The history of human invention is not entirely one of genius. It is also one of accident, of serendipity, of sheer and blind luck. The right place, the right time, the right piece of bread left on the right windowsill and bang! Penicillin. A relaxing savant, an apple tree, a stray gust of wind, and ow! Gravity. A dissatisfied sailor, a part-cooked lump of sweet fried dough, a round tin lid, and shazam! The ring doughnut.
Football is littered with its own ring doughnuts: things that worked out wonderfully despite never having been the plan at all. Perhaps United's most exciting of recent times was the Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke Telepathy Experience, which owed its existence not to any farsighted stroke of genius on the part of Alex Ferguson, but more to Patrick Kluivert's decision to head to Barcelona rather than Manchester. Even then, Cole spent the beginning of the 1998/99 season worrying that he was for sale, until after an extended period of bench warming he and Yorke started only their second game together against Southampton in October. Both scored. The rest is a treble and that goal against Barcelona.
In a similar vein, had you sat David Moyes down on July 1 2013 and and told him that his side's best football of the season would come from an attacking trio of Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj, he probably wouldn't have believed you. He'd probably have said something like "Well, I'll try to get the best out of Shinji, they say he's very talented. But I've never heard of this Januzaj, and doesn't Mata play for Chelsea?" He might then have added: "Where is Wayne Rooney? What about Robin van Persie? Do you happen to know who's going to win the Grand National?"
A conspiracy of circumstance, both large and small. The signing of Mata was an opportunistic one, predicated on availability plus quality rather than any masterplan. The fact that he is cup-tied meant there was no need to rest him ahead of the Bayern Munich game, while the injury to Van Persie and the 'injury' to Rooney meant that he was able to take up his preferred central role. Januzaj, meanwhile, owed his place on the pitch both to his startlingly assured emergence over the season and to a weird injury to Ashley Young; who even knew that footballers have ligaments in their hands? And as for Kagawa, well, had he played over the last two seasons with the assurance of last Saturday, he'd likely have been resting his legs ahead of the visit to Munich.
Stupidly early days, obviously, and it would be difficult to imagine opponents more obliging than Alan Pardew's empty shell of a safe, Cabaye-less Newcastle side. Perhaps the mind is also coloured by the contrast with the stodgy fare that United have been serving up this season. But it was entirely delightful to watch United's attackers running off one another, exchanging short, sharp, imaginative passes, moving into space, moving back into different space, dragging defenders this way and that for one another ... in short, playing football with the brain as well as the lungs and the legs. Mata's backheel for Januzaj's goal was the obvious standout moment, and the Spaniard was at the heart of everything good, but the confidence that Kagawa showed was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of all.
That Kagawa's nearly-two seasons with United have been underwhelming is not really up for debate. What has been debated is why: whether it's because he's being miscast and misused by philistine management (as Jurgen Klopp's broken heart and the #freeShinji brigade would like to suggest), or whether the fault lies with more with Kagawa himself (as the fact that he operates happily and effectively on the left for Japan might indicate). As ever, the truth probably takes from both columns. But watching him interchange and interact with Mata suggests that the solution might, just might, have been found. As Mata said after the game: "A pleasure to play with Shinji, we connect very well, we try to pass and move."
Football is a game of connections. Two footballers that connect well are more valuable than two that don't, even where the latter pair may be more individually talented. Neither Yorke nor Cole were the best strikers in the world; adjacent and amplified, they were as fine as any alternative. Picking your best team and picking your best players isn't always the same process, and doesn't always yield the same results.
Which is where the problem lies, if Ka-Ma-Zaj — don't complain; it is an unbreakable rule that all attacking triumvirates must acquire a three-syllable nickname — is ever to become anything more than an end of season curiosity. In essence, there's no room for the three of them and both Rooney and Van Persie; the latter is United's best striker, while the former is, by virtue of his new contract and the lengths to which Moyes has gone to reintegrate and indulge him, virtually undroppable. Come next season, does Moyes have the moxy to omit one or other? To try the promising over the established? It is the kind of decision that a Manchester United manager has to be able to make; it's not one that the imagination easily assigns to Moyes.
We have, of course, drifted some distance from the actual. While Mata and Januzaj should both be fixtures in the United first-team next season, it's up in the air whether Kagawa will be around to join them, whether Van Persie will be around to stymie the plan, and whether Moyes will even be around to pick them. But there is almost no excuse not to use the rest of the season to explore it, and it is pleasant to imagine and near-compulsory to hope that whoever's in charge next season will be willing to continue the effort. To keep Kagawa; to see whether the promise can be realised against opposition stiffer than Newcastle. If it succeeds, then the future consists of magnificent football; if it fails, then it will fail in an over-ambitious, aesthetically pleasing manner. Either way, that's far more United than another cross flying into another full-back.