> Complacency can’t be an issue by itself
> We seem to expect too much from United
> Norwich deserve credit for fightback
There is a temptation to level what might seem a fair criticism at Manchester United and their generally underwhelming performances this season but, in truth, the isolated idea that the side is too complacent in winning positions or in situations where they are expected to coast is a touch unfair and, simply put, a bit lazy. Indeed, the problem, if there is one, seems much more deep-rooted than that. If, as they say, complacency is a running theme, then surely United would have recognised this sooner and changed their attitude and approach?
Initially, it made sense. There have been cases where teams in a seemingly good position have faltered when they’ve allowed apparent complacency to creep in but, for United, the accusation has been all-too-frequent that it has to be something else. Complacency can’t be the issue by itself at least, if it is an issue at all.
What Manchester United are right now is a very good team made up of individuals that are either, but not limited to, (i) outstanding, (ii) experienced, (iii) young or just (iv) competent squad players; most are probably two of the above. United have plenty of these and not one senior team player is excluded; but it still in the end contributes (only?) to a ‘very good’ team. Because United have had better sides under the management of Sir Alex – but we already know that. Yes, it’s one capable of winning matches and they remain strong enough to be regarded as one of Europe’s best, but it is important to recognise that any eleven they put out this season can be beaten and that they don’t have a divine right to claim three points because the superiority of their squad compared to others is notably much less than seasons past.
What could be put down to complacency might just be the fact that the other team are also quite good; for Manchester United to squander a winning position or have it threatened, it doesn’t necessarily take them to play badly, it just takes the other to play well. Same applies to when they are seen to have reduced the tempo of their game; it might just be that the opposition have responded well or have been invigorated for whatever reason because they, like United, have specific objectives in a football match and there is no such thing as unlimited time.
It’s all hypothetical. It boils down to how you view a situation. Norwich fans would feel inclined to praise their players for an impressive response to going a goal down after Paul Scholes had put United 1-0 up and commend their determination and fortitude. When Grant Holt equalised for the Canaries, United fans may moan and hiss as if to say “I told you so” and blame the team for their apparent drop in concentration or their contentedness with a narrow lead. In truth, Norwich’s admirable resistance was more their work than United’s and it’s no surprise that they’re currently sitting eighth in the Premier League table – people seemed to have forgotten that they’ve actually played well this season and so ended the game as the better team. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a team like United – or any other for that matter – having that sort of attitude when only 1-0 up, thinking the game is over once they’re in the lead. It is also important to distinguish what is meant by ‘complacency’; keeping the ball and playing with slightly less caution when ahead isn’t being complacent. It’s defending a lead. It’s another way to register three points. It’s common sense.
In cases where a team have actually performed pretty poorly for 90 minutes, or most of the game, and it’s mostly through the fault of their own, complacency just doesn’t come into it. You cannot be content when you’ve looked absolutely bobbins. Against Ajax in the second leg of the last 32 of the Europa League, with a 1-0 and a 3-0 aggregate lead, United’s players were accused of being complacent. Not necessarily true. They were gutless and uninspiring; and surely, they can’t have allowed complacency to creep in when they didn’t look for a moment as if they were satisfied with what they had.
Ajax might be of a less quality to what we saw in the 90s, and floundering slightly in the Eredivisie, but, like United, they were a Champions League side who had finished third (and only because of dramatic goal difference swing which saw Lyon progress as they plundered seven goals). The Dutch side pulled a goal back and their chance of snatching it was unlikely, but not improbable or unthinkable. And still, United continued to waver to the point where they conceded a second. You can’t put that down to complacency, surely not? Here, Ajax should be praised for their fightback. And so here goes: well done Ajax. And well done, Norwich. You can congratulate the other team even if you suppose complacency is an issue, but it depends on what you’re congratulating them for. The result (if you decide to assume the flawed, popular thing) or the performance (if you believe they’ve played well largely through their own work)? In this case, the latter. Why? Definitely not because of the ‘c’ word. No, no. Because, let’s face it, ‘complacency’ is a load of rubbish.
> United will be wary of Grant Holt
> Holt will test renascent Jonny Evans
> Norwich’s emergence has been impressive
the experts the so-called experts, say 40 points is all a team needs to ensure survival in the Premier League and Norwich City seem on course to do so — but if and when they do reach the target teams in their position naturally look to (having only been promoted from the Championship the season before), they will certainly not consider it job done/mission accomplished/any other non-irritating cliché you wish to offer. In fact, it would take something remarkable — remarkably bad, that is — to end the campaign around that tally; they want more. And they should get more. For one, they’re only five points shy of the 40, sitting comfortably in 8th place; and there is still another 13 to play. Even Europa League football next year (which we’ve established is a good thing) is within sight, as improbable as that looked back in August. So who is to thank for their supposed over-achieving?
Grant Holt’s rise falls into the category favoured by cliché-ridden commentators; the much-travelled type who worked his way up from non-league obscurity (and, at one point, playing for a Singaporean outfit) to something better after years of hard work. That’s no criticism; in fact, it’s quite incredible. Of course it is. This, his first top-flight season in all 13 years of his career, at the age of 30. Players in a similar position are not so lucky; however, watching Holt (for many this year is the first they’ve ever seen of him), you get the feeling that he’s actually been rather unlucky to have made it so late. The hype — even if most of it is from admiring Norwich fans giving him cult status — is justified.
Because the burly Holt, strong, robust and somewhat over-zealous, is having a fine season. In the Canaries’ most recent game against Swansea, an impressive 3-2 win over Swansea City at the Liberty, the peripatetic striker helped the visitors gain all three points. Two second-half goals, a header and a fine powerful finish, fit the description. The journeyman done good. The brace made it nine in all; and calls for a first England cap grew louder. He didn’t get it, but he might still hold hope in getting one; after all, even David Nugent has a cap.
And so we move on to Sunday. Holt and Norwich host a depleted Manchester United and such has been the progress made by Lambert’s side, that a home victory is not so unlikely. Indeed, United better beware. Norwich are just below them in the form table on the basis of goal difference; having won 13 points from a possible 18. And Holt has been earmarked by Jonny Evans as the biggest threat to the Reds. The renascent Evans is likely to come up against him and it’ll be a true test of just how much Evans — and perhaps even Holt, too — has come this season. The Northern Irishman has had a fair amount of critics in his short time at the club but he’s gradually becoming the player he wasn’t expected to be after a torrid 2010/11 season; some might not like the sound of it, but, in this form, he’ll soon displace Rio Ferdinand permanently once the 33-year-old decides to quit.
(In the case of Ferdinand, he has assumed the added responsibility in the absence of Nemanja Vidic in such an encouraging manner that any thoughts of retirement will have to be cooled for another few years.)
The threat Holt poses to defenders is very real and United must be fearful. “Holt is a big strong boy,” says a wary Evans. “I think he has played in every division. He will be pretty fired up for a real battle.” Leicester City’s Richie Wellens, ex-United, praised the player and made some interesting points a few weeks back that ties in well with his potential battle with Evans: “You have to be clever as a defender not to be suckered in to what he is trying to do.” One criticism that continues to haunt Evans is that he falters under pressure, and gets bullied far too often. Wellens adds: “If you let him bully you, he will do. And when he gets a chance, he’s a good finisher.” As intelligent a player as Evans is, which remains seldom lauded, Holt’s very own variety can be a decisive factor in the game. Make no mistake, this will not be easy for Evans, or United, and so if a certain man gets on the scoresheet, we can see no end to the infectious ‘Holtmania’. In parts of East Anglia, anyway.
> United have never won the EL (or its variants) before
> Ajax are no longer a force
> Er, at least we don’t get to play Barca
United's last UEFA Cup game v Rotor ('95)
The Europa League has always been the unfancied uncle of football who longs for marriage but never gets it. The uncle who changes his name — okay, so it might not be your typical uncle — for a “fresh start”, or so he says (he used to be called the ‘UEFA Cup’, for those unsure of where I’m going with this). And despite always being second-best to the other, more superior of uncles, the Champions League, he did still have his glory days, back when curtained hair and Baja jackets were socially accepted. But the Europa League is making a comeback. Sort of.
When I met up with him, what immediately struck me was just how confident he was; considerably less shifty to when I last saw him. I asked him a simple question. Why the smile? “Because of Manchester United,” he said, “and that other team.” He acknowledges that it’ll be shortlived but he’s happy. At the end of our chat, he refuses my handshake and instead embraces me with the hug of a man who can barely contain his excitement (and probably because he’s still single). The Europa League has rediscovered his/its (I’m confused now) groove.
— — —
As it stands, the reasons why the Europa League is better than the Champions are: there really isn’t one. Except, that Manchester United are playing in it. And that counts for some. In an ideal situation, United would want to be nowhere near it. Certainly, in terms of the team’s quality, they’re good enough to be playing in Europe’s premier competition despite some of the things being said about the current side — mostly justified — that they simply aren’t the force they were a few years ago. But they squandered that chance in the group stages and this is all that they deserve because of it. So they might as well embrace it.
“I’m actually really looking forward to playing in the Europa League,” says Wayne Rooney, threatening to write the rest of the article. And why not? The League (can we call it that?) has a fresh smell about it the way all new things do. The teams, for one, are different but it’s still highly competitive. And it’s a trophy the club have yet to win. It’s not the one they wanted in September, but it’ll have to do. Rooney’s a lot more positive: “It’s a new challenge for all of us and we want to win it. There’s no point being in a competition if you’re not going to try to win it. It would be great to be the first United team to win the trophy and that’s our aim.”
Of course, fans of others have indulged in non-stop ribbing. “Thursday night, Channel Five!” they say, and they’ve got a point. It’s on Thursday and it’s on Channel Five. Yep. And it hurts a little. But United have been knocked out of three different competitions so far and, realistically, could finish trophyless by the end of the season; as Mickey Mouse as it may seem, and as unfortunate it is that Five have rights to the Disney-sponsored competition, there’s still silverware at the end of it. Liverpool won it back in 2001 and made it out to be part of a ‘treble'; and so we might as well call it a cup too if things go awry elsewhere and when we win this one (that is, if City win the actual Premier League). Otherwise, what would we be without a trophy? Arsenal? No way, man. No way.
Indeed, why not look forward to it when your last 32 opponents are none other than Ajax? The teams haven’t met each other in who knows how long (who knows?), and while the popularity of the competition waters down the tie a little, it is still a fairly exciting fixture. It’s one for the footballing purists and those who value their history. Just one thing: times are not good for Ajax. Despite having won one more European Cup than United, it is clear that Ajax would happily trade their current position with United’s. Manager Frank de Boer concedes as much: “The financial difference with the big clubs from England, Italy… has become so big that we can no longer compete with these teams. Ajax have become an academy for those clubs. What we see these days is that players leave Ajax in their early twenties for a bigger salary elsewhere.”
Ajax are currently floundering in sixth place in the Eredivisie. They’re without a board and in the midst of a power struggle; and they’ve won just one game in 2012. United, on the other hand, aren’t playing too badly and rightfully go in as favourites. Still, that was the case for when the Reds took on FC Basel — let’s not remind ourselves of the outcome of that one. But United’s uncertainties is a good thing, in a way — it certainly makes for a good one. The Europa League as a competition might not exactly excite you, but a game between two of Europe’s proudest establishments will. Also, who doesn’t dearly love a trophy? It’s all promised here.
And the best thing about the now-happy Europa League? There’s no prospect of facing Barcelona. Kidding. Not.
All characters and events in this piece – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional. Obviously.
“Nelson Terry here for Sir Alex Ferguson.” I said into the intercom outside Carrington training ground. A big, burly man comes out of the security hut. He walks with an air of self-importance, the sort of fellow who takes his job seriously. When he gets to the car he inspects my credentials and gives me a red coloured pass.
“Don’t lose it. You won’t be able to leave without it,” he growls.
As I drive into the main reception area I think of my editor’s parting words of encouragement: “Don’t be scared, he’s an old softie really.” Sir Alex, a softie? I chuckle and take a deep breath – I’m about to interview Sir Alex Ferguson in my first proper field assignment!
I walk over to the reception desk to make my presence known. “Nelson.” I clear my throat. “Nelson Terry here for Sir Alex,” the last line is supposed to be delivered confidently but my vocal chords go several octaves higher than planned, reaching decibel levels last heard during puberty. Why am I so nervous? I’d prepared for this interview thoroughly by kidnapping my younger siblings during supper and cross examining them about their meal. It’s just a routine interview Nelson, I tell myself, the sort of thing you’ll be doing prior to any match day.
“He’s out on the pitch, you can go to him if you like,” the receptionist’s voice interrupts my pep talk.
On my way to the training pitch, I can feel the excitement building within me. This is it. A football whistles past my head and I look up to see Anderson raise an apologetic hand whilst the rest of the squad collapse in a fit of laughter. Sir Alex gives the Brazilian a ticking off before beckoning for me to join him in his office.
“I’ve got a nice brew waiting for us up there,” he says, rubbing his hands.
As we make our way to his office I mentally run through the questions. My editor wants his thoughts on the team’s upcoming Europa League campaign plus the title fight and any potential summer transfers. That shouldn’t be too hard.
“Through here son,” he opens the door and walks over to his desk. Two cups and a teapot are laid out for us alongside a pack of biscuits with foreign markings on them.
“New signing, eh?” I comment, pointing to the biscuits. Sir Alex stops reading the papers on his desk and raises his eyebrow at me.
“Take a seat, let’s get this interview done shall we?”
I clear my throat and awkwardly shuffle towards the chair.
“You’re new. I haven’t seen you before,” Sir Alex remarks as he takes his seat and watches me fumble with my bag. “They usually send that bloke with the beard.”
“Oh, Andrew, he’s left. I’m the new reporter, nice to meet you.” I hastily remove my hand from my bag and offer it to Sir Alex. He gives me a funny look and my arm is left dangling in oblivion for what seems an age. Then I look down at my hand. Somehow, my cheese and tomato sandwich has leapt from by bag and gatecrashed my handshake.
“Sorry, er, erm.” My tongue wrestles with my apology. “Er I…sorry about that.” I smile weakly and return my wild sandwich to its cage. I attempt another handshake but halfway through I think better of it. This leaves my arm stuck again in midair but this time it does this twitching thing that gives the impression it was attached to my body by force.
Sir Alex coughs, reminding me of his presence. “Take it easy son. No need to be nervous.”
“Okay, right.” I set my dictaphone on the table and open my notepad.
Our interview, surprisingly, goes well. We discuss the team’s injury problems and the Premiership. I even manage to stimulate the corners of his mouth into something resembling a smile with a few of my jokes but his demeanour changes when we start talking about Europe.
“So how do you fancy your chances in Europe?” I ask.
“Well, quietly confident I’d say. It’s a tough competition and we’re up against some of the best teams in the world but who knows, we could make it three finals in four years!” He coughs and scratches his neck.
Three finals? I stop writing and look at him. Have I missed something?
“Sir Alex,” I say, flipping through my notes, “you haven’t been in any of the previous finals of the Europa League.”
“What do you mean lad? I’m talking about the Champions League,” he replies.
“Yes, but you were knocked out by Basel.” Now I’m confused. And then I realise…
“Is this why you didn’t enter a squad into the Europa League?”
“What?” He snaps.
“Well, there have been rumours that Manchester United didn’t enter a team into the Europa League.” I cough nervously and scan the room quickly for exit routes. “Would you care to comment?”
“No, I bloody well will not!” he splutters. “How dare you?! Get out! Get out now!!” He jumps up. “This is a Champions League club!” The last line is delivered with venom so potent my bowels start line dancing.
I quickly gather my stuff and rush out of the room, narrowly avoiding a collision with the file cabinet. As I stand panting outside the door I realise I left my dictaphone on the desk. After a quick prayer I summon enough courage to knock on the door.
“What!” Sir Alex bellows.
I turn the handle slowly and poke my head through the door. “I seem to have for-” my sentence is cut short by an object whistling past my ear and hitting the wall.
“Ouch!” Well at least I think it was the wall. I close the door and turn round to see Michael Owen on the floor clutching his knee.
“Michael! Are you okay?” I run over to him and pick up my dictaphone. It’s fine.
Two coaches coming up the stairs spot Michael and rush to his aide. They look at me suspiciously before probing and prodding his knee. Michael squeals in pain and Sir Alex’s door flings wide open. He looks at Michael, then at me, then at Michael, then at me again. His eyes narrow. I offer a clumsy apology and make a quick exit down the stairs.
Andrew can have his job back.
Manchester United 2-2 Rotor Volgograd (Agg: 2-2 – RV win on away goals)
It probably made sense that goalkeeper-turned-goalscorer Peter Schmeichel found the net in this one; simply put, everything about this game felt out of place. Back then, in 1995, there was no shame in being in the UEFA Cup — you’d qualify by finishing runners-up in the League. However, nothing about the two-legged tie (and, in particular, the second leg which we’ll focus on) against Russian outfit Rotor Volgograd screamed ‘Manchester United’ — obdurate one minute, careless the next and just utterly random throughout.
The first leg would take place in the city, where, during the Second World War, one of the most brutal, bloodiest and bitterest of conflicts of the 20th century was fought. Of course, this was just a football game and there was no longer a such place as Stalingrad — now, Volgograd — but the frequent and hyperbolic use of military imagery in the game by observers and commentators over time at least justifies some of the ignorance that will follow.
For a 0-0, this was quite a savoury battle. United played rather well, too; a largely-impressive first half and a mixed second saw good opportunities for Lee Sharpe, David Beckham and, in particular, Ryan Giggs. The Welshman was still fairly young and it showed; four separate chances came – and went. Giggs’ best fell in the 46th minute where he was unable to convert a well-flighted Beckham cross, only able to head it above Rotor ‘keeper Andrei Samorukov and the crossbar. The hosts had their share, too. Guy Hodgson in The Independent the following day hailed the immediate ‘Russian riposte’ which saw the prolific Oleg Veretennikov squander a brace of openings in the space of five minutes before the hour mark. But Rotor could not force a goal either against a resilient Manchester United. A worrying Roy Keane injury aside, this was, as Ferguson put it after the game, “a good result for us.” The Indy note “a performance built on discipline and concentration.”
“We played well, particularly in the first half,” Ferguson added post-match. The obdurate United. “It was only when we started to give the ball away in the second half that we started to have problems.” And the careless United. We didn’t see too much of it in Russia, but the utterly random one would flourish 14 days later, at Old Trafford.
It would have been foolish to underestimate United’s opposition ahead of the return leg; indeed, the 90s were a successful period for Rotor despite never winning the new Russian Top Division. Eric Cantona was unavailable, too, and Fergie’s Fledglings were still, well, fledglings. “They have grown up fast,” said Richard Keys in the Sky Sports studio, before the game. “But fast enough to take on a night like this at Old Trafford, in Europe?” Mark Hughes, sitting alongside fellow ex-Manchester United pundit Kevin Moran, allowed himself a brief pause before replying: “Yeah, I think so .. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it tonight.” But, at the highest level, enjoying a football game means you have to win, quite simply. And did they?
“We lost the game in the first 20 minutes,” conceded Alex Ferguson afterwards. “You go 2-0 down and you have a mountain to climb in Europe. They were bad goals to lose because the last thing we said before the match was that a clean sheet would win it for us. We knew we would make enough chances.” Even with midfielder Alex Shmarko off the pitch, Rotor (in an unorthodox 3-2-3-2) stunned the 29,724* present at Old Trafford with the all-important early goal — made all the more significant as they were the away side. United’s defence looked completely bewildered as Vladimir Nidergaus and Alex Zernov traded a brief one-two before the former eased the ball into the empty net. Just before releasing Zernov with an exquisitely-timed through pass, Nidergaus completely dumbfounded Andrei Kanchelskis with a clever shimmy.
These players were no pushovers but, as soon as United realised that, it was all over. Steve Bruce, who should have done better with the first, was at fault again. He lost possession to Veretennikov, who beat Peter Schmeichel with a low shot that flicked off the post. It was 2-0. United needed three goals — and duly brought on Paul Scholes for young right back John O’Kane just 25 minutes in. And from then, United went berserk. Nicky Butt saw an effort cleared off the line and Andy Cole hit the post. Better was to come after the half time interval. Without doubt, it was the Scholes substitution which invigorated the home side. And who else would score the goal that would breathe life into their fightback?
Indeed, it was Scholes. He was there to knock in the rebound after a Cole effort was parried in his path. United were desperate to retrieve the ball after it had gone in and rushed to get the game restarted. What followed was an assault on Samorukov’s goal. There were 18 shots on target in all; most of which came after the goal. A diving Bruce header hit the bar and a penalty appeal was turned away. “The referee ruled the offence was on the edge of the area; the TV replay showed it was a yard inside,” wrote Hodgson. Nothing was going United’s way — it so usually does, doesn’t it? And when they did finally get a second, it was too late and not enough. So who scored the consolation? Scholes? Cole? Keane? No, of course not, rhetorical question man. It was Peter Schmeichel, of all people. The Dane, starved of second half action, leapt heroically from a Giggs corner and powerfully nodded in. It was all in vain, however.
And that rounded off what was a pretty astonishing, but largely unhappy, 90 minutes. This first round exit was United’s last UEFA Cup game to date. In all honesty, who even cares in retrospect? The success that followed renders this insignificant.
*Old Trafford was a 44,000 seater, but the attendance that night was only 29,724 due to the reconstruction of the North Stand.
It appeared to us an act of desperation – the very last resort, Plan B (or, more appropriately, Plan Z), or any well-worn cliché – and it, well, was. For Manchester United, bringing back Paul Scholes seemed a step back. Truth is, it’s gone better than we’d envisaged back then, ever since it was revealed ahead of the FA Cup 3rd round tie against Manchester City back in January. Of course, it’d be foolish to go all hyperbolic on Scholes’ impact on return (too late?) as he’s only played a small amount of games so far; not forgetting that we still have another three months to endure of this rather unsightly season. Remember, it is still very possible that things can go awry towards the climax if age were to indeed catch up with him – again; much like his final, but not-actually-final season, then.
But, for a team supposedly lacking depth in central midfield – they are – and a team lacking an individual who can dictate play – they are – his reintroduction was fairly understandable. United certainly needed it. Sure, they could have actually signed someone, but that would go against the latest popular trend of not spending any money at all. And it’s good to be cool and in line with the trends, kids.
It should be noted that, last season, Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Scholes to stay on for another year, obviously confident in his ability. And he’s shown exactly why Ferguson felt that way; since his Second Coming, he has brought both control and calm to a team not exactly lacking it in particular, but instead lacking a real identity where other factors naturally come along with it. Where they started the season with a dynamic duo aiming for fluidity with Anderson and Tom Cleverley, United have now opted for possession football and it suits – unsurprisingly – Scholes and his renascent midfield partner Michael Carrick well; the latter, it must be said, enjoying a fine spell in the team which has seen him not miss a minute of League football since some time in November. In between these two partnerships, there has been a degree of uncertainty in both selection and style where, not that they played badly – that’s far from the point, they have constantly tinkered and trialled, looking for the perfect fit. It nearly happened with Phil Jones and Carrick, before the former picked up an injury.
Scholes’ few performances have come as a surprise to many. He looked rusty in his first game back against City but, since then, has expressed himself in a confident manner; looking every inch as composed and collected as he was in late 2010, where it is thought he had his very last purple patch in the Manchester United side before being reduced to cameo bench roles thereafter. So, considering last season’s dip in form, was it a regressive move? “How can it be regressive?” a bemused Sir Alex said last month when asked about the move. “He’s not going to play every game but in terms of composure and passing ability, is there a better player going around? Definitely not.” And the Scot is right – yet, as he pointed out, he won’t be able to play every game like a Michael Carrick would or an, er … (there are no other fit central midfielders are there?!). Which is a shame. Because while it’s clear he’s not as good as he once was, he possesses some things that others don’t.
Having not started the previous week against Chelsea in that fascinating 3-3 draw, he’s in the reckoning for a start on Saturday, against Liverpool at Old Trafford. When these two met a fortnight ago, United were far the better team – but lost. Which is why Wayne Rooney, absent in that one, will be pivotal here. Then they had Ryan Giggs behind the striker, but Rooney is arguably more comfortable in the position he’s given, whereas Giggs – creative as he is – tends to get lost in the crowd. Rooney acts almost as an attacking midfielder and links play well, and United – though some don’t know it – have relied heavily on his movement in recent years. With Scholes and Carrick for company, it’s the perfect trio which allows United to play with a distinguishable style.
And so as desperate as it looked, Scholes’ return hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing for the club. Heck, it’s gone pretty smoothly so far. And it’s bound to continue. If he keeps this up, then it’ll be difficult to be averse to another year of Paul Scholes. And, let’s be honest here, we won’t mind that one bit.