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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.