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.
The Germans are renown for being pretty darn good at everything. And we all know they are. One of the many things on their “the things we’re better than you at” list, just below “penalties”, is “producing world-class goalkeepers“. You’ve just got to look at past players such as Oliver Kahn, Andreas Kopke or Sepp Maier to justify this point. Now, Germany is welcoming the next generation of shot-stoppers — along with Manuel Neuer and Rene Adler, they have the likes of Marc-Andre ter Stegen of Mönchengladbach and Freiburg’s Oliver Baumann. And, in the mix, a certain Ron-Robert Zieler. As of Saturday, the former Manchester United-man is an international goalkeeper.
What will almost certainly take away from what ought to be a special moment for any player in his position — considering the impact his predecessors had on the game — is that he struggled to make the sort of impression he would have wished; or rather he wasn’t able to. In the end, he conceded three goals (in a 3-3 draw with Ukraine) and — regardless of how they came — in an increasingly competitive team, there may not be many other chances. Certainly, though, there is plenty of reason to suggest that this is just the start for him.
When you put things into context, his rise to the top is just remarkable. Only 18 months ago, he was out-of-favour at United, playing second fiddle to Ben Amos. This was just the Reserves. And so you would be forgiven for thinking United didn’t see a future in him. But this was the man who Sir Alex once described as “excellent” and were “fortunate” to have him yet, at the very same, he was also talking about Amos. And that’s the important part of his story; it was a case of choice, keeping one and letting the other go. Zieler might well have still been a United player had he not suffered an arm break in a Reserve game against Newcastle United. With Zieler absent, Amos could make the most of the opportunity and with no sign of a way back in, Zieler had left the club.
Presently, there are no such problems for Zieler. His call-up to the national side is made all the more remarkable for the fact that he had only made his club debut earlier this year; and hasn’t looked back. “Zieler was pretty much thrown into the deep end last season at Hannover by coach Mirko Slomka,” says Quazi Zulquar of Bundesliga Fanatic. “For a young keeper, he did extremely well and his call-up to the national team was no surprise at all.” Zieler was promoted ahead of Florian Fromlowitz, another young ‘keeper, and harsh as it might seem, Zulquar’s colleague, Niklas Wildhagen, points out that Slomka also did the same with “a certain Manuel Neuer when he was coach at Schalke, where he elevated him ahead of Frank Rost.” Zieler’s immediate impact was enough justification to make him first choice, and meant Fromlowitz looked elsewhere for game-time.
However, progression has stalled of late for the ex-United player. “Zieler’s form has tapered off a bit this season,” says Zulquar. “He has looked a little bit shaky over the last month, the match against Bayern Munich an exception, so much so that a certain segment believed that him being capped against Ukraine was undeserved.” And although Wildhagen agrees with his point, he says that “there isn’t any danger of him losing his spot on the team.” Both of them firmly believe that Ron-Robert Zieler has a bright future ahead of him. “Generally he has been sparkling for Hannover and they really have made some giant strides with him in the team. I think he is a genuine long term candidate for the national team,” adds Zulquar. Opta Sports note that Zieler has the third best shots-to-saves ratio in Bundesliga with 78% since joining.
So what does the future hold? “I think he will travel with Germany to the Euros as the third goalkeeper,” predicts Zulquar. “He won’t grab the gloves away from Neuer in the near future, though. As far as club football goes, Hannover, I feel, is just a stepping stone in his career.” His colleague agrees. “If he keeps at it, I won’t be surprised if Hannover cash in on him in the near future, and sell him for a price between 10 and 15 million euros,” says Wildhagen. And, just like all of us, Wildhagen seems a man truly immersed by transfer gossip: “a return to Old Trafford might be a possibility in the future!”
Regarding Manchester United and their goalkeepers, it’s a similar story to Germany. There is plenty of competition right now; David de Gea has made a competent start to life at Old Trafford so far, whilst Anders Lindegaard looks too good to be second choice. Amos, too, mustn’t be discounted. And so it’s unlikely that Zieler would ever return to the club but, nevertheless, his experience as a Manchester United player is one he looks back on fondly and cites former stopper Edwin van der Sar as an important figure in his career. When asked what he learned at his former club, he replied (this is a direct translation, so along the lines of…): “A lot. Everything that happens around such a huge club. Tactical teamwork with world stars like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney or in my case, of course, Edwin Van der Sar. I learned a lot by watching him.” It figures.
People talk to me about Barcelona’s current team as the greatest ever. I even hear stories about the Ajax side that had Johan Cruyff. The AC Milan side with the Dutch trio of Riijkaart, Van Basten and Gullit is always mentioned as well. Hell, even United’s 1999 treble team has been dubbed as one of the best. But there was a team that Sir Alex Ferguson built that only played together for the best part of 3 years between 1992 and 1995, with their peak coming during the 1993-1994 season, and that, in my opinion, is not only Fergie’s greatest starting 11, but one of the greatest teams to ever play the game.
Following United’s first title win in 26 years at the end of the 1992-93 season, Ferguson knew he had to bolster up his squad a little bit, especially at the centre of the park where “Captain Marvel” Bryan Robson was on his last legs. In came a then record signing from Nottingham Forest; a skinny Irishman with guts and determination who would become the embodiment of Ferguson’s persona on the field for years to come. Little did we know it at the time, a legend had arrived – Roy Keane.
There was something different about the whole 1993-1994 season. It was the second season of the Premier league era. Players now had fixed numbers and their names at the back of their shirts. Sky’s coverage of games increased and went a little bit more global. There were some new foreign and exotic names in the Premier League. Stadia were beginning to get re-build and expanded if possible. There were more, if not mainly, seated stadiums. It just felt like the Premier League was onto something. Something bigger. Something more global; and at the top of this Premier League machine was a football team that was assembled by Ferguson that would strike fear into most, if not all, their opponents.
This line-up was no ordinary line-up. The starting eleven were a mechanism that depended on one another that combined skill with extreme aggressiveness. There was no hiding place. No room for errors. The men in that team were hard. They all played on average 55-60 games during the season because squads were not as big back then and the Premier League had 22 teams (meaning 42 league games a season). These players all had strong personalities. Nearly every single one of them had a different and difficult background. There was a strong drinking culture behind the Boss’ back, as Roy Keane went on to admit in his autobiography, and yet they were still tireless. The starting eleven contained, almost every single time, the same players:
In goal, the Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel (N.1). Recognised for his shouting and commanding of the penalty area. He was the last line of behind a very strong defence and is considered to be United’s greatest ever ‘keeper. Paul Parker (N.2), at right back, was a very quiet character but a workhorse nonetheless bombing up and down the right flank. Denis Irwin (N.3), at left back, was Mr Reliable. Equally good on both feet and another quiet player on the pitch, he still remains United’s greatest left back. At the center of United’s defence was the ultimate duo which Ferguson has tried to reproduce ever since then, Steve Bruce (N.4 and captain) and Gary Pallister (N.6). Both were never players known for their pace, but their determination and courage always made them very difficult to play against. They formed a formidable partnership which has become the example for most teams when trying to build a strong central defensive link-up – one’s got to be aggressive and the other’s got to be classy on the ball. On the right hand side of the midfield and with his electric speed was the Russian winger Andrei Kanchelskis (N.14). His pace on that wing made him a horrible player to play against — he would just beat defenders with ease. Notably, Kanchelskis had also formed a good relationship with Parker on that side of the pitch.
On the left hand side of the midfield, and still a United player, arguably greatest in their history, there was Ryan Giggs (N.11). That was the season he went from being very good to bloody great. Beating players for fun on the left wing as well as scoring some remarkable goals, the 93-94 remains Giggs’ best season in terms of performances; scoring 17 times in 58 games. In the centre of the park, Ferguson created a solid midfield partnership. Roy Keane (N.16) and Paul Ince (N.8) were both very aggressive players. Neither was talented in terms of skill, but both had a drive that would keep them going from box to box without ever stopping. They were both pretty noisy on the pitch, too. Up front was a partnership made in heaven. The French magician, maverick and the Mad Man, Eric Cantona (N.7), marked his ground at United and obtained a hero’s status with his sublime performances and unbelievable skill while alongside him, Welsh targetman Mark Hughes (N.10), already at the club for nearly a decade (on and off), was still banging in the goals with style and venom. Other members of the squad, who featured time and time again, were Brian McClair (N.9) who could fill in across the midfield and up front, as well as Lee Sharpe (N.5) who became Ryan Giggs’ understudy on the left hand side and of course, Bryan Robson (N.12) in his final swansong at United. All had major roles to play during the season.
This team was so incredibly talented and yet extremely fierce. During that entire season, United only lost only 4 games in the league gathering a massive 92 points on their way to winning it. The goals came from every corner of the pitch. And whenever they had an off-day, which was rare, they were still able to win. The sign of Champions. There was never only one individual who stole the show, but rather the whole team’s efforts that made them look invincible at times. The link up plays between some of the players would make Barcelona’s team of today look on in awe. Sort of. They completed a domestic double when they won the FA Cup with a 4-0 drubbing of Chelsea in the final which included two exquisite Cantona penalties. A domestic treble was almost near, but for the 3-1 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa, which was largely due to the red card received by Kanchelskis.
Here is a video of the team interview following the FA Cup win, and just looking at it, you can see the difference in the men that played the game at the time and what we’re used to today. Even the significance of the FA Cup has changed along the years. These men were true legends. True men. True warriors. True reds:
In the European Cup, however, it was a different matter and it’s this which is the reason why this particular United side is never as talked about as much. The European format at the time was very different to what we’re used to now. There were no group stages. It was just a pure two-legged game with the aggregate score being what counted. Pretty much what we see now in the latter stages of the competition, but it was that way from the start. United, being the Champions of England, started in the second round, and faced Galatasaray. The 1st leg at Old Trafford finished in a 3-3 draw in a eventful match, whereas the second leg in Turkey ended in a 0-0 draw, the “game from hell” as it was dubbed at the time. United were dumped out of Europe. The rules at the time are what I believe affected United. When you think about it, some of the rules were ridiculous: it meant that this great United team that swept pretty much everything in front of them domestically never got the chance to play together in Europe. The rule stated that “teams competing in European competitions could field a maximum of three foreign players”. The impact this had on United was huge because it meant Ferguson had could only pick 3 of the following players to participate whenever United played in Europe: Mark Hughes (Wales), Ryan Giggs (Wales), Denis Irwin (Ireland), Roy Keane (Ireland), Eric Cantona (France), Andrei Kanchelskis (Russia) and Peter Schmeichel (Denmark). The key to this team was its consistency. It was a machine. Remove one part and it would stop functioning in the same manner. England saw the best of this team, but Europe never did. And that is something I’ll always consider a crime when it comes to United in Europe.
All of Ferguson’s sides following this one have been built with the same anatomy in mind. This, Fergie’s system, had worked. Of the teams that followed this one, some of them have succeeded, some have failed. Ferguson may have difficulties naming his best 11 over the past 25 years, but deep down in his heart of hearts, he’ll know that this was his best side…at least, that’s what I’d like to believe.
Here they are in one of the greatest derbies of all-time. For those who don’t know it, the “never-say-die” attitude associated with United that pundits so often talk about was already there, long before the 1999 team came along…and some people forget that. Here’s to my favorite United side of all-time:
Self-confidence, it would seem, is something Alex Ferguson has never lacked. Full of ambition, the Scot declared in his first programme notes as Manchester United manager: “I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past. I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward.”
But, perhaps not even he could have envisaged just how “forward” he would have taken the club. He had every right to be optimistic, although some of it did appear misplaced when you consider the club’s recent shortcomings at that time – and indeed, initially, not everything had gone to plan for United’s new boss. He spoke of his desire to win a trophy right away – the championship – and from that, success will almost certainly follow.
“There always has to be a starting point, and I see the championship as the basis for Manchester United’s future,” said Ferguson. “Success has a snowball effect as I found at Aberdeen when some people mistakenly thought that our first championship was a flash in the pan.” Of course, it was never going to be that easy. He had to wait a lot longer for that first title than he would have liked – the 1992/93 season, in fact – but, sure enough, it opened the door for many more. What makes this particular quote so fascinating, in retrospect, was that his “snowball effect” analogy could not have come together more perfectly. 36 trophies have come between then and now in a mere 19 years.
Back in ’86, he wanted to do things his own way – undaunted by the task: “Taking over a club of the magnitude of Manchester United is an awesome prospect. But ultimately a football club is a football club and I shall simply try to run things at Old Trafford in what I believe to be the right way.” In the years preceding, it was fair to say United were in something of an unforeseeable decline, so bad it was. Sir Matt Busby had never properly been replaced and so the atmosphere around Old Trafford was tense, understandably, and pessimistic. And so Fergie made it clear that if United were to win the championship, then that would be the “only real way to lay the ghosts of the past”.
When you look at it, there isn’t much difference from the Alex Ferguson of then and the Sir Alex of today. Through the years, he has reiterated just how vital it is that his players believe in themselves – that the ideal footballer is one who can rise to any challenge; putting a lot of emphasis on mentality, stressing how important it is to have the right one. “I only want players here who are determined to achieve…for the club and for themselves,” Fergie said in ’86. “Straight away they must rid themselves of any negative thoughts that it can’t be done. I am only interested in players who really want to play for Manchester United, and who, like me, are bad losers.”
And goes on to say: “Belief and confidence are very important, and instilling the right outlook will be my first priority,” he adds. “It’s not something that can be built overnight, and it could take a few months before I can create a true relationship with the players. But that is what I shall work towards and I am going to love every minute of it here.”
This was all said in the build up to his first game at Old Trafford, to be played against Queens Park Rangers. “Hopefully we can build on what we learned at Norwich last week,” Ferguson said, referring to a game that ended 0-0. “Our performance at Carrow Road, though only a draw, convinced me that there is nothing seriously wrong with Manchester United. The most important aspect was that there was a willingness and an appetite to play.” Before ending with: “the team perhaps wants some direction but they will be alright.” Indeed, once they had found that direction, which was, as noted earlier, “forward”, Manchester United under Alex Ferguson have never looked back.
With thanks to @DanLowth. (Quotes from United Review, 22 November 1986.)