Carlos Tevez: ignition spark

You have to go back over a decade to see the teamsheet of the European champions look so depleted so soon. That was Ajax in 1996 and down to the Bosman. Last Sunday at Old Trafford was down to Beijing, broken bones and Alex Ferguson's inability to bolster his squad.

OK, he compensated by giving three young players their debuts and the rest of us a glimpse at the future. But in their deployment we also saw the past. Because for the first time since early 2006, Manchester United were forced into a close-to straight-up 4-4-2, and produced the kind of flat attacking performance that made them abandon it.

At least in 2006 they still had a striker in Ruud van Nistelrooy they could funnel the ball to. Against Newcastle they barely had a strikeforce with five of any potential front four – Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Luis Saha, Park Ji-Sung and Carlos Tevez – all out.

Tomorrow at Portsmouth it's arguably worse because although Tevez returns, Ryan Giggs and Frazier Campbell are missing and they've barely a midfield two to speak of with Michael Carrick joining Owen Hargreaves on the line.

So Rodrigo Possebon and Rafael Silva look likely to feature again, as does that old 4-4-2. And this against a defence United only breached twice in their last three encounters – both goals courtesy of Ronaldo at his most rampaging.

Of course the truth is, regardless of who United are playing, they just don't look as potent without the Portuguese. That's Portuguese plural, for although United's system is built around Cristiano Ronaldo it was Carlos Quieroz, even more than Ferguson, that constructed it. When Queiroz left in July, the big lament at Old Trafford was over who would coax Ronaldo into staying now. It should have been over who would coach him because it's not for nothing that many who cover the Old Trafford beat regularly – as well as David Gill – began to refer to him as the team's "co-manager".

As Giggs and Rio Ferdinand have acknowledged, over the past two years, Ferguson entrusted increasing responsibility to Quieroz, letting him solely develop and define United's attacking formation on the training ground. That resulted in a 4-2-4-0, with an imaginary roundabout sign around the second '4', and one of the most repeated fallacies of last season – that Ronaldo scored 42 goals from the wing. Really, he only started from the wing and spent the rest of games rotating with the other attacking three as Quieroz's system dictated. Think about it, how often do you remember him on the wing as opposed to tearing through the centre? It's a fact reflected by his mere seven assists, only the 23rd highest in the division, 12 killer passes behind Cesc Fabregas, four behind Rooney, heck even behind Kenwyne Jones, Carlton Cole and Nicolas Anelka.

With Ronaldo out, it is maybe just poor timing United looked so turgid in their first league game back without Quieroz. But until Ferguson makes changes both off the pitch and on it, it could well prove prophetic. Off it, there could be a few months' waiting as he assesses all options. On it, it'll probably be a matter of days, with Tottenham content to juice United for extracting their best player right until the end of the window.

How United could have done with Dimitar Berbatov last week. With an attack so dependent on acceleration though, the big question left unsaid about Berbatov's protracted move is where his more languid style would fit in. It was van Nistelrooy's unidirectional play, after all, that hastened his departure.

Berbatov may be capable of the same role as van Nistelrooy but he is a very different player, and United's year-long pursuit indicates Ferguson and Quieroz knew exactly what they want him to do. Indeed, even Arsene Wenger gushed, "he doesn't turn up where you want him to be. Left, right, centre, he goes everywhere." Sound familiar? Berbatov could well be the slower-moving star around which the rest of United's attack orbit at pace. And his assists last year? Four more than Ronaldo with 11.

Tomorrow, United don't have such luxuries with much of their creativity dependent on Darren Fletcher. Tevez, at the least, could well spark their campaign into ignition. But until Ronaldo's return or Ferguson makes some moves, we'll have to wait a while to see their future without Quieroz.

FA Premier League

Portsmouth v Manchester United

Tomorrow, Fratton Park, 8.00

Live, Sky Sports 1, 7.30