergie's Fledglings’ or a ‘Class of 92’ remains to be seen. United will settle for something in between.
“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” Phelan said in that BBC interview. Maybe he should have reflected on 1992 before he said that. It can be both.
Former Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand has revealed that Wayne Rooney always struck him as a “angry young man” and was “always arguing with people outside the training ground, especially on the phone”.
Official team photos somehow feel like a throwback to the good old days when new shirts would only be released about once every three years and the word 'simulation' had never been associated with the beautiful game.
Some choose to shed a tear when one of their heroes call it a day, while others will simply stand and applaud. Manchester United decided to rename one of their stands at Old Trafford after Alex Ferguson, but one fan chose to get a tattoo of the United legend’s name – and he’ll regret it for the rest of his life.