Sir Alex Ferguson will have to sculpt a second Manchester United for Europe
When Manchester United lost to Barcelona 3-1 in the Champions League Final last year, Sir Alex Ferguson talked of their dominance as being cyclical. On the other hand, Manchester United are going through a rebuilding period in Europe and he is hoping that defeat to Athletic Bilboa last night, 2-1, can be put down to a transitional year. Asked whether United’s travails in Europe this season should just be put down to “a bad year”, Ferguson replied: “I hope it is [that].” He went on to explain further his side’s shortcomings this season: “I think that there is a root [cause] in terms of some of the goals we have lost in these tournaments, they have been pretty poor, so it’s something we need to analyse. It has been a disappointing year.”
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson indicates at the wiser causes for English sides’ struggles in European competition this season. Firstly, the form of Premier League sides has been faltering since 2009, incidentally the year which many of the top teams went on a transitional phase. In Manchester United’s case, they lost both Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez in that year while Chelsea sacked Felipe Scolari and hired Carlo Ancelotti leading what was widely felt as a declining squad. Liverpool had a tumultuous year after losing Xabi Alonso in the summer and later on sacking Rafael Benitez and Arsenal have eternally had to rebuild. Certain financial changes made it even harder for some of England’s top clubs to compete for talent while Manchester City, the one exception, only embarked in their début year in the Champions League this season. On the other hand, Real Madrid restarted their Galactico project, Bayern Munich were starting to bear the fruit of the organisational superiority of their league and Barcelona were at the start of something special after winning the European Cup.
But to examine a cause far closer to the present, the top Premier League sides are losing their discipline and ability to compete in Europe, as demonstrated by this season’s high-scoring matches. Sir Alex Ferguson points at this when he blames the type of goals Manchester United have conceded. Indeed, while they corrected their initially susceptibility in the league to concede chances, they haven’t done so in Europe and were punished on more than one occasion. Most damningly perhaps, was the home game against Basel in which their deep back-line always gave the Swiss side a chance to come back. And they did, eventually drawing 3-3.
Over the two legs over against Athletic Bilbao, United have conceded 37 shots (letting in 5 goals) and have only replied with 12 of their own. What this mostly indicates at is a lack of control, something which they failed to achieve for any sustained period either at San Mames or at Old Trafford. The return of Paul Scholes only serves to highlight their weakness in that area. Incidentally, he didn’t feature in any of those games as Sir Alex sought to fight Athletic’s energy with their own. That led to a battle of man-marking in the midfield and an end-to-end games at times, with Park Ji-Sung drafted in alongside Michael Carrick in the second-leg with, curiously, Tom Cleverly, wide right. But Athletic Bilboa once again prevailed, outclassing United with their tempo, the accuracy of their passes and their desire to make sure each area of the pitch, they outnumbered Manchester United – it’s Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy.
After being defeated by a unique style at Old Trafford, it was expected Sir Alex Ferguson had prepared some plans; indeed, it would be naive if he didn’t. That meant United tried to mark at goal-kicks, trying to stop Athletic finding any rhythm and to supply their front men. For periods it worked but then, Fernando Amorebieta found some space, played a fantastic long-ball to Fernando Llorente (Torres – oh the irony) to finish off superbly. Ferguson called it a “soft goal” due to the nature of it familiar to the English game, but that would be doing disservice to Athletic who have practised diagonals similar to this in training. Nevertheless, Lllorente had a lot to do and his volley was expertly struck – almost guided in, such was the technique and made even harder for David de Gea in goal as he was given no time to settle his feet. When Wayne Rooney did pull one back after Oscar de Marcos put the game beyond doubt, Ferguson had given up the chase and replaced his key players. Regardless, Paul Pogba put in a promising shift while Danny Welbeck showed drive that was previously missing. For Manchester United, though, they have the familiarity of the league now left to concentrate on. With an easy run-in, it might not be typical “squeaky-bum time” for Sir Alex Ferguson but the real one may start in the summer where he will have to sculpt a better Manchester United for Europe.