If you are a Manchester United fan, the only consolation at this moment is that Citeh will not be in the knockout phase. I don’t think it will ease the pain one little bit, because City are having the best Premier League season ever right now, and playing well, but Europe is another ball game entirely, and as first timers, they were given a reasonably difficult group to negotiate. Their squad is deep and full of quality, and they will be back.
A sub plot so far this season has been a Manchester-London rivalry, with the two Manchester clubs leading and three London clubs hot on their heels. The 7th of December seems a long way off from August 28th, when City beat Spurs 5-1 at White Hart Lane, and United got their 8-2 result over Arsenal at Old Trafford. At the end of that day, the score read: Manchester 13, (North) London 3. Needless to say, fans of Arsenal and Chelsea have been in fine form with their jibes since Wednesday.
While City’s exit is perfectly understandable, especially the fact that they are the first team to exit the competition with 10 points since 06/07, United’s exit is not. The usually strong home form that has characterised their campaigns in the past has faltered this season. Going 2-0 up against Basle at home before scrapping back to draw 3-3 was a result that would eventually come back to haunt them at St. Jakob Park, not to mention the defeat to City, the draw with Benfica after going 2-1 only to give up a goal a minute later and missing several chances to win the game, and defeat to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup.
From a perspective of recent history, defeat to Basle is even more shocking: it was their first away defeat in the group phase since November 2006, and only their FOURTH defeat in 55 Champions’ League games since the start of the 07/08 season, two of which were to Barcelona in the final. This also resulted in three finals in the last four seasons. Another interesting piece of history was made: the three occasions in which United have gone out in the group phase have all occurred on Wednesday 7th December: Losing to Benfica 2-1 in Portugal led to elimination on 7th December 2005, and despite beating Galatasaray 4-0 on 7th December 1994, they crashed out in a group also containing Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg.
What has gone wrong since September 10, after beating Bolton 5-0 at the Reebok? It is not just one thing, but a number of little things. I will attempt to highlight the most important ones.
1. Cleverley-Anderson patnership: In the summer transfer window, the club did not sign a player to replace Paul Scholes, who retired at the end of last season. He was a deep lying playmaker, also called a regista, who is one of the most important aspects of any top team. Someone has to conduct the orchestra from deep, and every top team has one: Real have Alonso, Barca have Xavi, and so on. In the aftermath of that evisceration at Wembley, it was clear that the team lacked flair in midfield, but rather than splash the cash, Sir Alex chose to promote from within. Tom Cleverley, previously on loan at Wigan, came on at half time in the Community Shield and changed the direction of the game, and for the first three games in the league, he and Anderson made a splendid partnership in the centre of midfield with their fluid, high-tempo style. 13 goals was the result, but just three minutes into the game with Bolton, Cleverley had to depart. It would be six weeks before he would play again, versus Aldershot in the Carling Cup, and in the next game at Goodison Park, he was the best player on the pitch, before going off injured just before the hour mark. In his absence, Anderson lost his way, then got injured as well. United have never looked as creative as those first three games.
2. Nemanja Vidic: Even though United were scoring plenty early on, they were also conceding a lot of shots, which was the subject of some analysis. Part of this must have been down to the absence of the United captain. He went off injured in the first game of the season against West Brom, and only returned against Otelul Galati on October 18th, only to get sent off and suspended for the crucial home game (on hindsight) against Benfica. In fact, Vidic did not complete a single game in the group phase this season, playing just 108 minutes out a possible 540. In that time, United only conceded once.
3. Wayne Rooney: Rooney started the season on fire, but two things have happened since that seem to have derailed his season. Since his red card in the final EURO 2012 game in Podgorica against Montenegro on 7th October, he has scored just one (heavily deflected) goal from open play in 1039 minutes of football. More tellingly, a lack of quality from midfield has meant that he plays further from goal to pick up possession and start moves. It hasn’t helped his game one bit.
Those are the top three reasons as I see them. There are others, like the dip in form of Nani and Ashley Young, and the tendency to oscillate between very attacking, like earlier in the season, and cautious, like in the games after losing 6-1 to City. In the absence of Anderson and Cleverley, perhaps playing the talented Ravel Morrison (who will be 19 in February) and having Carrick alongside in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 might have helped the situation, but the manager does not seem keen on this, preferring for instance to field JS Park and Darron Gibson in the game against Crystal Palace.
The lack of creativity is costing the team dearly because it gives Rooney too much to do, and a final departure from the 4-4-2 is also imperative in order to keep possession better and expose the defence less, especially as Vidic could be out for the rest of the season. Pending the return of Cleverley and/or midfield reinforcements in January, Morrison needs to be given playing time, although his attitude off the field is clearly standing in the way of that.
How the team responds to the double disappointment of crashing out of the Champions’ League and the loss of Vidic will no doubt be analysed endlessly. Even though the end of the season is still a long way off, with several twists to come, the feeling that something slightly drastic has to happen to stand a chance of winning a trophy is inescapable, and the FA Cup game with City on January 7 looks epic already. Playing thursday night football in the new year will be hard to take, but if Sir Alex wins it, he will be the first and only coach to win all UEFA competitions + the Super Cup and World Club Cup.
One thing is clear from the last three months: despite the potential in the squad, it is still an incomplete project. Given the record of Sir Alex in building teams, the evidence is overwhelming that this current crop of players will come good eventually. Whether or not that will happen this season remains to be seen. As a fan spoilt with success since 2007, I hope so. 🙂