Less than 48 hours after Paul Scholes took off a Manchester United shirt for the last time, the answer to Sir Alex Ferguson's midfield dilemma materialised from an unexpected quarter on Sunday. As the champions roused themselves to mount a convincing second-half revival against their local rivals, Tom Cleverley, one of three young substitutes sent on by Ferguson after the interval, added the dynamism and the continuity that United, despite enjoying a preponderance of possession, had been missing in the opening period.
Cleverley, who will be 22 on Friday, comes from Basingstoke and has been at Old Trafford since he was 15. In recent seasons he has been sent on loan first to Leicester City, where he played a part in promotion from League One, then to Watford, where he was voted player of the year after scoring 11 goals in 33 appearances in the Championship, and finally to Wigan Athletic, where he earned praise last season. He has 16 England Under-21 caps, and Ferguson called him United's best player in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona on their recent US tour. It would be no exaggeration to say that his zest and imagination made the difference on Sunday as United averted what would have been an awkward start to the season.
United played most of the joined-up football before the interval, without threatening to make a real incision. Wayne Rooney looked full of purpose, Ashley Young saw plenty of the ball, Danny Welbeck worked hard at dropping deep to drag markers out of position and Nani flitted hither and yon, but the danger came at the other end, with two goals which exposed flaws in Ferguson's defence.
The manager's first set of substitutions suggested that he recognised the problem and was not going to wait until later in the season to do something about it. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had been on either side of Joleon Lescott when the City defender headed the first goal, while Vidic had also failed to close down Edin Dzeko for the second. Both these vastly experienced men were withdrawn, as was Michael Carrick, who had provided the most insubstantial of midfield shields while contributing nothing to the attack.
On came Jonny Evans, aged 23, and Phil Jones, 19, in central defence, with Cleverley replacing Carrick, and the immediate temptation was to conclude that here was Ferguson sending a message, at 2-0 down, that this fixture had never been anything but a frivolous exhibition. Nothing, as it turned out, could have been further from the truth, and 13 minutes into the second half United were on level terms.
Chris Smalling, 21, struck an early blow for youth when he guided Young's free‑kick past Joe Hart. Then Cleverley played a full part in a delightfully intricate move which reached its climax when he put Nani in to score with a cool chip. These goals were the reward for greater dynamism and more relevant movement but while Cleverley was pushing up in support of his forwards, Evans and Jones were ensuring that the middle of the defence remained solid.
Ten minutes into the half, in between United's two strikes, Evans made a vital tackle on Dzeko and then carried the ball 60 yards upfield, hurdling several tackles at speed before Yaya Touré ended his run. A further 10 minutes later, when Micah Richards robbed Young and charged upfield, Jones made the sharpest of interventions to cut off a pass that could have been claimed in a dangerous position by any one of three City forwards.
As the two sides fought their way towards what seemed to be the inevitability of penalties, Cleverley continued to make his presence felt, whether dispossessing Touré in the centre circle with a very precise and un-Scholeslike tackle, cunningly crowding out Adam Johnson on the touchline, or narrowly failing to make clean contact with an instinctive swipe at Rooney's improvised knockdown.
He was the pick, then, of United's younger men on a day when David de Gea's poor attempt at saving Dzeko's 25-yard drive appeared likely to grab the headlines. The question of whether the 20-year-old, £18.3m Spaniard will be following the path of Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar or that of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard and Ben Foster can safely await the judgment of another day.
Welbeck, keeping a place warm for Javier Hernández, provided no definitive guide to his future prospects. Young, smartly handled for the most part by Richards, failed to make capital on the occasions when City's adventurous right‑back was caught upfield, and will have better days.
The armband, having passed from Vidic to Patrice Evra at half-time, was worn for the last 20 minutes by Rafael da Silva, Evra's direct replacement and now, at 21, among the youngest players to lead United, even if only briefly and temporarily. Faith in youth is a proud tradition at Old Trafford and one from which Ferguson, approaching his 70th birthday, continues to extract the maximum profit. The careful nurturing of Thomas William Cleverley could be the next example to bear handsome fruit.