It was a match that emphasised exactly why Manchester United need the lift in quality of a signing like Gareth Bale, but especially because Jose Mourinho resorted to the same solution: lifting the ball towards Marouane Fellaini.
Because, on 56 minutes of the Super Cup in Skopje, with his side have just gone down to 2-0, the Portuguese sent for the air force.
Fellaini was brought on, and it did admittedly bring United back into the game. Real were pinned back, as the Belgian physically forced them up the pitch.
“In the second half we found a way to create difficulties for them and to give them the kind of football they don’t like and don’t dominate,” Mourinho said afterwards.
The lingering question is whether Mourinho likes this option a little too much, why he actually had to go it, and what it says about the potential of this United. The Portuguese might fairly say that it is all the more forceful against a side as good as Real because of its very contrastingly rudimentary nature, but then the fact remains it still feels like his go-to approach any time United are not winning a game late on.
It is undeniably a useful weapon, and this is not to down Fellaini – he is worth keeping around for that very reason – but it should not be the main weapon in such circumstances.
The very fact that it came against the sophistication of the European champions’ attacks and the almost casual slickness of their movement also made it all the more striking.
One of Europe’s historic clubs had football of the highest level, the other ended the game looked to hit it as high as possible. That just made it look more basic, and that the main solution to a problem is a problem in itself.
Mourinho did actually fairly say that there are “no replicas of [Luka] Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco”, and that is obviously correct, but then it was also all the more galling here because United did start the game looking a little quicker than usual themselves, a little faster.
And this is the thing. The Portuguese has an array of creative forwards in Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial who would be well capable of linking up in some of the ways Real did. Some of them even offered glimpses of it – especially when Mkhitaryan played Rashford through for his big chance at 2-1 – but the frustration with United under Mourinho so far is that they only been glimpses; individual moments of inspiration rather than a concerted collective effort.
And that is precisely why they need a Bale. If the manager’s general approach is to only allow these occasional bursts, he needs a player that is capable of more of them; of proper prime quality.
How United develop remains to be seen, and Mourinho did admittedly stress that they have been trying in pre-season “to develop things that we normally don’t do”. It’s just that, in an effective exhibition match like this, it would have been nice to see more of them rather than that same old approach.
The word conspicuously put out by some at United was that Fellaini “changed the game”, but that’s only because it’s evident that United need something of a change in their attack in the first place, an evolution, or an evidently better player.