Manchester United sits firmly adrift of its own European contest this season, and while the lady is yet to sing, she’s certainly warming up her vocal chords after yet another disastrous home performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men on Thursday night. Beaten 3-2 by Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford – it should have been a lot more than that – and probably out of the Europa League, Ferguson is left to reflect on a European campaign that has been complacent, slapdash and simply not good enough this season.
So poor has United been that the campaign has become an embarrassment to a team Ferguson claims is “not that far away” from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Fans, given the evidence presented so far this season, beg to differ.
In truth Bilbao was more than good value for the win, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side dominating possession and territory, and in taking 36 shots at goal, far more attacking than the home side. If ever there was a case study in the brand of vibrant, creative, and passionate attacking play United has been so famed for, here it was.
Bilbao’s ability to pass through and around United’s slapdash back four was consummate. But this is a side lying fifth in La Liga and widely considered the most ‘direct’ of all Spanish outfits. Fine though Bielsa’s side is, this is no mini-Barcelona, with Catalan-esque ability to retain the ball for long periods. Yet, the Argentinian’s side easily out-passed United at Old Trafford; winning possession with high tempo pressing, and distributing from back to front dynamically. Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in central midfield simply couldn’t live with it.
Once again there were excuses from Ferguson, although the Scot did have the good grace not to insult United fans by dwelling on Athletic’s two second-half goals that – technically – should have been ruled out. The Basque side’s single goal winning margin was not reflective of a tie the visitors dominated; a United victory would have been deeply unjust.
Yet, as in poor results against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax this season, Ferguson failed to hit the true nail anywhere near the head. This United side is simply not good enough in European terms. In total Ferguson has blamed lack of concentration, inexperience and bad luck for poor results this season. Lack of quality is a more realistic charge to make.
“Our defending really wasn’t very good at all, and that kept us on the back foot,” admitted the 70-year-old United manager.
“I am going to have to look at ways of possibly bringing Rio Ferdinand back in. He is so important to us, in terms of experience at the back, so I will have to see if that can be done, without disrupting things in the Premier League.
“We have had a bad year in Europe. We conceded three against Basel, two against Benfica, another three against Bilbao and two to Ajax. That tells its own story. Maybe it is just one of those years where we are having to restock and assess how we should approach games at home. There has been that slackness all season.”
But many supporters have argued that the “slackness” identified by Ferguson is driven by the manager himself, whose own complacent approach began with the Reds’ opening Champions League game away at Benfica, where the Scot made significant changes to his side, and has continued through nine European fixtures to date.
This has proven a disastrous strategy; results have demonstrated that United is simply not good enough to be complacent, nor for Ferguson to rotate heavily.
Admirably though that quartet has performed at Old Trafford this season, none is in the top-tier of European heavyweights. Not even close. Indeed, if Ferguson is not simply pulling the wool over supporters’ eyes in claiming United is close to Barcelona or even Madrid’s quality, then United has suffered the longest run of unfortunate defeats in history.
Few fans will buy into that theory.
It represents a huge let down from the summer’s optimism, where many fans bought into the promise of a youthful revolution at Old Trafford. If Barcelona was the model of youth development to sustainable success then there was every reason to believe that Ferguson was the best man to follow through on that promise.
In truth United has progressed not one iota from humiliating defeat at Wembley. Worse, it appears a very long road from where United now is, to the level required to win a third European Cup. The fear is that the owners simply do not care whether United matches Spain’s finest.
There are still voices of optimism. Former Red Gary Neville says that United’s younger players could learn from a difficult European campaign – a lesson that the defender and his colleagues in the ‘class of 1992’ were taught the very hard way.
“The only way you learn European football is by playing and getting to the point where you start to absorb lessons,” said Neville in United Review, ahead of Thursday’s defeat.
“The manager knows he’s got talented young players who are going to be at United for a number of years, and I think this year has almost been a step back to go forwards in Europe. The younger players in our squad will take a lot out of this season.
“There is a subtlety and attention to detail you need in Europe. Inches matter and whereas the Premier League can be a little more forgiving, in Europe opponents are more ruthless and more clinical in front of goal. I remember it when we were young lads too. It’s just something you have to go through.
“It’s an underachievement when you get to three finals in four years, then don’t get past the group stage, but these are great experiences for the young lads. You get the fruits of your labour over time and these lads have huge talent.”
It’s a positive outlook based in a belief that Ferguson will be given the time and budget to build a third European-class side. That, of course, may not be founded in fact, with the holes in Ferguson’s squad seemingly requiring not solely time for personnel development, but also financial investment that is not going to come under the Glazer family’s ownership.
It is likely that the United manager will have no more than £30 million to spend in the market prior to the Singapore IPO, which is currently on permanent hiatus.
Time is also a factor. Younger players such as Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, the da Silva brothers, and David de Gea may be years from their peak. Ferguson is not, with the manager expected to step down by 2014 at the very latest. It may well be that the 2008 side was Ferguson’s last peak, with the team degrading each season hence. The Scot’s eventual replacement will reap any benefit from the growing maturity of younger players within the United squad.
In the meantime United fans can reflect on the most disappointing European campaign for seven years, and a future that looks far less rosy than the bubble that fans enjoyed in August. On reflection United’s early season performances have been replicated at no point past mid-September, even if the side is still within two points of the Premier League leaders.
Yet, Athletic reminded home supporters what has been missing for much of the season. This was a performance of creative, attacking vibrancy and real passion. How Old Trafford regulars would love to see that more often from United. Or at all in Europe. This should be a wake up call. Then again, so should matches against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax.
Fans will hope that Ferguson and his kids learn quickly enough to take the big European prize in the near-term. For now, the jury is firmly out on that question.
18 thoughts on “Eurovision football contest: United nul points”
Er, please don’t risk the league campaign for this Fergie.
It’s not *that* important really.
slapdash, very slapdash
I think that there is a slight sense of over reaction in terms of the ability within the squad. Yesterday was a very poor performance, but it was driven by the chopping and changing of the line up, which has been the cause for our downfall in Europe all season. The attitude towards this competition from Fergie has transpired into the players, who frankly look as if they don’t give a shit about the Europa League. In stark contrast, Bilbao were playing the biggest games of their careers, and were bang up for it.
Yes there are holes in the squad, but I think Utd are only a couple of big players away from where we were a few years ago. I like Welbz and Chico, but both of them have genuine deficiencies in their games which at the moment mean Utd’s attacking threat isn’t as high as it should be. What would we give for a player of Neymar or Ronaldo’s ability upfront with Rooney, with Welbz and Chico playing 3rd and 4th choice. Suddenly the outlook of the team is very different attacking wise.
Injuries have also been a problem this season, no more so than Vidic. The stats have backed this up, as we have conceded far more goals than we used to. Jones and Smalling aren’t ready, Evans is playing well, but we need that leader at the back. Hopefully he can return to full fitness next season.
Midifeld is a real issue. Martinez was brilliant last night from the back, but you could see him sitting nicely next to Scholes or Carrick next season.
Sadly as you have pointed out, we probably dont have the £70-80m required to buy these couple of players that are so necessary to take us up a level.
“It is likely that the United manager will have no more than £30 million to spend in the market prior to the Singapore IPO, which is currently on permanent hiatus.”
Things may be progressing…
I’m getting sick of Fergusons bullshit.
I think he’s been the “Daddy” of English football for so long that he’s starting to believe in his own legend.
I think Ferguson is starting to believe that he, more than the players, is the reason for Uniteds success.
There’s no doubting how much Ferguson has done for United… but like Roy Keane said, when Ferguson questioned Keanes managerial credentials… If you want to question my managerial record, listen, you could question every pundit’s managerial skill in relation to (Ferguson’s) and we’re all going to come up short.
“But I would also say that without players like myself, maybe he wouldn’t have such a good managerial record”
Ferguson has to pull his head out of his own arse, and realise, that no matter how good a manager he is… he needs quality players as well, or he’ll win fuck all.
Now… it’s my belief that we don’t have enough quality, because the Glazers won’t make the funds available… and for that I don’t blame Ferguson… but I wish he’d quit trying to tell us that this team is better, than it so obviously isn’t!
I agree with you Alf. I think that Fergie is not ageing well and that United fans who still of him as the great winner of the past are mistaken.
In Europe he has been shown up badly — in the PL he can still pull enough magic, mind games, hoodwinkery etc to win the league pipping a City team with some formidable players (presuming it goes the way we would want it to).
Next season in the PL however, he will be found wanting. And then the fans patience will disappear (it has already started to wear prety thin with some of us).
No more than 30m… Hah, like we’re gonna spend anywhere near that
yeah, we only spent nearly double that last summer
It was obvious this would happen as soon as we came up against a half decent team. We don’t have enough quality and Fergie tinkers too much still. We’re gonna lose by an even bigger margin in Spain.
I agree with your assessment – it has been a tough year and our European form has shown that we are still nowhere near Barcelona as SAF would have us believe. But we’ve lost our leader at the back and had massive injury issues so I suppose ending up 2nd (maybe even winning the title)is a hell of an achievement. It will be interesting to see where we go after this season finishes. I don’t think we’ll have the cash to spend on quality players and losing the likes of Pogba and Morrison hurts when we have been so reliant on bringing through youth players.
To be honest, I worry about our future when we see the problems that big clubs like Arsenal, Pool and Chelsea have had lately. There’s no guarantee of success. SAF will be retiring soon and needs to add some quality players – 2 in MF and 2 at the back IMO – but there’s no guarantee that he’ll have the cash to spend on those quality players. With Giggs, Scholes and Rio all likely to be gone when SAF leaves, getting the right players is so vital to our future.
The stats are contentious…opta joe says Athletic had 23 shot on goal and soccernet reports 30 shots.
blcksheep – I normally go with ESPN because they do a wide range of stats. They report 30 as you say but this was revised down from time of writing. Is now 19(11). Was 22 (14).
We have already won 3 European Cups? I’d rather we go out and try and win the league. We haven’t got enough depth in our squad to be challenging for both. Worries me when we play Rooney and Young for almost a whole game, should give berba some game time. Even more worrying is that we rest Scholes because he is our best midfielder and he isn’t even supposed to be around this season!
We have already won 3 European Cups? I’d rather we go out and try and win the league. We haven’t got enough depth in our squad to be challenging for both. Worries me when we play Rooney and Young for almost a whole game, should give berba some game time. Even more worrying is that we rest Scholes because he is our best midfielder and he isn’t even supposed to be around this season.
“It is likely that the United manager will have no more than £30 million to spend in the market prior to the Singapore IPO” Hadn’t heard that before Ed. What’s it based on?
I tend to agree on European form but I think Paul had it right on the Cast when he said Fergie has never fielded first-choice side in Europe this season. Pluck any team’s captain/best defender off the team and see how they fare. City’s Kompany-less performance is good evidence. The real question in terms of United’s true worth in Europe is: were the heady days of August-September the signs of youth punching through or just a mirage?
Twisted Blood – something somebody reliable told me! Then again, when it comes to Glazer finances they keep pulling a surprise….
I think it’s based on what Fergie has himself said (not publicly)
No… you misunderstand me, Mate.
I have no problem with Ferguson, in charge of United… I still think he’s the “Boss”, in England…
But his unwavering support for the Glazers, means he has to bullshit the fans… telling us that the squad is all good, and there’s no reason to buy, and no value… and all the other bullshit that he’s been selling lately.
He’s had the core team, to rule England, but he’s been unable to do the same in the Champs league… but he SHOULD have done better.
After getting spanked by Barcelona, he said lessons had been learnt, and our midfield need strengthening, and he was determined to meet the Barca challenge… so he bought Ashley Young!… Young was the answer to Barcelona…
Fuck off… he wanted Sneijder, but we couldn’t/wouldn’t spend the neccessaries.
I’m not saying Sneijder would have made the difference… I’m not even sure he’d have been a good signing… but one thing’s for sure… if we met Barcelona again… we’d get spanked agian… we have NOT even come close to improving enough to take on Barca… and everyone can see it… including, I believe Ferguson… but he won’t admit it… he’ll just keep telling us lies… that’s what I’m sick of…