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.