Manchester United still searching for their European identity
The story of Manchester United’s European campaign so far is one that is better untold; a tedious tale of hard toil and graft and frustration. Plenty of it, too. Yet that frustration isn’t so much aimed at any particular player or the manager, rather at the team as a whole, their approach and their failure to find a balance and what the very-near future, in their eyes, holds for them. Since losing the 2009 final, United have, in Europe, looked a team in an identity crisis.
An “identity crisis” in Europe, first of all, is no reason for cynicism and pessimism but a cause for concern. Indeed their record in the competition in recent times is good, impressive even, but United have laboured through a lot of that – lacking authority when they needed it most. When they did show that authority, however, it was usually short-lived, forcing them to go back to the metaphorical drawing board.
For much of last year’s Champions League, that was evident. They limped their way through the group stages but once they reached the knockout phase, their fortunes suddenly changed – for the better. There was tinkering and an altogether more fluid approach. Sir Alex Ferguson put faith in an orthodox 4-4-2 which saw United dominate games against Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke, a system which the players were clearly used to and enjoyed playing in. But, as well as they did play, the opposition at this stage are traditionally stronger and luck obviously favoured United in the draw. For sure, the struggling Schalke were too weak a team to be in the semi-final of any tournament, let alone the biggest one on the continent.
Still, United relied on a midfield two of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs and prospered; the duo, a mismatch on paper, were then assigned to start against Barcelona in the final, but were ruthlessly exposed and exploited. It was never going to pan out the way United wanted; they were outnumbered by 3 to 2 in central midfield, and were lucky to escape with a 3-1 defeat. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it tells you that the 4-4-2 was an abject failure in the game where it mattered most.
And, in present time, they are still yet to decide upon a formula. Had they beaten Barcelona with that 4-4-2 – in the fairytale land of Anything Can Happen When You Put Your Mind To It – it’s very probable that they would have stuck with it in this campaign. Understandably, they didn’t and so the problem still remains; everything looks out of sorts, and United are still trying to find themselves in Europe. They haven’t looked consistently convincing here since Cristiano Ronaldo left the club back in 2009. It’s saying something that the 2-2 draw with Benfica on Tuesday night is regarded as the best of the five played so far.
It can be argued that there is little difference between some of the things we’ve seen in Europe this year with United’s most recent League games, but, at least, the team seem to have a balance domestically, a style which is consistent enough (although, arguably, far from effective too), added to the fact that they perhaps know their Premier League opponents better. And most significantly, the key difference is that their uninspiring European performances have been a long-term problem. Most worryingly, it seems it can only be addressed with immediate action and nothing else.
It is also worth looking at how United have used Michael Carrick this season. He’s started four of the five in Europe but just once in twelve in the Premier League. As exceptional as he has been in Europe, he remains underused domestically and that is because his ‘continental’ style of play means he’s seen as more suited to Champions League games. It suggests that they seem willing to want to play a different game altogether in Europe, although that has hardly been as effective as perhaps expected.