United in Europe: A post-mortem

Author: Rob

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Manchester United’s European (mis)adventure is over for another year. It’s been an exciting, frustrating time, full of goals from all sides, inducing heart attacks and binge drinking among fans of all ages. Both legs of the Athletic Bilbao tie have seen our boys take almighty thrashings, masked by flatteringly close scorelines. Notwithstanding the inevitable caveats – it was “only” the Europa League (nonsense), Champions League complacency (inexcusable), the young players needing to learn the European game (agreed) – everyone will agree that the results and performances we’ve seen from the side have been unusually wobbly. Here are some of my thoughts on last night’s game, and the campaign in general.

Las Grandes Derrotas

Isn’t it strange how slack United have been in Europe this season? The past few seasons have seen some highly disciplined, efficient – some would say dull – displays in UEFA-branded competitions, but those adjectives become nonsense when describing this year’s performances on the continent.

After the first leg defeat against Athletic, I sat wallowing for United and exulting in a classic performance by the Basques. After a few glasses of whisky, I remembered something interesting: since the 1999 Champions League win, United’s most decisive European defeats have come at the hands of Spanish opposition: the 3-2 to Real Madrid in 2000, the 3-1 at the Bernabeu in 2003, the 2-0 and 3-1 final defeats to Barcelona, and now the 3-2 and 2-1 losses against Bilbao. Contrast that with the club’s recent record against Italian clubs – especially the (underrated) 2008 dismissal of Roma, the 2009 tie against Inter and the 2010 thrashing of Milan – and it’s really quite something. During the game, I imagined the boss admitting in a fictional post-match interview: “I have no idea how to play the Spanish teams.”

One glass later, I remembered this quote from Vicente del Bosque in 2003, which was quite telling: “If I had to pick I’d prefer to face Barcelona or Manchester United. Between those two, it would be the English side because they play good football and they let you play. That gives you more chances.

Too Open for Business

In all of those great Spanish defeats, United were remarkably open – as they have been at many points during this season. In all of them, apart from last night, they played a 4-4-2 – and last night, Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs made up two of the central midfield three. I don’t want to pick on him, but, Giggs played central midfield in all of those last four defeats. Despite the brilliant passes he comes up with on occasion, Giggsy in midfield is a huge problem: he has the low percentages and minimal defensive awareness of a trequartista, but has been playing in a position where those two attributes are most valuable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, he’s the ultimate footballing example of the 80/20 rule. In the Premier League, where giveaways are common and most aren’t punished, such inefficiency gets overlooked – which is how Steven Gerrard manages to get praise in England for his passing. Big European nights are less forgiving of such waywardness.

Our games this season have looked like a return to the kamikaze style of the Beckham-Scholes-Keane-Giggs era. It stands in huge contrast to the fundamentally counterattacking side of 2006-09, which did so well in Europe. In that team, the midfield spent lots of time sitting deep and absorbing pressure – in 2008, the 2-0 win at Roma and both legs of the Barcelona tie stand out – then hitting opponents at startling pace on the break through Ronaldo and his brilliant supporting cast. The end-to-end group games at Old Trafford set pulses racing, and in the Europa only the “boring” 2-0 win at Ajax bore any resemblance to the recently ruthless, savvy United. We’ve looked vulnerable to long balls over the top, and strong, skilful strikers like Oscar Cardozo and Fernando Llorente have had lots of joy playing against us.

Zonal Marking made a point about English clubs looking foolish in Europe this season, by refusing to adopt the underdog role in “big” games, attacking too aggressively, and leaving themselves hopelessly vulnerable at the back. While the side’s big game record has been great in the league*, United have been made to pay for that kind of attitude in Europe. We managed to let leads slip at home against Ajax, (Athletic) Bilbao, Benfica and Basel, losing crucial points against the latter two, and losing the games outright against the former two. For a side that was recently so good at notching up European home wins**, that is an incredible stat.

But it’s not (only) about tactics…

Of course, tactical explanations never give the whole story. To reduce football to its barest terms, football is a game of two fundamentals: it is a game of running, and a game of technique. Tactics are a matter of how the manager gets the best out of these two facets, given the players available and the opposition facing his side.

Pep Guardiola, who knows a thing or two about this kind of stuff, said: “People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you.”

There can be no question that Athletic and Marcelo Bielsa beat United and Sir Alex at the ‘sub-games’ of this tie. In a lot of ways, they were the most difficult club United could’ve come up against: they had size and strength, like Newcastle; pressed intensely to win the ball back early, as Barcelona do; and they got at us by combining tricky dribbling (Muniain, Susaeta, de Marcos… Iraola!) with scintillating one-touch passing (the whole team, really). They played a symphony at fearsome speed and with enthralling unity.

The lethargy shown by United in the Europa League games should come as no surprise. The effects of a long season and a horrendous run of injuries must show themselves at some point, especially when The Simpsons is showing at 6pm Thursdays. The nerves and frailty showed by Jones, Smalling, Cleverley, Pogba and the other European novices won’t last forever. As much as I admire and defend him, Michael Carrick wasn’t near his best in this European campaign, after being our best Champions League performer last season. Park’s performances this season have been dreadful, even in the big games where he’s known for “doing a job.” Despite his goals, Rooney’s overall performances haven’t been as disciplined as in the Ronaldo era, as overwhelming as in 2009/10, or as inspiring as in last season’s latter stages.


Congratulations to our Europa League conquerors, and I’m sure many of us would join Sir Alex in wishing them well. It’s been a disappointing season for us in Europe – played 10, won 3, lost 4. At home, we’ve only managed to beat Otelul Galati. We’ve been knocked out. Twice. On the bright side, this won’t happen again.

In the very short term, there is absolutely no reason to panic about the league. Although Rooney and Rafael apparently limped through the mixed zone after the game, lots of players are coming back to fitness. It’ll be great to have Nani and Valencia back and fresh for the final stretch of games (fingers crossed); Paul Scholes played zero minutes of the Athletic tie. It’s (mostly) one game a week from here on in. Tom Cleverley got through 90 minutes, and it’s just the kind of game he would’ve needed to get his fitness back. In the longer view, our talented youngsters acquired huge European experience, sponsored by Heineken and SEAT. They’ll improve. Jonny Evans is growing into a magnificent central defender. This was a far, far more entertaining than our 2004/05 or 2005/06 campaigns. A big midfield signing will come in the summer.

We’ll be back.

* – Apart from the Game Which We Will Never Speak Of Again.

** – United have the record for consecutive Champions League home wins (12), and went through 6 CL home games in 2007/08 without conceding a single goal.

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10 Comments on United in Europe: A post-mortem

  1. Horrible European campaign but this woulnt happen forever. The young players are exposed now, We need a top midfielder and We would rule Europe again. Goodluck to Athletic Bilbao.

  2. As a Gooner I may be more ready to see the negatives of your Euro adventures, but I do think you are glossing over some massive deficiencies in your squad.
    Fergie has bought (and sold) big, but has still been left with a squad of players that are way below your standards. Very few teams fear you as they would have in the past. Barca started the process by showing a massive gulf in class in the last final, and Citeh, Bilbao and others have shown how to exploit that.
    The fact that Scholes had to come back and Giggs is still playing shows the dearth of talent. Is there any real class players to take their place? I dont see them.
    Take it from a fan that has had to suffer average squads and poor transfers for a few seasons, you need a massive change in personnel IMHO.
    Finally, I cant resist just saying I enjoyed watching both Mancs going out of the lower Euro cup last night. If it was Arsenal we would have been written off and verbally relegated by now, so at least enjoy your tame media with a hint of smugness.

  3. “People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you.”- Josep Guardiola.

    This point is basic and simple, should be a concept understood by all managers. Tactics is nothing but choosing the right players for the right games. Simple. I didn’t re-quote Guardiola because I think he’s a genius and everyone should emulate him. Infact, I think ‘Pep’, just inherited an emerging best team in the world and was basicly smart enough to always choose a strong squad for important games, or ‘highlight games’ . He’s like Mancini in many ways, has all the resources in the world to do his bidding, only Mancini is in England where he’s been influenced by one Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of ‘tactical squad rotation’! I hate that word, ‘squad rotation’! This is the one tactic that Ferguson got completely wrong and is the reason Manchester United were knocked out of the ‘UEFA Cup’-of all competitions- FA Cup, CL and all other cups we would’ve been knocked out of!

    The evidence is in the vast differences in the current EPL form and the European form! How is it that United come out of beating a very good Tottenham side 3-1 at WHL into being thrashed by 18 yr olds?? At home???? It’s simple, squad against Bilbao at OT:

    1 De Gea
    21 Rafael
    12 Smalling
    6 Evans
    3 Evra****
    13 Park****
    4 Jones****
    11 Giggs
    18 Young
    10 Rooney
    14 Hernandez****
    ****- really bad performances!

    Against Tottenham:

    1 De Gea
    4 Jones
    5 Ferdinand
    6 Evans
    3 Evra
    17 Nani
    22 Scholes
    16 Carrick
    18 Young
    10 Rooney
    19 Welbeck

    Squad against Bilbao at San Mames:

    1 De Gea
    21 Rafael
    6 Evans
    5 Ferdinand
    3 Evra
    13 Park
    16 Carrick
    23 Cleverley
    11 Giggs
    18 Young
    10 Rooney

    This squad was just plain awkward! And Evra just went to another level of disappointing! He’s more of a liability now than any sort of captain! ALL GOALS KEEP COMING FROM HI WING! It’s time Fabio got a real start and berth in the 1st squad!

    Away from that, Ferguson didn’t really take this competition seriously at all! It may have been rubbish play from Rooney and co, but the likes of Scholes and Welbeck were missed on that pitch, and it showed in clear HD how Cleverley and Giggs were completely outrun in the middle! Athletic Bilbao played well, no doubt, but Ferguson made them look like Barcelona on steroids with his unplanned and rash team selection! Fans want to be entertained and enjoy watching their team play despite being faced with defeat! At least I do! All that is being destroyed by these rotations that wouldn’t surprise me if Ferdinand played alongside Rooney somewhere along the lines! Just play the right team, win the league and plan for next season! I’m sure Bilbao won’t win the UEFA Europa League! They’ll most probably get knocked out by some other ‘serious team’ and they will drop in their La Liga Table! Just to prove how lightly the management took this competition! But the good of the night was that Manure Sh!tty lost even after playing their hearts out, always a lifter!

    Now all to do is hope that Ferguson and Co get their acts together and at least win the league for the sake of the fans!

  4. @Barndoor Bendtner – appreciate all that. Don’t think we need a “massive change in personnel” – we’re top of the league. League > Europe any day. The club are planning – we have some good young players who need to learn and improve. Do think we need a couple of big signings to freshen things up.

  5. I don’t think Sir Alex took this competition seriously. He put out teams that would allow him to point to the selection and say that he was serious, but this would have been disingenuous. He hasn’t really had to defend his position because he hasn’t really been picked up on his approach. With Valencia injured he put out his strongest team at Spurs. If he was genuine about this competition he would have picked the same side for Europe.

    That said we may not have prevailed because of our midfield deficiencies. Could Scholes have dealt with the pace of the games against Athletic? United don’t need a significant change of personnel, (bit cheeky that coming from an Arsenal fan when you look at their team these last six r seven years), but we are a team in transition. What we don’t need to do is throw the baby out with the bath water. We have some promising young players who need to develop and an old guard, hanging on in their who will need to be replaced soon. So parts of the team are getting better, whilst parts are in decline.

    At European level we aren’t good enough, but it may be that Sir Alex is taking a longer term view after last years final. Perhaps he is aware that he has to allow a step back to grow a team for the years ahead. We are two/three midfield players short currently in my view. Whether that can be made up by players coming through, or whether we have to buy; its probably a bit of both.

    Massive change of personnel, no.

  6. ManUtdTactics @ 3:27: “We are two/three midfield players short currently in my view.”

    Hargreaves, Fletcher, and ?????

  7. Last Summer we should have bought two midfield players, a ball winner and a playmaker. I think we need three now because of the loss of Fletcher. We need two solid, ball winning all action midfielders and a playmaking/passing player. Carrick has done well this year and Scholes is a joy, but they are too similar as a type and the balance of our midfield is wrong.

    As a ball winner we should perhaps have bought Scott Parker, and with West Ham relegated we would probably have got him at the time. As a play maker we should have bought either Modric or Snejider, although as a play maker I would probably favour Modric. Snejider is more of an all round midfield player.

    We wont get any of these players now.

    I am loath to suggest players I haven’t seen much of, and I don’t get to see that much of the foreign leagues. I am also conscious of the obvious fact that Sir Alex is on a very tight budget and the club have this policy of signing only players under a certain age, so suggesting players we wont get or wont go for is a bit pointless. But here goes.

    If I had my way and I though you could keep him fit I’d break the bank for Essien. Even now he is pure class. I am of the view that circa 2008 he was one of the best three players in the world, he’s not at that level now but he is exactly he type we need. I’d try and do a Tevez and make a bid for Vonk from the other lot also. Sir Alex’s is probably hoping Pogba will sign as he has been mentioned as a potential Viera type, which would be useful. The playmaker is definitely the more difficult one to find.

    Sorry I can’t be clearer with my answer. Sir Alex will probably sign young promising players we don’t know anything about.

  8. Having re-read my answer if you were asking who needs to be replaced rather than who we should look to buy, I agree that Fletcher and Hargreaves are two we are missing. The third is a replacement for Scholes/Giggs. They are doing great, and Scholes coming back is a joy. We may also get another year out of them, but we should bring someone in sooner rather than later when we desperately need them.

  9. Obviously, we’re going to add central midfielders this summer. The debate should be over who.
    This is our current midfield, sorted by name and age (not counting stopgaps like Jones and Smalling, who will be needed in defense next season)
    Anderson, 23. Giggs, 38. Park, 31. Carrick, 30. Scholes, 37. Cleverley, 22. Pogba, 19. Tunnicliffe, 19.
    Looking at that group, a few patterns emerge. There is a strong group of veterans, and a promising set of young players, but none of the above players are in the prime of their careers. Plenty of the above players have creative ability, but we desperately lack a Mascherano type ball winner. We also need another creative player to replace Giggs and Scholes.
    Based on ability, age, fit with our current team, price, and odds of moving to United, this is my wishlist:
    1) Javi Martinez (we all saw him play, nothing more needs to be said. worth every bit of 30 million pounds)
    2) Yann M’Vila (very young, great defensive ability, currently plays for a mid table french side, would complement both Carrick and Scholes, fits a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2)
    3) Lass Diarra (very mobile, good tackler, rumored to be on the way out at Madrid, in his mid 20’s)
    4a/4b) John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien- both good defensive midfielders, but Essien has had two severe ACL injuries (notoriously hard to return from those) and Mikel is out of favor at Chelsea and has been inconsistent in the past.

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