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The Gaping Hole Left From 2008 Departure

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.

About Scott

Scott is the editor of Red Matters - 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United and an author of Play Like Fergie's Boys and Not Nineteen Forever. He writes for ESPN, The Metro and Bleacher Report. Follow @R_o_M on Twitter.

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  1. Denton Davey says:

    Bishopville Red @ 13:34: “The gaping hole in our side isn’t Queroz (though I was happy to have him and happy to have him back. In fact, the gaping hole is one of the less popular United players of the last 10 years: Owen Hargreaves. HE was the engine room player Fergie bought to outwork, out fight and out run opponents in the middle. Sadly, his body couldn’t keep up with his style of play.”

    I agree AND you could also add that DarrenFletcherinho’s illness compounded the loss of Hargreaves.

    However, I think that the problem is much deeper which becomes obvious when comparing the 2008 team with the current one:

    Edwin BETTER than DDG/Lindegaard
    RedNev BETTER than TheLittleTiger
    2008Evra BETTER than 2012Evra
    2008Vidic BETTER than 2012Vidic
    2008Rio BETTER than 2012Rio
    2008Scholes BETTER than 2012Scholes
    2008Giggs BETTER than 2012Giggs
    CR7 BETTER than AV7/Nani – Ashley Young (don’t make me laugh !)

    MIchael Carrick/TheWayneBoy are probably about equal in their 2008/2012 versions

    While RVP/KagawaBunga are possibly BETTER than Carlitos.

    SO, when you look at playing personnel, there’s a HUGE ADVANTAGE to the 2008 squad over the current one.

    BUT I think that the better comparison might be 2008/2014 which seems to be the time when the transition from the 2008 squad will be just about complete. In the meantime, it’s just churlish to lay blame at the feet of Meulesteen or Phelan. Players win matches and, right now, UTD’s squad just isn’t as good as it was in 2008. THAT seems obvious to me.

  2. Diego says:

    The CL final in 2011 was a tactical disaster, and last seasons European campaign was just dreadful. This article is spot on. Sentimental figure? Absolutely. Like Scott says, in years gone by, we have just been that much better than everyone else. Now when cracks are starting to show in the team it doesn’t work anymore. Yet because of all the incredible success, this subject is very much taboo among united fans. It’s almost as if past performance is the only factor that determines future success. You know what, times change. The yes-man aspect of Phelan’s role is unfortunate. Even the greatest of men need a wall to bounce off ideas, it keeps things fresh. Of course, we don’t know what goes happens on the training ground, but we sure as hell see what happens on the pitch at match-days.

  3. Voice of Reason says:

    Spot on CL 2011 final – wrong selection, lifeline at half time and nothing done, given up at 70 mins

  4. Georgejoseph says:

    I think we are missing the point .We are relying on scholes (38)and giggs (40) still . Why? Fergie goes not trust cleverly and ando. The midfield is the only area that fergie has not improved the last 4 years. It’s unacceptable. Look at spurs, arsenal, Newcastle. They have all bought decent midfielders without breaking the bank .

  5. edcunited1878 says:

    In 2008, the back five was impenetrable. It wasn’t Gaz who dominated at right back, it was Wes Brown who had a career year. Vida and Rio were the best central defensive pair in the world and Evra was one of the best in the world going up and down the left all while defending.

    The attacking trio of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney combined work rate, skill, pace and selflessness perfectly. The midfield had bite, energy and control.

  6. kungfoocantona says:

    thats been the problem he never did replace carlos….i like mickey phelan but what does he bring as a number 2? not much really…i like rene aswell but i would like to see scholes and giggs retire at the end of the season and take up coaching roles, also wish nev was there swell

    also the manager saying that he is willing to play scholes a 38 year old in front of ando doesnt really help much although i rate scholsey even at this age ando is the future not scholes, he needs the constant games so we can see if he really is good enough otherwise ship him on..but sayin that about scholes and that him and carrick havent done any wrong this year..hes obviously not been paying attention to any of our games then has he….i say get fletch in there with ando and see how they do, even put valencia in there and nani on the right, jesus do sumthin other than what ur coin….

    hopefully get a win 2nite and a good win but i would take a 1 nil with a great performance…a few good performances is what we need, especially with sat comin at st james park or the sports direct whatever the fuck u wana call it…but most importantly 3 frikin points

  7. Daniel says:

    Been saying this for a while. Fergie needs to go out and appoint a few STRONG backroom staff. The kind of men that will tell Fergie when he is WRONG. Like his consistently laughable team selection. More to the point we need somebody with a tactical brain. Pep had Villanova. We need somebody because Fergie tactically as a manager is awful. Always has been thats been the major reason behind our lack of success in Europe in the last 20 years.

  8. Gopher Brown says:

    We all remember the fans’ criticism of Queiroz during his first spell at the club in 2002/3. Turning us from an all-out attacking side into the patient, retaining possession beast we became. There is no doubt CQ played a massive role in our success in 07/08, but he was at the club from 2004 onwards, during our barren spell. While I am fairly sure Mick isn’t a great tactician, we haven’t been starved of success in recent years, and the only real complaint is that we often play very unattractive football. Arsenal play some wonderful stuff, but it isn’t very effective when the chips are down.

  9. stwb says:

    Scott, this is so in line with my thoughts that it is scary!!
    Would have taken a transition period any time given a new assistant manager and increased playing time for the talents.

    @ Denton Davey:
    “KagawaBunga” – don´t know if you should take the cred for that nickname, but it is hilarious!

  10. sheppertonni says:

    @proverb yeah im serious, I dont think he does do a job mate, he’s to static and he cant tackle. i would much rather see energy and movement. He only plays all the time because the others are injured, like you said. I’m hoping fletcher gets back to his best and push carrick out.

  11. SHINJI THE NINJA says:


    Lets not pretend that Fletcher was ever really a brilliant player.
    He had ONE good season and that was it.
    Fletcher is another example of sentimentality and favouritism by SAF.
    I wish Fletcher well, but you put him in against Yaya Toure and he will look ridiculous. When it comes down to big important games against true quality midfielders, Darren Fletcher, even at his “best” is not your man. Trust me.

  12. Alex says:

    Ha ha ha! I’m saving this thread! The same negative bullshit that pops up every fucking year from everyone and then people eat humble pie!

    Fucking mugs!

  13. Red says:

    @Alex YOUR the mug!

    Nobody here is saying United will do bad, or wishing it. Simply saying that our side hasn’t CONVINCED as it did since Queiroz’s departure – that’s not to say we haven’t won since. The tactics, the fluency and the manner in which we have won games just hasn’t been to the best of our ability or rich history.

    Yes, we won against Fulham, but we were still LACKING a certain je ne sais quoi!

    And really, if you disagree, then you might as well be watching United’s games with your eyes closed!

  14. John Tring says:

    Actually, all these beating around the bush must stop before it’s TOO LATE ( it’s already late ). Utd’s management is outdated, no top Club plays with out-and-and out wingers anymore. Utd is doing this for years now but we had strong central midfielders like Keane to hold it. Now, CM is weak to the core and we try to rely on two 100-year old genii. SAF has probably lost the touch with modern football. Kagawa is not a winger, not a CM. He’s a creator with soft touches. At D’mund he was successful because there are top midfielders there and a strong center fwd. Do Utd have all these to support Kagawa? No. I am not sure why SAF thinks he IS UTD. His time had come and preditably, gone. He has lost the capacity to buy the right player ( not for money but by choice ). Spending ( some say wasting ) about 50m pds in summer of 2011 to buy Young, Jones and De Gea was apalling. Where are they now? What did we win that season? We needed good defenders. Vertonghen, Van d Weil, Cahill all went for peanuts compared to our purchases. So, SAF., please take your bow and let the Club move on, don’t let Utd become a Liverpool. Jose may still be available.

  15. sorry but chicha is so poor! says:

    spot on article couldnt agree more!!

    The only thing wrong with it is we lost to Dortmund in 97 not Leverkusen again!

  16. Sriram says:

    Awesome piece Scott.. Best article I have read in ages..!!!!!!!!!

    Mediocrity.. You hit the matter on the nail.. Spot On..

    At present, the only person in our squad who can hold his own is Scholes against quality opposition..

    Look at the way he controlled the tempo in the Second half against Spurs..

    Also, if Keano had been on the pitch for the Cluj game, he would have torn into Evra for not sticking close to the right winger for the cross that lead to the goal..

    Screw the tactics and gameplan… as it is, the players dont have a leader.. No GoTo guy who has this “Give the Ball to Me and I will do the Rest” look on his face..

    We all know how Ronaldo would ask for the ball and then run at the opposition.. That killer instinct is what we lack now..

    Nani wants to be that player but his shooting is crap and he loses the ball far too often to be called World Class.. Selling him for 25 mill seems a good piece of busines.

    Sadly Cleverely is not the answer to Scholes.. And Anderson ????? is just a talented trequartista wasted as a defensive midfield…

    And Hernandez is a confidence player.. at present the look on his face is very very bad.. he knows he is not the starting striker and he is panicking at the crucial moments..

    A midfield orchestrator to replace Scholes (M’Vila), a defensive stalwart(Subotic, Hummels, Sakho), A Destroyer (Tiote), A Direct Threat(Neymar ?????)

  17. Scott the Red says:

    Ji Sung – Did you read anything from the article? Can you show me where I said “how shite” Phelan is? Can you explain why you think I singled him out?

    Our team isn’t as good as it has been so we need an experienced world class #2 to help us out. Phelan’s experience mean it’s impossible for him to have the experience we require. That is just fact, not opinion.

  18. Zulu-Utd-Malta says:

    Scott. You have just singled out exactly why we are not the same Utd of old.
    URGENTLEY:::: we need a full blast number 2 and he has to be someone who has got the nowhow of today’s modern game.
    People ask who will be the one ? Sincerley I don’t know coz I don’t know who is available !
    All I can say is that if we don’t improve drastically our pattern and style of our game, we are in trouble this season.

  19. sheppertonni says:

    @shinja ninja. yeah i know he’s not in the top bracket mode but i wouldnt go as far to say he’d look ridiculous against yo yo. end of the day he’s the best we’ve got in that role.
    All this hype about toure, he’s not that good, it’s just his size and speed that sets him apart.


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