Another Friday night and another pre-season away friendly, but the mood felt very different this week. Last Friday’s blue skies, 30 degrees, and quick jaunt down the A1 to Doncaster had been replaced by dank skies, a distinct chill in the air, and an awkward trek to Burton. Most of all, in Wilson’s absence the novelty of serenading a proper number 9 was replaced by the gloom induced by the usual assortment of not-quite strikers, while the non-performance at Rotherham and the absence of any prospect of signings – except for the manager’s contract extension – had rather squandered the positivity of last week’s three-goal stroll.

Wilson’s unspecified knock joined Saint Maximin’s mystery “sickness” to ensure that this was a United side entirely without its difference makers from last season. In the new normal, Ritchie and Murphy again started as wing-backs flanking three centre backs. Tonight, it was Fernandez in the centre with Schär and Krafth returning from the latter stages of the European Championships on his left and right. In the absence of a centre forward in the starting XI, that admirable strength in depth in central defence was a reminder of the obvious imbalance in the squad. Good to read this week, then, that Bruce is prioritising a new central defender rather than a second striker. Obviously.

As it happened, so obliging were tonight’s opponents that such concerns were rapidly forgotten. While early anti-Ashley and anti-Bruce chants still dominated in the away end, Joelinton was released down the inside left channel on six minutes. With time to pause at the by-line and square the ball across the box, his cross eventually found its way through to Murphy who volleyed home with ease from close range.

And that set the tone for a first half in which we were largely untroubled by a very poor League One side. Not that we were much better, as our midfield entirely failed to function. Following his shift as a striker last week, Hendrick was now the deepest of the three (of course), with Sean Longstaff – poor again – on the left and Isaac Hayden in yet another new role, this time as a more advanced right-sided midfielder. Rather than pass through midfield, the back three invariably swapped sideways passes with each other and with Woodman in goal before playing long crossfield passes to Murphy and Ritchie, who pushed forward into space at every opportunity, or into the channels for Fraser and Joelinton.

Fortunately, Burton seemed not to have worked this out, and we were consistently able to exploit the space behind their full-backs. Joelinton missed a presentable chance, Ritchie had a drive from distance after another ball into the left channel, and Longstaff tapped home after the flag had gone up. Any danger in our own box came from wide balls again, an obvious product of the defensive weaknesses of our system. Premier League coaches won’t have to scrutinise the film for long to see what they need to nullify and exploit. Unless this is all an elaborate double-bluff for a 442 on opening day. Nothing would surprise me.

Our best period of play came in the twenty minutes immediately after half-time. Straight from the kick-off Joelinton did well to win a corner, yet again exploiting space down the inside-left channel. Ritchie’s deep ball from the resultant set-piece then found the Brazilian at the far post who steered a strong header beyond the goalkeeper in front of the away support. Ironic or not, the acclaim was well received and reciprocated by both the goalscorer and his teammates.

But it was the introduction of Gayle and young Joe White ten minutes later that really improved things. For ten minutes we experimented radically with energy and intensity, not to mention runs into the box and passes that attempted to find them. Gayle could have scored twice, but didn’t. Again. White’s shot bounced off the keeper, but Hayden was unable to turn in the rebound.

After that, the game disintegrated amidst the usual raft of changes, first in defence as Clark, Lewis, and Lascelles came on, and then in midfield, as Matty Longstaff, Tom Allan, and Jack Young were given a run out. There was still time for plenty of corners and a delightful run from the impressive Murphy that nearly yielded the goal it deserved. The closest the home side went was a back pass that Gillespie – a half-time substitute – had to desperately slide to clear on the goal-line.

What did we learn? Not much to be honest. Schär has clearly been spending more time on his tan than his fitness or match sharpness, as he did a passable of impression of the absent Shelvey, both spraying crossfield balls into touch and skying a ludicrous long-range shot over the stand. Murphy was our best player (again), and Joelinton suggested that the number 7 shirt might suit him rather better than the number 9. Krafth reminded us of just how pedestrian he can be, while Woodman’s major contribution was to studiously ignore the fans’ requests for a wave through much of a soporific first half.

More than anything, we looked like a team short of shape and tactical drilling. A team lacking in coaching (really?), with one plan that was repeated to death against opponents who were the most generous of accomplices. Whatever indignities we face, at least we haven’t sunk as far as to face them regularly in the League.

Notably, even at 2-0 up the calls for Bruce to go were strong and consistent, second only to anti-Ashley sentiment. This is a tinderbox waiting only for the spark of a poor run of results that will inevitably follow if there are not midfield or forward reinforcements and as soon as the obvious weaknesses and predictability of our 352 system are exploited by a better quality of opposition.

In the meantime, I’ll settle for as comfortable a 2-0 away win as we’re likely to see for the next nine months. After all, it’s another 90 minutes accumulated, and we all know how important that is to ourselves.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731