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.
22 thoughts on “More Italian than the Italians”
Seriously? What a load of rubbish. United needed to get the defence sorted out and had a lot of injured experienced stars. We went to Spain, where in 16 years we have won only once, with a weakened team, Carrick, Park and Ando not match fit, and we took on the team sitting at the top of the Spanish league. And we won despite having a nightmare of a game. Tactically, we went for a 1-0 win, we got it but we never expected to play so poorly. We won 1-0, get over it.
As for this old Italian jibe, Inter won the cup last year playing good attacking football (under Mourinho!)
Lacking a true playmaker? Erm Scholes? Giggs? (both injured) I’d like to see other teams miss their 2 playmakers and play good. And, as for flair, we have plenty of flair, except some people don’t like flair when it’s Berbatov or Nani providing it.
Pointless blast at United based on one poor CL game.
Mark S – it isn’t about one game at all. You’ve totally missed the point. If Scholes and Giggs were fit, United would have played the same way. Scholes for Carrick and Giggs for Park. It’s about an evolving tactical system. As for Mourinho.. you saw Inter at Barca last year, right?
I disagree, obviously, with you. Tactically, Queiroz had brought a defensive balance to our team. He left a long time ago though. We play the same formation as Barca, Real and Chelsea in Europe. They aren’t all negative. But we seem to be.
Right now, the team for me is under-performing which makes the lack of goals our main concern. We draw or win 1-0 and people complain. I blame the midfield not tactics. Carrick, Ando, Fletch, Park offer nothing creatively yet 3 of the 4 are attack minded players. Fergie needs to remind them of that as they offer too little offensively. I don’t think Ando and Carrick are being told not to try killer passes to send Rooney away 1 on 1, do you? Also Nani has been poor in Europe for a few years, but now he has grown up he has found the right balance which is turning the tide.
True, like Inter, we definitely defended against Barca and we won 1-0. We had no chance of outgunning Barca, the best in the world, as our team wasn’t, and isn’t still as creative. That isn’t to say that we defend all the time. Just that at times our tactics versus the best are more clever than say against Rangers who with respect we expect to beat. Chelsea have also tried this tactic against Barca yet are considered attacking in Europe – and not won the cup unlike Us, pool and Inter. For me it’s just a perception from concerned fans. But not the truth.
inter played sh-t defensive football last yr mate
i’m on board with the article’s claims – we certainly have become overly cautious in europe especially away from home. this is not due to the fact that we can’t compete in open attacking matches against top sides, but because SAF well and truly believes we (united) should’ve won more european cups in history. his desire to get that success trumps united’s style of play in european (especially away) matches. and i don’t see that changing soon either as long as SAF is here. which i don’t totally mind it’s not like we play ugly, long ball negative football. we’re just cautious.
style could also be dictated by the absence of a true real CAM playmaker type. haven’t had one for yrs (although cronaldo occasionally played like one). if we had one, our performances would no seem as cagey as when in attack we would be linking play well through middle instead of just looking for crossing options out wide on the break. so we’re restricted by available resources also.
“For many it was neither pretty, nor clever.”
A win IS clever.
fergies been trying to get us playing 451 off and on for 20 years, we played hughes up top in rotterdam, we used to play it all the time when we played liverpool cause fergie shat himself at the thought of robbie fowler, he talks all the time avbout a game when we play three in midfield against necastle and gazza still pissed on us, its not a new thing it didn’t start with the real game, w didn’t have to play 451 in the late 90s because we were too good, and we wouldn’t have had to after the real game if fergie hadn’t rested on his laurels and had actually properly replaced schmeichel, found a proper striker and a partner for stam, we need to play 451 now tho, we’re shite
Knobby is spot on… we’re not playing 4-5-1 now, specifically because it’s some tactical master plan that Ferguson has evolved toward… it’s because our team is so limited, it’s the best way to get a result.
Look back at United teams of the past… especially some the midfield titans we’ve had… look around at some of our current rivals, and their midfields…
Our midfield is a joke, relative to our ambitions as one of the worlds so called elite clubs.
A complete fuckin JOKE!
4231 is the way to go nowadays in any top level football match.traditional 442 may work against waeker opponents but not against a quality opponenet,spain,barca,inter have proved that in last 2-3 yrs.i think this is the right time for utd to start playing that way.we have an extremely young squad and its at the right age to learn these tactics.unfortunately we lack an attacking midfielder like sneijder or iniesta ta make this work.somehow i think we should play rooney in that role.he has all the qualities needed to become a great attacking midfielder.atleast we should give it a try now as he’s not doing the greatest job as a striker!!!what do people think about that???
we miss an attacking midfeilder like swapnil mentioned. But on the long run I can see pogba and eikrem play for united.not to forget cleverly.pogba and eikrem have good vision and also their tactical understanding of the game is good.Its great to have somone like ole working with the reserves.he is such a tactical coach.
Give it up Mate… I’ve been touting Rooney as an attacking midfielder for the past two years… this lot won’t have it.
until we’ve got a midfield good enough to let him play in his best position off the striker he stays upfront
Well I guess he stays up front then… for the rest of his carreer… at United anyway.
rodwell and clev not good enough for you then
I can see us buying that henderson off sunderland in the future an all, he looks gerrardy
Cleverley will definitely get a shot next year. behind him is Eikram who seems a bit slow but has the vision to be an absolute great playmaker.
crippling debt notwithstanding
We will never get Rodwell Knobby.
Should have bought him last year… he’ll cost a fortune by next year.
I love United, but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the way we played in recent years.
The change seems to have come in the Ruud years, then been developed more fully after he had gone. The result is too many games when our forwards look completely isolated and our dominance in possession is wasted, as you sit and wonder who, if anyone, will score. Our midfield has too many Nicky Butt types, not enough Scholes (vintage Scholes), which is why I REALLY wanted Ozil (oh well).
I can remember watching a game years back and falling behind and confidently saying I wasn’t worried because we always score. I don’t feel that way anymore. We’re just far too negative.
sums up a lot of what i have been feeling too
you lot are naive if you think we can go to san siro or nou camp or anywhere else and play our natural game (4-4-2 counter-attacking game) and destroy the opposition. cant be done any more. in 99, we were very lucky. very very lucky. everything went right for us that year. but the planets arnt gonna align like that anymore
away from home we need to play this cagey italian football that you all seem to detest. its the only way. its playing smart. barca play their natural game last year at Emirates and San Siro and all it got them was a 2-2 draw and a 3-1 battering. their performance at the emirates was a masterclass in attacking passing football, their performance in italy was complete defensive implosion. either way, they made life difficult for themselves. fergie learnt this lesson a long time ago.
now, everyone totally justified in saying that we miss a natural playmaker, especially at home, where it can be difficult to break down teams that park the bus. and fergie really shuold have tried to fix that problem at some point in the last 2-3 yrs. but he hasnt. so we are stuck with what we’ve got. maybe alf suggestion of moving rooney into midfield isnt all that ridiculous. berbatov is doing well up front. we have one wing sorted with nani. and if we are to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, then rooney should be in the playmaker role. would bring him into the game a lot more. but it also means we cant expect more than 15 goals a season from him
442 nowadays often results in a boring, bitty game
should have got sneider and/or van der vaart when we sold ronaldo. major mistake not doing so as both of them wanted to play for us and i think they still probably do