Silvio Dante: This attitude of yours, it’s a lot of what’s made you an effective leader. But we’ve all got flaws. Even you. Seven deadly sins and yours is … pride.
Tony Soprano: All due respect, you got no f-ckin’ idea what it’s like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other f-ckin’ thing.
– All Due Respect 5:12
If the haughty Sir Alex Ferguson had a Confession Bear, he would likely concede to it that he made a mistake in starting Ryan Giggs on Saturday evening — indeed, his immediate substitution at half-time almost confirms this. And if one decision truly does affect everything else, then it is worth exploring the impact of selecting the Welshman for a second game running. For starters, Giggs’ worth is diminishing — and there is little doubt that his establishing as a club great in the years gone by has almost guaranteed that he would start games in the future.
There are, however, two objections that could be made at this point as to explain why Giggs featured: 1) he has a lot of experience, and 2) United were short of options down the left. The first is true, but ultimately, experience is merely just experience if not coupled with something else (Giggs was largely ineffective, and one writer noted that he had only completed five passes). And, experience? United had plenty of it, anyway; among the starters were Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie, their combined age having as many digits as pi. The latter point is true in the sense that Giggs was the only conventional left-winger in the absence of Ashley Young, and with Nani on the right, but football has moved on from the two lines of four that it almost doesn’t matter. Against Newcastle in the League Cup, though against admittedly weakened opposition, individuals appeared liberated, as if the structures of the Premier League were somehow culpable for any shortcomings; there, Wayne Rooney popped up on the left, as did Tom Cleverley, as did Anderson, as did Danny Welbeck. All four were benched for Spurs.
The point isn’t so much to criticise Giggs and blame him for defeat, but an attempt to identify where it went wrong. Rio Ferdinand, after a Man of the Match performance at Anfield, could be said to be United’s worst player here after a dismal first half; but to stop there is to refuse to look deeper. You can blame Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, but instead you can dismiss it as a one-off. The real problem is not necessarily the knowledge that the two first half goals could have been prevented, but the reason why United could not respond. Why they could barely keep the ball. Why Spurs kept finding gaps in the midfield. Why the only notable thing that happened in the Spurs box during the first 45 was a penalty appeal. Why this all changed once a substitution was made.
The problem with being expressive about selection, however, is that it is mainly done with the luxury of hindsight; people complain about a ‘clear’ penalty not being given after they’ve seen a replay. They are correct because it’s too easy to be correct. It is why (excuse the switch to first-person) I am hesitant to do so; in fact, I admire those who let their feelings known even before there’s a chance they could be proved wrong. But Giggs against Spurs was not going to work — it was almost inevitable after a difficult 90 minutes against Liverpool a week earlier — and then we found out as much when United fell two goals behind before the interval.
Perhaps if Giggs had stayed on, with the game somehow not beyond United, and scored the equaliser, there would be an altogether different feeling. He would not be past it, rather rolling back the years but then that would mean we’re doing and thinking about football all wrong. It’s a bit like what we had with Wayne Rooney last season; why care that he’s not playing as well as he should be when he’s scoring goals? You don’t have to care. But accepting that playing Giggs was the wrong decision is not some sort of betrayal; and it is wrong to think being quiet or sitting on blind faith is the least you could do for a player that inspired so much before, and still does, albeit in a lesser role. He will still be important, you’d think; a timely cameo, perhaps, a late goal, another record broken. But it is best to stop expecting.
Giggs’ lack of pace meant his presence in a midfield already consisting of Carrick and Scholes would compare unfavourably against Tottenham’s ultra-energetic side (featuring the in-form Defoe, Bale, Dembele, Sandro among others) struggling where benched alternatives might not. The selection was wrong. This point was reinforced when Rooney came on and gave United wings; Nani was allowed to flex, finally (and score because of it), Kagawa would remember what a football felt like and all this, bringing Rooney on, a decision that went some way in affecting every facet of every other f-ckin’ thing, allowed Carrick and Scholes and Scholes and Scholes to play. Van Persie, too, would show signs that he would be a willing partner to Rooney.
United had dramatically improved in the second half, but lost because they never turned up for the first.
(Edit: This was reaction to the 3-2 defeat to Spurs at Old Trafford which isn’t so obvious at first glance. In fact, writing this little message right here is embarrassing. Oh well.)
It was no more than a year after Manchester United’s visit to Hell, where fans were invited to buy carpets just so they had something to take home with them, that they re-visited the inferno seeking vengeance — but arrived back in Manchester with just a point in a game that ended scoreless. United had found Galatasaray to be a stubborn and worthy match; up to this point, December 7 1994, their last three meetings read: draw, draw, draw. What made this game — the focus of this piece, and the one mentioned earlier that year — different from the infamous encounters of a year ago against the Turkish side was that this was just a group game, with not away goals to worry about, rather the might of stronger teams that would shape fate elsewhere.
To progress, Manchester United had to defeat Galatasaray in the sixth and final round of the group stage; and hope for an already-safe IFK Göteborg to beat Barcelona away from home.
That wasn’t going to happen.
And Alex Ferguson thought as much. Partly because of trademark tinkering and largely with several players missing, the Scot would field an eleven and a bench full of players who practically still had fontanelles. “The restrictions on foreign players are unfair but we can’t hide behind that,” Eric Cantona would say post-match. “We have to develop or buy more English players but we have a good school of young players and they may be the answer.” Cantona was on to something. While this game could simply be dismissed as irrelevant as it did not lead to anything as noted by history, it was significant in that it gave Ferguson the opportunity to trial the best crop of young players in the world — unbeknown to all at the time — against a strong opposition, however beleaguered and exhausted they were after a dismal campaign. They put four past their bogey side. Welcome to Heaven.
The Reds did have reason to expect something favourable over at Camp Nou; IFK were Group A’s best side, in terms of performances isolated to that one group, and had with them a dangerous 20-year-old named Jesper Blomqvist; while the Spaniards in Barcelona’s midfield had to speak to each other — ‘la humiliación,’ they’d probably say — as they could not yet communicate through telepathy, but even still, only in games like these does one team want it more than the other (it ended a goal apiece). United were knocked out of Europe too soon — again — and how they would respond to this failure was unclear; but the young players offered a sort of reassurance as to say that the best solution is not in the transfer window, but closer to home.
Though not everyone was convinced.
As with many youngsters in football, giving them a chance puts you at risk of being deceived. Rob Hughes mentioned this in his column a day later in The Times: “Where do they go from here? Down the years, careers of international schoolboys have been still-born at Old Trafford,” Hughes wrote. “There have been great expectations, a brief flurry in the red shirt, a disappearance and then a traumatic slide down the scale to lesser clubs.” That much was true for Simon Davies, scorer of the night’s first, and impressive throughout. But Davies would go on to make just a handful of first team appearances before barely-notable spells at lower-level sides, ranging from Macclesfield Town to Bangor City to Airbus UK.
If Davies’ performance was impressive, Beckham’s was extraordinary, considering all things. ITV’s Brian Moore opined that “young Beckham has had a superb game on the right of United’s midfield.” Indeed, this sort of praise, to call it ‘superb’, is typically reserved for the untried or the goalscorer. Beckham was both. He would be a constant presence on this, like Davies, his senior début, whether on the flanks or in the box and there were already signs of an understanding, especially with a floppy-haired Gary Neville, a partnership that would gradually become one of the finest of its kind in later years.
United would have four 19-year-olds in Beckham, Neville, Davies and Nicky Butt, who looked as promising as the rest, with a further four players on the bench no older than twenty-two, including Paul Scholes. Neville and Butt were already growing as United players; the former was slowly establishing himself at right-back while Butt, Rob Hughes describes, was “a player of tempestuous attitude, [and] has shown throughout the European campaign that he can live with the pressure.” Ryan Giggs was missing from the action but was by now a first-team player, something for the others to try to emulate.
Davies would open the scoring with a left-footed, angled finish after just two minutes, and then Beckham doubled the lead with a low, drilled shot from outside the area. Moore exclaimed: “First Davies the youngster, second Beckham the youngster … well, the young boys are doing Alex Ferguson proud!” Goals are just goals for players that are expected to carry out other duties, but it is a wonderful method of attention seeking. Beckham would then set up the third; flicking a header from a Cantona cross that Roy Keane, after easing past two defenders, finished smartly. Beckham threatened to score again, Butt, too, but it was Bülent Korkmaz, definitely not an academy graduate of United’s, who added a fourth with an own goal.
Alex Ferguson was full of praise for his young players after the game. “That was the way to do it, just go out and enjoy themselves. They were fantastic and I’m pleased for them.” Simon Davies, who could not have expected his career to go down such a different route to his colleagues, pleaded with the manager to retain faith in youth.
“We hope we’re solving the problem for him,” said Davies. “We were all thrown in the deep end against Galatasaray and we’re all very pleased with ourselves. We didn’t let him down and hopefully we will all get stronger and bigger as the years go on. We’re almost a team in ourselves. We won the Youth Cup together, now we’ve come up through the reserves and won that League together. There’s a great sense of camaraderie.”
Going back to Hughes’ piece, he ended by saying: “We have enjoyed a glimpse of United’s future. It is full of promise of youth, but when will we see it reach manhood?” That question was answered a year later. Alan Hansen nor could anyone believe it, but Manchester United had won something with kids. With the power of hindsight, the club and its fans could point to a particular European night, among others, as the starting point for the new success that would continue through the ’90s and beyond.
With thanks to Tr16ia for the newspaper clippings
The Match of the Day commentator Jonathan Pearce, perhaps guilty of not getting close enough to Sir Killalot during his Robot Wars days, watched Robin van Persie’s failed penalty kick in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Southampton and exclaimed: “he went for the Pirlo!”. (Ignoring his buffoonery for a moment …) Udinese midfielder Maicosuel did something similar — and failed — in a Champions League qualifier last week and that, like Van Persie’s, was perhaps a direct consequence of Andrea Pirlo’s successful attempt at the European Championships in June. The man responsible for the chipped penalty, Antonin Panenka, says that “several times I’ve seen a player take a penalty like that on television, and every commentator in every country never fails to describe it as a Panenka penalty, which is naturally very gratifying.” With the two recent attempts of it, you get the feeling that he might be changing his mind. To miss a penalty is excusable, but to try something audacious — and not succeed at it — whilst your team is losing is not.
Then again, there is perhaps never a right time for such a thing; Andrea Pirlo could have well fluffed his Panenka attempt and Italy could have then been knocked out of the quarters, even to England. What made Van Persie’s attempt so disappointing was that the penalty was a route back into a game that had Southampton’s name scribbled all over it. And he didn’t convert.
Still, nice hat-trick.
Southampton were unlucky and arguably deserved the three points more than their visitors; Adam Lallana was always busy and lead the team well, Jason Puncheon was a constant threat down the flanks before being subbed off, and Morgan Schneiderlin bulldozed his way through an, at times, vacant midfield that would probably alarm the people at CERN. In contrast, United’s key men had an off-day. Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick under-performed while the latter was atypically sloppy in possession, and Shinji Kagawa found that his Hover Boots were replaced by the Iron Boots.
But it would be lazy to say that Southampton had defended well; United would suddenly find a worrying amount of space in the opposition box when Paul Scholes had come on and eventually, the two late goals would come from free headers. Still, United were no better. They would be matched or even outnumbered by the Saints as they attacked. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both looked rusty (Evans is a good option off the bench) and didn’t get the assistance they required from either full-back nor the midfield; that was, until substitutions were made.
United can’t seem to shake off their reliance on 37-year-old Scholes. United looked organised in midfield and, as a result, they attacked much better. “When Paul Scholes came on, everything started ticking,” Van Persie would say after the game. Sir Alex was also impressed: “Paul Scholes came on and brought composure, a consistency of passing and made the difference. Hernandez came on and made a difference also. He started stretching them and running in between them.”
Above all, it was the presence of Van Persie that did well in masking any deficiencies the team has. United need the Dutchman more than they had initially thought, especially in the absence of Wayne Rooney, and it appears he thrives in this sort of environment. Last season he helped propel (an overachieving?) Arsenal to a respectable third place and he could well be the difference in deciding first and second this year. There are issues that need addressing but good strikers, across a wide-range of teams have, for a long time, been able to make up for others, their goals as an adequate smokescreen; Rooney did exactly that last season. United fans only have to look at his set of goals on Sunday to believe this; the first, an angled strike with his left-foot, the second a poacher’s goal, and the third a header that had been executed perfectly (it looked immensely difficult to pull off; not only did he get his head on a Nani corner — an achievement in itself — but ran into a good position and used the pace of the ball to guide it in). Bet Pirlo can’t do that (“he probably can” – smart-arses).
Amusingly, Van Persie was successful with the Panenka before. “There are moments that transcend a match,” wrote The Sun’s Antony Kastrinakis in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Wolves last season. “A result. A season. That was one of them.” Er, guess so.