When Luca Spalletti made the now infamous remark that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had evolved beyond the swashbuckling outfit that took the 1999 Champions League, the Italian struck close to the bone. United supporters, brought up on generations of attacking play, are now served something very different when the Reds play in Europe.
Ferguson’s approach to football has developed, of course, culminating for some in the April 2008 match with Roma, in which United eked out a narrow win at Stadio Olympico. The Reds’ cautious approach, soaking up pressure and hitting Roma on the break, was indeed ‘more Italian than the Italians’. Generations of Azurre coaches schooling players in catenaccio could not have surmised United’s approach better than Spalletti’s subtle dig.
Many believe that the Scots tactics had to change; those who stand still in football are normally left behind. When ( the original) Ronaldo’s Real Madrid came to Old Trafford in 2000 and won handsomely to knock United out of the Champions League some say Ferguson’s mind was already made up.
United’s move away from the traditional 4-4-2 was no eureka moment. Madrid’s raid on United’s European crown, Roy Keane’s ailing legs and the club’s failure to make another final in almost a decade each contributed to Ferguson’s new mindset. It is also a charge many United supporters lay at Carlos Quieroz’ door.
Today, rarely does the Scot deploy two strikers in the Champions League as he did when United stormed to the ’99 title. Whether the Reds’ current brand of European football is entertainment, is another question altogether.
On Wednesday night United’s approach was as cautious as it ever has been, with restored defender Rio Ferdinand loudly proclaiming that United had gained the 1-0 victory they had sought in Spain’s third city. Traditionalists be dammed, as United’s erstwhile Rolls Royce defender preached at the altar of Mourinhoism.
For many it was neither pretty, nor clever.
Despite, or perhaps because of, three shaky defensive performances away from home in the Premier League this season, United’s approach to the match in Valencia surprised few. Michael Carrick, now fit after a hamstring problem, joined Darren Fletcher in a protective two-man screen in front of United’s defence in the 4-2-3-1 formation du jour.
Yet Ferguson took the system a little further still, deploying Anderson loosely behind lone forward Dimitar Berbatov, not as the creative heartbeat many fans wish the Brazilian to become, but to man mark the hosts’ own defensive screen, David Albelda. It worked as a destructive tactic, with Valencia unable to break quickly on United and often losing possession.
The flip-side, of course, in United’s transformed tactics and concentration on the defensive side of the game, is that the Scot is more often criticised for failing to play ‘the United way.’ It’s a fair challenge by those traditionalists who want United to play with flair, whether home or away.
The late Javier Hernández winner on Wednesday eliminates many concerns over the team’s style of course. It’s easy to forgive seemingly negative tactics if the team is on the road to eventual glory. Indeed, United’s 2008 campaign rarely hit previous heights but for supporters, frankly, when their club is European champions, who cares?
There’s little to suggest that United’s tactics will change anytime soon either. The defensive set-up will certainly be in place for the knock-out rounds, although Ferguson could gamble on two strikers in the upcoming double-header with Bursaspor.
The problem comes with the balance in United’s squad though. Lacking a true playmaker – at least one that crosses the centre circle – or a midfielder prepared to get ahead of the ball, United’s midfield can seem pedestrian with three in the centre. Against better opposition than Valencia, United may well struggle to break sides down.
By contrast the range of choices that Ferguson now possess at centre-forward is greater than at any point in recent seasons. There is no Cristiano Ronaldo of course but five strikers each of whom add something different are available to the manager.
Yet, even after the role played by Federico Macheda and Hernández in United’s win neither is likely to start United’s first knock-out fixture. Unless, Ferguson moves Rooney to the left-wing, neither is one of the Scouser or Dimitar Berbatov.
It’s a dilemma Ferguson is paid to solve of course. Come the spring United will face some of its toughest fixtures. While the great Scot will gamble when necessary the overall approach to European football will certainly be more negative than in the past.
The question for supporters is whether the change is worth it unless United leave Wembley in May with the trophy.