For all the sadness among Manchester United fans, players and management after the Champions’ League final, the fact is that defeat was expected. Barcelona were always favourites. It is the opinion of many analysts that United’s 4-4-1-1 instead of a 4-3-3 shape made things easier for them, but Real Madrid tried that, but reduced the game to little more than a scrap, showed no attacking thrust at all and still lost the tie. Arsenal arguably came closest, but they didn’t have a shot on or off target in the second leg despite coming into the game with a narrow lead. The simple truth is, this Barcelona side is only second to the Ajax team of the early 70s. They are the benchmark around Europe now. It is unfortunate from a United point of view that they play at the same time with them, because they have also been very consistent. In the last four full seasons of European football, the record reads played 49, won 33, drawn 12 lost 4. Wembley was their third final in four years and of the four defeats, 2 have been to Guardiola’s side, both in finals. Sir Alex Ferguson has spent nearly a decade trying to create a template for continental dominance but finds his team trumped repeatedly by a once in a generation opponent. Ferguson acknowledges that his biggest challenge now resides at Camp Nou, and it is a challenge he must meet like every other in his managerial career.
It is hard to see how United can hope to match Barcelona without a midfield overhaul in the summer. Younger, fitter versions of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes who can pass the ball and dictate the tempo of a game must be a priority. Despite winning the Premier League for the 19th time, the team is clearly deficient in that area of the pitch. As a result, there can be no half measures in terms of recruitment or in terms of the backing the Glazers are prepared to give.
United must target technical midfielders capable of speed of thought and execution when in possession, as well as the prodigious fitness levels necessary to win back the ball constantly. Some players will also have to make way. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have given excellent service to the cause, but this challenge is beyond them. Michael Owen is another player left behind by the modern game, being too 1-dimensional to be effective in different situations. With time and space at the very highest level a rarity, Dimitar Berbatov’s place must also be evaluated. His football brain might be on a par with Barca’s finest, but his movement seems a better fit for the early 2000s. It is not often that a Premier League top scorer is deemed incapable of influencing a European Cup final. Bebe and Obertan are not even worth discussing. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck would be welcome returnees from loan spells, and a few promising youth players would shore up the squad and gain valuable experience.
Links to Jack Rodwell and Ashley Young, if they turn out to be true, are not what United need now as they don’t improve the team in any way. Any two of Schweinsteiger, Modric or Sneijder would restore the former glories of United’s midfield and give Fergie the best possible chance of winning another European Cup. Schweini and Sneijder in particular are proven winners on the biggest stage. Luka Modric is the best midfielder in the Premier League. Full stop.
What the manager and the owners have up their sleeve is still unclear, but if they don’t get it right this summer, the amazing consistency of this current United side will pass without the European trophies to confirm it, similar to the Juventus side of the late 90s who got to 3 finals in a row, winning only one. Domestically, the threat of City and seeming resurgence of Liverpool loom larger and Sir Alex may yet live to see either soil his legacy. Having just completed what may be his toughest season ever, it doesn’t get any easier for the wily Scotsman.