2562: Manchester United: Champions'
by : Bill Urban
On the heels of Manchester United’s failure to qualify for either the round of 16 in the Champions League or the UEFA Cup, Gary Neville, in his new role as captain, made the comment that United "weren’t good enough." It seems that Neville meant to imply that United were second best on Wednesday evening in the Stadium of Light, but his evaluation of United is sadly accurate for their participation in the Champions League First Round in its entirety. In a group which looked to be one of the easier first round collections, United were for a variety of reasons simply not good enough to advance past the competition’s initial stages.
Lengthy injuries to Neville and more importantly the Argentine left defender Gabriel Heinze have left United’s back four a shambles on far too many occasions. John O’Shea and Kieran Richardson have been tried, and found wanting, as Heinze’s replacement, the tousle-haired Argentine’s gritty tackling and productive forays up the left side missed in the United back four. Neville has returned from a lengthy absence, and been named as a deserving captain, but fitness and form are still lacking.
Apart from the problems with the wide defenders, United have looked strangely vulnerable down the centre of the park as well. Neither Rio Ferdinand nor Mikael Silvestre covered themselves in glory during United 2005 Champions League campaign. The look of bewilderment on Ferdinand’s face as Geovanni dove to head the ball past Van der Sar tells a tale of the confusion and sloppiness from both United’s central defenders. Ferdinand and Silvestre often seem to be playing two different matches at the same time, with the crucial communication between partners in a back four sorely lacking.
For all the struggles of the back four, United’s deficiencies in midfield look to be the biggest reason for their poor show in Europe. The players still look uncomfortable with the 4-5-1 system, and even with five players in midfield United often struggled to put their opponents under pressure when not in possession.
The Alan Smith as a covering midfielder experiment has gone horribly wrong and it is surprising that Sir Alex Ferguson has stuck with playing Smith in front of the back four for so long. In a 4-5-1, the defensive central midfield player is perhaps the most important on the pitch, constantly involved in the play, protecting his back four and initiating attacks. Using a converted striker in this position, Smith to his eternal credit has given it a real go, is simply asking too much of the player. The protection that Ferdinand and Silvestre expect is all too often missing, as Smith’s natural aggression pulls him out of the central position he should be occupying.
United supporters have already had to deal with the loss of one of their heroes, with the talismanic Roy Keane being released by mutual consent after a strange incident with the team television network. Facing the prospect of both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs being past it as well would be uncomfortable in the extreme both for Sir Alex and the supporters, but in fact both players look like they are on the downhill slope of their impressive careers. Giggs in particular has featured very rarely for United this season, and Scholes, while scoring a sensational goal to put United in front 1-0 in the crucial final match against Benfica, appears not to have the engine and desire for the fight that trademarked some of his inspirational performances for past United sides. Replacements for all three players have been bought by Sir Alex, but none of them proved adequate to replace any of the older three United midfield players.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a bone of contention for many United supporters, with apparently almost equal numbers either worshiping his undoubted talent or decrying the lack of tangible reward from his appearances on United teamsheet. Cristiano may very well be a Juan Sebastian Veron-equivalent, a very talented player who simply cannot adjust to the style of football that Sir Alex and United endorse. Watching Ronaldo play is a disorienting experience, for the player, nominally a winger, never looks comfortable simply beating his man and getting a good ball over, which is indeed less than the role he performed for Sporting Lisbon before coming to United. Ronaldo always looks to do more with the ball than his teammates expect, which causes confusion in a system with which the players are already uncomfortable.
The one player in United’s midfield who has enhanced his reputation is Wayne Rooney. Like Alan Smith, Rooney is asked to play in a position different from the one in which he made his reputation. Like Smith, Rooney has flung himself into the demands of the withdrawn striker role with zest, ever willing to track back into his own half to pick up unmarked opposition attackers, receive the ball off his defenders, and turn to run at the opposition. But with United struggling to score goals, a paltry three goals in six Champions League games, Rooney’s goalscoring talents look to be going to waste in his withdrawn role.
With United eliminated from all European competition, the expected inquest in the media and among the supporters has begun. But rather than call to account the Glazers for lack of transfer market funds, or Sir Alex, who is under real pressure for some less than ideal transfer market moves and for his persistence with a system that manifestly does not suit his squad, perhaps there is no single convenient person to blame for United’s collapse in Europe. A combination of injuries to key players, the aging of others, and a few who have been found to be below the standard required for success in Europe seems to be what caused United so much trouble in their 2005-06 Champions League campaign.
It’s neither romantic nor emotionally satisfying, but Gary Neville’s comment is substantially correct: United simply were not good enough.
9 December 2005