It’s been six years since United were in a position as bad as this. Red’s fans will always remember the night that they went out at this stage in France, just as they’ll be eternally blighted by this calamity. After the 2005 exit, they went on to have the best 5 year spell in their history and United fans will hope for a similar cycle again- but they did of course have a coltish Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks back then. I doubt United will find another one of him anytime soon.
Most are using the word ‘transition’ when describing United now. The question is whether Fergie can pass his final test – to make United the scourge of Europe for one last time. But the most anxious will worry that, after years of pre-eminence, the empire is crumbling for good. Think of the lost revenue from going out of The Champions League at this stage. Will it affect their debt burden? Will it reduce their buying power? Is it time for The Glazers to cash in?
Whatever happens, they need to sign a couple of top players. I said it at the time and I still think United mis-spent their money in the summer. They should have kept Edwin Van Der Sar for another year (apparently he wanted to stay) and let Liverpool have Ashley Young. Two good goals against Arsenal is all he has contributed to United’s season. I’m boggled as to why Fergie praises him so highly. He seems to lack guile and can’t beat his man. He can’t unlock a defence and he doesn’t appear to be the sort of dazzling winger that United fans have become accustomed to. I would have played Valencia, with Nani on the left, every day of the week. And the naked truth is that if De Gea hadn’t tried a bizarre kicked clearance for the opener, United would still be in the competition.
I think that the manager is partly culpable for the current plight. For various reasons, their purchases over the last few years just haven’t yielded results. Hargreaves, Anderson, Valencia, Owen, Berbatov, Young, De Gea, Jones, Bebe, Obertan, Smalling, the Da Silvas. Some have done better than others but not one has really staked a claim to being considered undroppable. The only player that Fergie has bought, that has succeeded emphatically, is Chicharito. Nani excites but still can’t get United out of jail at the business end of games in the same way Ronaldo could. However much more improvement there is to come from Nani, he will always be somewhat erratic.
Before the latest raft of signings, United had a purple patch in the market acquirng top players like Vidic, Evra, Saha, Ronaldo, Carrick, Tevez, Park and Rooney – but the subsequent batch of recruits haven’t stepped up to the required level. Obviously some will keep improving and help form the team of the future (let’s look at this blog in a few years and see how many are still playing at United). Fans might also be concerned about whether Rooney stays – he’s just signed a new contract but he was promised improved playing staff and he hasn’t yet got it. He does not look happy at the moment and missed an absolute sitter last night. When he’s hot he’s baking hot but he’s just not on form at the moment.
What United need more than anything is a wizard in the middle. Last night Giggs was employed to thread passes to the forwards and was arguably United’s best player, but still wasn’t decisive enough. And, at 38, he hardly offers a long-term solution. But there was noone to keep the passing tempo at a level that would have undone the oppostion. Even a player like Basle’s Shaqiri would have made the difference for the Reds last night. He was outstanding. He’s exactly the sort of busy bee United needs. Someone who has skill, passing ability, vision and speed of thought. It doesn’t take a genius to see that United’s biggest frailty is their sluggish midfield.
United’s passing is too slow and laboured in general. There are also too many sideways and backwards passes, even from forward players like Young and Park. Not enough of them are prepared to turn and see the space ahead of them or the forward pass. They all play safe when they get it, allowing the opposition to get back behind the ball. 2 years ago United had the fastest counter attacking unit in Europe. That speed and decisiviness on the break has all but vanished of late.
United could currently be described as having a lot of dead wood – Owen (calf, hamstring,groin,thigh), Berbatov (£31.75M for a few goals at home against mid-table sides), Evans (so many awful passes last night), Park (fading), Fletcher (pedestrian), Macheda (breeze block feet), Diouf (could probably get a game at a mid-table Championship club)- are they making big enough contributions to wear the red of United?. Is Wellbeck really the answer up front? I still can’t work out whether he’s any good. It has to be said that injuries and suspensions have heavily impacted on their season and the footballing gods further conspired against United last night when they took Vidic during the game. But, of the host of absentees, only Carrick and Cleverley would definitely have played against Basle. One is arguably past his best and the other is yet to properly prove himself. United’s resolution in the dieing minutes was to throw on Macheda- a player with a heavy touch at the best of times – instead of Valencia. Surely you would want as many of your best players as possible on the park at the end of such a game and who, in the world, would take Macheda over Valencia?
Anyway, it’s a bad hangover day for United.
The first few days will be the hardest. Who knows, after that United may enjoy the Europa league! Perhaps it’s the perfect learning curve for the colts, giving them more European experience this year rather than having to suffer the potential indignity of a thrashing at the hands of Real Madrid in the next round. I have no doubt that Jones, Smalling (when both played in their proper positions at centre back) and the Da Silvas will become top players. I also think De Gea is very classy (despite the many mistakes this season). It’s further forward where United really need to tinker. Fresh life in the middle of the park. Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba could well be given a chance in the coming months. Cleverley will be back – and a top player needs to be added.
So here’s an interesting final thought. If United are out of The Champions League then surely they can buy anyone who has played in the competition for another club. He would still be completely eligible for The Europa League. Sir Alex doesn’t like delving into the transfer market in the winter but this may change his mind.