Need some help getting over last Wednesday? RoM is here for you…

Last time I did a post of this title and type, it was in considerably better circumstances. However, the need to look back in a calm and considered way at the (anti-)climax of our season is just as strong this time around.

I’ve set out below the main reasons why we lost in Rome. I’ve also gone on to find some positives, which I don’t think many people have tried to do as yet.

First, the negatives:

1. The curve-ball gone wrong – in last season’s final against Chelski, we got the drop on them for the whole first half by playing a system which they didn’t expect. We played 4-4-2, with Hargreaves on the right wing and Ronaldo on the left, targeting the make-shift right back Essien. It worked a treat, with one goal from Ronaldo when his run into the box lost Essien, and a couple more good chances which went begging.

It looked to me like Fergie tried the same trick against Barca, with Giggs playing as a support striker to Ronaldo, and Park and Rooney playing as conventional wingers in a 4-4-2. Let’s just say it didn’t work at all. Giggs was neither here nor there, and Carrick and Anderson were swamped in midfield. Park and Rooney were subdued by their defensive duties. Only Ronaldo turned up, looking like he was on a one-man mission to win the game for us for the first twenty minutes. Not enough, unfortunately.

2. The only shallow part of our squad – our squad has been rightly talked about as one of the the deepest and most talented ever assembled. However, on the night and in our time of need, it couldn’t provide us with the type of player we so desperately required to get a grip of the game – a destructive central midfielder. With the new and infinitely improved Darren Fletcher unjustly suspended, and Hargreaves out injured for the season, there was nobody on our bench who could come in and give our midfield that bite. I still think we’d have been better off with Scholes in the centre of a three man midfield, but that would have been tinkering around the edges. We needed someone to hassle and harry Iniesta and Xavi, to get in their faces. And ultimately, the Best Squad in the World ™ couldn’t provide.

3. Lack of cynicism (or “cleverness”) – what was really noticeable (although it hasn’t at all been mentioned in the press) was that Barca, for all their chat about playing football in the best possible way, approached their defensive duties with a kind of dirty cynicism which would have made Chelsea proud. They had clearly made a decision in advance that if one of the back four were beaten outside the area, they would automatically take the man down and take a yellow card if necessary. Toure, Pique and Puyol (say no more) all played this trick on Ronaldo, with only Pique picking up a yellow (which could easily have been red). Despite Ronaldo’s prowess at freekicks, they preferred to allow long range potshots than potential runs into their area.

Now apply that thinking to Iniesta’s burst from midfield after 9 minutes, and give that instruction to first Anderson and then Carrick. Now way would Anderson have even got a yellow for a first foul that far from goal, and Carrick would probably have got away with it too. Instead, the build-up to the opening goal was allowed to continue.

You can debate whether or not you’d have wanted a United player to cynically take down a breaking opponent like that, but you can’t debate that Barca would have done it. And so too, maybe, would our most experienced CM, Paul Scholes…

4. One year too many for van der Sar – again harping back to last year’s post, I made the point then that EVDS was just a touch too unreliable to be number one for the whole of this season. He seemed determined to prove my point in the opening months of this season, where he put in a string of dodgy displays culminating in a self-substitution after a nightmare 25 minutes at Stamford Bridge. The subsequent record-breaking run of clean sheets covered that initial impression over, but it would be fair to say that the majority of those clean sheets were due to superb defending rather than strings of great saves. And the run ended, fittingly, with an EVDS howler at St James Park.

I’m afraid that there is no way that he should have been beaten on his near post for the opening goal in the way that he was, regardless of how well struck the shot was. It was only a matter of time before he cost us something, and if Ben Foster can keep himself fit for next season, he should be first choice throughout. He’s ready and he has the ability.

5. One of those days – amidst all the recriminations and regrets, let’s not forget that even the best teams in the world have their off days. Barca had two against Chelsea, and their deserved elimination there to a group of hard, physical, rugged players who play ugly football would have seen them condemned as talented lightweights in the Arsenal mould rather than the Masters of the Universe status they are currently revelling in. We had a bad day in Rome. For all the faults mentioned above, what price Rio and Vida both having a shocker on the same day? Both making a fundamental error that led directly to a goal? Hasn’t happened before to my memory. Or Rooney failing to make an impact in any way or sense on the game – it’s rare that he doesn’t contribute at all. On one level, our big players didn’t turn up, and if we replayed the game tomorrow (yes, yes, I know all losers say this) then there’s every chance that it could have been just as one-sided our way. But that’s what makes horse races, isn’t it?

It’s important in defeat to make sure you understand the reasons why you lost. But in every defeat, there will be some positives to draw, and I’ll be looking at those in part 2 of this post in a few days.

Contributed by Rich of the blog Penguin United, which will be running a series of features during the summer looking back over last season. See the ‘summer of activity‘ for more details