Sir Alex Ferguson would be the first to admit that he doesn’t have enough European Cup wins to his name to match the quality of the teams he has produced in almost 26 years at Manchester United. Whilst his early years were hampered by the ridiculous three foreigners rule, meaning that only three from Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Andrei Kanchelskis and Dennis Irwin could play for us, the wins in 1999 and 2008 don’t accurately represent the greatness of the teams Ferguson has created.
We have been painfully close on a number of occasions and in recent years have been unfortunate enough to have to compete against one of the best club teams in the history of the game, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Going back, we lost out to eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals in 97, we lost to eventual winners, Real Madrid, in the quarters in 2000, we lost to eventual winners, Bayern Munich, in the quarters in 2001, we were knocked out by Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in the semis the following season, we lost to eventual winners, Porto, in 2004 after Paul Scholes’ clearly onside goal was disallowed, and in 2007 we lost to eventual winners, AC Milan, in the semi-finals, after they rested their players ahead of the game because they weren’t in the title race, whilst we fought back from 2-0 down to beat Everton 4-2 a few days earlier as we were in the thick of a title battle.
In 1999, we had more than our fair share of luck, but we also had a fantastic team. Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham, all at their peak, is surely the best midfield ever seen. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were the highest scoring partnership in all of Europe that season. Schmeichel, Neville, Stam, Johnsen and Irwin were as solid as a rock at the back. It was an incredible side. We didn’t have a great ‘squad’ then, not many teams did, but we had two top class strikers in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham eager for the opportunity to shine. To have two strikers capable of scoring European Cup winning goals in injury time sitting on your bench is fairly handy.
That 1998-1999 season was ridiculous though. No English team has ever managed such a feat and it’s hard to imagine a team that would be capable of repeating it. Whilst of course there had to be some tactical nouse behind it, with Steve McClaren’s England tenure unfairly tainting his reputation, we won those three trophies in 1999 because we had bloody brilliant players, who had incredible self-belief, who played as a team, and who were winners. Going 2-0 down at Juve in the European Cup semi-final wasn’t part of the game plan but they overcame that hurdle through sheer desire to win and top class ability. Going down to ten men and conceding a last minute penalty wasn’t how Ferguson envisaged the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, but when Giggs picked up the ball at the half-way line, his skill and drive allowed him to take on the league’s best defence and rifle the ball in to the roof of the net.
I don’t want to claim that we were tactically unaware that season but I would say we were fairly naive. The players were just so good that it seemed to be a case of just go out there and win. This was a mentality that worked well in the league, us winning the title three years on the trot, but it wasn’t sophisticated enough for Europe. Being the better team with better players suddenly wasn’t the be all and end all for European success.
We had to wait until 2008 to win the European Cup again, not because we weren’t one of Europe’s best sides before then, but because we weren’t tactically astute enough to compete. There will always be the odd team that goes on a flukey run or who doesn’t have a title race to compete in so are better rested for their European games, but for the most part, the Champions League determines who are the better sides in Europe. We were amongst the best, we had some brilliant players, but we looked out of our depth when playing some sides.
Carlos Queiroz’s return to United was pivotal to our success in 2008. We finally had a team that was comparable to the one that won the Treble but Queiroz employed tactics that allowed us to seriously compete in Europe. The semi-finals against Barcelona showed this at it’s best, particularly the game at Old Trafford. Their players saw so much of the ball but we kept them out of our penalty area. They passed from left to right but they just couldn’t get past our defence. I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all of Old Trafford that night when I say it became incredibly nerve-wracking the closer we got to full-time, knowing that a Barcelona goal would almost certainly ensure we wouldn’t progress to the final, but the players seemed happy to invite on Barca’s pressure, absorbing their attacks and nullifying them. 0-0 at the Nou Camp, 1-0 at Old Trafford, and United were one game away from winning the trophy again.
In his book, Neville reflected on how Queiroz prepared the players for that successful 2008 semi-final against Barcelona.
Carlos was obsessive, we’d never seen such attention to detail. We rehearsed time and again, sometimes walking through the tactics slowly with the ball in our hands. But the instructions were simple. Ronaldo up front tying them up. Carlos Tevez dropping on to Yaya Toure every time he got the ball. Let their centre halves have it. They couldn’t hurt us.
Whilst there was no shame in losing to Barcelona in the 2009 and 2011 finals, I’ll always wonder what we might have produced if it had been Queiroz sitting on the bench next to Ferguson and not Mike Phelan.
However much the manager may try to fight it, he is a sentimental bugger and sometimes he could do with someone who has a clearer view of the players and their capabilities. Don’t forget, Ferguson had John O’Shea ready to come on for the last minute of extra time in Moscow, only before Queiroz sensibly pointed out we would be better off bringing on someone who could take a penalty instead. O’Shea returned to the bench, Anderson came on and scored in the shoot out.
I’m not trying to suggest that Ferguson doesn’t know what he’s doing, that would be ridiculous, but his strengths are more to do with his man-management and ability to create a winning mentality amongst his players. There have been countless times when we’ve grumbled upon learning the team for a big game, only to concede at full-time the manager got it spot on. The grumbles seem to be getting louder though and at the moment, there isn’t much room for rolling our eyes and laughing at how Ferguson got it right yet again. It’s easy to sit here with hindsight and criticise what went wrong, but the mistakes seem fairly obvious.
We lost to Everton, our home game against Fulham was much closer than it should have been, we got away with it at Southampton thanks to the individual brilliance of Scholes and Van Persie, we got away with it against at Liverpool thanks to spectacular good luck, then finally we got found out against Spurs.
The second half performance on Saturday was some of the best football I’ve seen from United for ages. They played with real determination and desire, they were accurate in their passing, they created loads of chances and thanks to two efforts coming back off the woodwork, just ran out of time to make up for that first half performance.
Before looking at Ferguson’s part in the defeat, it’s important to note that the players have to take a lot of the responsibility for that defeat. Whilst substitutions helped change the game, every single one of those players on the pitch upped their game in the second half and Spurs barely got a touch. After being bossed in the first half, we enjoyed 82% possession in the second half. If they had played like that for the first 45 minutes we wouldn’t have faced that uphill battle in the second half. It’s also important to note that Ferguson made the right changes at half-time which could have secured us at least a point, if the performance was anything to go by, but the manager is not blameless in the defeat.
Ryan Giggs played 90 minutes against Liverpool and had a really poor game. With the likes of Tom Cleverley and Anderson on the bench, you have to wonder why Giggs not only got to start but why he wasn’t hauled off. Ferguson likes to play our homegrown players in the big games and I’d be lying if I didn’t enjoy a certain amount of sentimentality, but it crosses a line when it becomes costly. It should have cost us at Anfield and it did cost us against Spurs.
Ferguson rightly brought on Rooney for the second half and that changed everything. It wasn’t just the urgency in our play, as well as the added quality, but the impact was measurable. Six minutes after coming on he assisted Nani for our first goal. Ferguson saw what the problem was and he fixed it but we ran out of time. But why wasn’t Rooney on from the start?
I’m not going to pretend to know everything that goes on behind the scenes at United and who can really say what the impact of Mike Phelan is, but I saw his appointment in 2008 as a temporary move until we found a world class number two to replace Queiroz. Queiroz has a wealth of experience at an International level and of European club football, and is credited with discovering the “Golden Generation” for Portugal (including Luís Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, João Pinto, Jorge Costa and Vítor Baía, who went on to become the six most-capped players ever for the senior Portugal national football team). I’m not trying to be disrespectful of Phelan, I’m sure he must contribute something, but surely now is the time for Ferguson to get someone who will tell him straight, rather than a ‘yes man’ like it’s easy to imagine Phelan is. “Giggs? Starting again? No. Repeating the Carroll/Howard farce with De Gea and Lindegaard? No. Seriously competing for the league title and Champions League with that midfield? No. ” It’s not just Europe where you have to be so tactically astute these days either. The amount of Premier League teams that just set themselves up to defend and you have to find a way through them. Likewise, when playing against the stronger teams, you need a formation that can hold out the opposition whilst still allowing you to get that all important goal. Ferguson got this spectacularly wrong in one of our season defining games last season when we lost to Manchester City in the last few weeks before they lifted the title. We were absolutely toothless, were totally overrun, and it’s hard to argue the best team won the league last season. Yes, we threw it away, but when the two sides met each other in the league, Roberto Mancini got it right both times. Who knows what would have happened at Old Trafford if we hadn’t gone down to ten men in the first half (it wouldn’t have been 1-6 though, that’s for sure!) but the fact we kept pouring forward, not shutting up shop at 1-3, was ridiculous. The manager commented on this after the game, but during the 90 minutes he wasn’t on the touchline barking these instructions. If we’d got a point in either of these games we’d have won the league.
Phelan’s CV shows him as assistant to Gary Megson at Norwich, Blackpool and Stockport County. That’s it. Whatever raw talent he may have as a coach, who knows, it’s baffling really that he’s held this position for four years now. United have had undoubted success in that time and I’m sure Phelan is entitled to some credit for that, but we’re up against it this season and it surely couldn’t do any harm to bring someone more suitable in to give Ferguson support. That’s not to say that Phelan doesn’t have a place at our club but surely now, as Fergie approaches the end of his time at United, we should be looking at someone a bit more serious for such an important job at the club.