By George Ankers
Replaced at half-time, Ryan Giggs was spared the ignominy of having to trudge off the Old Trafford pitch.
It spared him being hauled off during normal time, with the entire game paused to watch the legend dragged out of play, but that small mercy was only fitting. Having spent a depressing 45 minutes being constantly shrugged off the ball by younger, more dynamic opponents, Giggs simply dropped out of the team altogether.
Watching a player so decorated, who has defied our expectations of the ageing footballer for so long, struggle so utterly to get into the game was a quite depressing sight.
That Patrice Evra, in damage-control mode, found himself having to cynically barge into the likes of Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker to knock them over was in no small part due to the fact that they could both get past Giggs with ease on the United left.
The Welshman started in the middle alongside Michael Carrick against Liverpool a week previously and was once again overrun in the first half by a youthful team. If not for Jonjo Shelvey's red card, it could have been embarrassing for the Red Devils' hero.
Bringing Paul Scholes, whose incredible, ultra-vital efforts provided stark contrast to his left-footed contemporary, into the middle made sense. Its consequence, however, was stationing the now-very-sluggish Giggs out wide against a team with so much pace down the right. It invited exploitation.
Giggs has not lost everything that makes him useful to Sir Alex – as evidenced by the likes of his crucial combination with Scholes to steal a late win away at Norwich City last season, he can still be relied upon for a pinpoint delivery. But he is no longer a player fit and influential enough to start a high-stakes game against a high-intensity team. The United boss has better options: Tom Cleverley and Anderson were just two who impressed in midweek and warranted a chance.
At present, though, Sir Alex does not have much option other than to field Rio Ferdinand at centre-back; yet, on this evidence, he is not far behind Giggs on the path to eventual obsolescence.
There was much outcry about Roy Hodgson's "football reasons" for omitting Ferdinand from England's Euro 2012 party. There can be no question, however, that the former £18 million man is firmly in decline.
Like Giggs, the defender still has his qualities but they now need to be managed. If he and his colleagues in the back line position themselves properly, the 33-year-old has the know-how to get in that crucial block or tackle. Exposed, however, he struggles.
Against an inspired Tottenham, Ferdinand was pushed and pulled and dragged and dummied. Jermain Defoe's intelligent runs consistently caught him out. He merely followed hesitantly as Jan Vertonghen ripped through the area to open the scoring. Then Gareth Bale roasted him for pace as he struck the second.
He was, in fairness, let down by his paper-thin midfield as Bale was allowed to pick up momentum as he surged into the Red Devils' half. That problem, however, is not going to last just the one match. United did not reinforce properly in the centre and will continue to let through leaks. Ferdinand does not look ready to deal with them all.
With the defensive injuries piled up as they are at Old Trafford, there is, for now, not a lot of choice for Sir Alex. He either hopes that Ferdinand can use his experience to work around his deficiencies or throws in the likes of untested Scott Wootton – and he will pick the former almost certainly.
United now wait for Chris Smalling to return from treatment and replace the veteran sooner rather than later. For both Ferdinand and Giggs, club greats though they undoubtedly are, the time when their extraordinary ability could mask United's problems looks officially a thing of the past.
It serves to emphasise just how incredible the continued brilliance of Scholes is, but, for the most part, Sir Alex's trusty safety nets are severely frayed. Sooner rather than later, he is going to have to put out a team who do not need to fall back on them.
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