“Thursday nights, Channel 5!” was a chant designed by Manchester United fans when Liverpool failed to get a top four spot in 2010, but expect it to be heard more often the next few months. United’s loss to Basel was excruciating, humiliating, and painful. Memories of Benfica and the failings of the 2005/06 season were reminders for Ferguson going in to the game. “Back then we had a lot of injuries and young players trying to break into the squad, this time it is totally different” were the words from our manager before the Basel game. But was it different? Just like then we lost 2-1 in our final game, going out in the group qualification.
Why? How did this happen? Fergie blamed injuries and inexperience for our failings back then, but are they good enough excuses after what we saw on Wednesday?
First off, it is important to note that the injury to Vidic was a big blow to us. Just like Chicharito’s injury weakens our attacking threat, our Serbian skipper makes a big difference to our defensive performances. As it currently stands United have conceded 3 goals in the 9 games Vidic has been on the pitch, a big difference compared to the 15 conceded in the remaining 15 games. His knee-injury looks very serious as well. Despite being a big lad himself, getting the biggest players on the pitch, Streller on 6’5 and weighting 87 kg, falling on your leg and crushing an already stretched knee is pain no-one can imagine. At best Vidic is out for 4 months, at worst it could be his footballing career being ended. Realistically, we will not see him on the pitch again this season. And that is a major worry.
The two goals United conceded were very soft, very unlike Manchester United. The referee cannot be blamed for stopping the play with Smalling injured, but with him on the ground there was no-one to challenge Shaqiri from putting a hard cross in. De Gea could have done much better on the cross, but it was hard and low and very difficult to do anything about. When you let a player like Shaqiri put a cross in with that much room around him, there is bound to be a big, big chance in the offing. The same happened for our second goal, with Rio being too slow to close down Shaqiri. He ran towards the wing with our big man just jogging after, never looking like wanting to take the ball. The little magician turned and put a delightful cross in, but had Vidic been on the pitch it is hard to see it being scored on. Evans is not strong or tall enough to challenge Streller, and without looking at the ball he just went in with one thing in mind- stopping Streller. That he did, but when a cross comes in with that velocity and direction, letting it run past you is incredible dangerous. It caught Smalling out, and Frei was left with a simple header into the net. 2-0, and game over.
Despite being an area of blame, our midfield did not do badly. Jones did very well, and despite not having the intelligence to dominate in a two man midfield, he broke up play and got the ball moving. Giggsy on the other hand, had a very difficult night. He did well defensively, but when he got the ball he lost it too often. Now, it is unfair to give Giggsy too much stick for this. He tried to create chances, and played the ball into space for Rooney and Park to collect, but there was never any real movement up front to make those smart passes count. The one time when Rooney decided to chase, he got a one-on-one with the keeper but smashed it right at him. Despite being engines and real work-horses, Rooney and Park are both players who want the ball at their feet rather than room. An on form Rooney would probably have had a hat-trick on Wednesday, but in the form he is in he does not look much of a threatening player. He missed a simple tap-in in the first half, and shot either wide or straight at the goalkeeper whenever given a chance to blast it.
Rooney was extremely disappointing. His head does not seem right, and his hunger for goals seems to have disappeared. He does not move into areas where he knows he can get a goal, but rather comes deep to collect and partake in the build up. When playing as a lone striker, this does not make much sense, and it made it hard for both Nani and Young to make an impact on the game. How often did they get to the byline, only to swing a cross in to an empty area? Nani kept on going though, and was probably the only player who can go out of this game with his head held high. He skinned Joo Ho time and time again, swung crosses in with pace, and had not the crossbar or a painfully bad Rooney been in the way he could have had two or three assists to his name. He played with real determination, unlike our Englishman on the other side. Young disappointed, and looked lost. He started the game brightly, but faded as the game progressed. He got into areas where he could put the ball in, only for him to see no-one in there and then opt for a short backpass to Evra or Giggsy. Whenever we had bodies in their box, it was Park or Rooney, and with their two central defenders having a combined height of 1,87 m there was never really any chance we were going to get our goal that way. Ashley does not possess the skill of putting a hard and low cross in from the left, so his inclusion was unnecessary at best.
All our dangerous attacks came from United’s right wing. Smalling and Nani performed admirably, but because of horrible movement up front there was no way their raids were going to end in a goal. Summer did well and collected a lot of crosses, being quick on his line and stopping us whenever we came close to his goal. We had at least 7 goalmouth chances we should have scored from, but our wastefulness in front of goal punished us to the extreme. And it is not like you have not seen him coming. For the last few games United have created chance after chance, but only gotten a goal or two out of the game. Passing instead of shooting, shooting instead of passing, opting for the wrong option, and absolute shit movement up front is to blame for this. It is no surprise Hernandez has scored so often for United lately, it seems he is the only one willing to work his socks off in the opposing penalty area. Had he not been injured and played yesterday, he could well easily have scored a hat-trick!
The build-up play United have shown in the last few games has been impressing. They have gotten more possession than the opponent and created more chances than anyone they have faced ever since the City game. Bad luck can be the cause of our poor attacking play, but when it happens for so many games in a row you really start to wonder if it is just that. Sir Alex saw his side hit the crossbar twice in Switzerland, twice against Swansea, twice against Newcastle, and against Benfica they created more than enough chances to win the game by 5 or 6 goals. Rooney has not scored since September either, so it is worrying times for Sir Alex and everyone connected to Manchester United.
It must be said though, that this never should have been a game we needed to win. The whole Champions League campaign has been full of soft goals conceded after suicidal defensive performances. Conceding 3 at home to Basel says it all really, and the 2 goals going against United in the Benfica game must be two of the softest goals you are likely to see. Both those games should have been won after being in a comfortable position, but ended in painful draws which eventually have seen us knocked out from our group. Interesting to note is that 4 of the 5 goals conceded in two games against Basel came from crosses, which is usually United’s strongest area. Our defensive play is built up to force opponents wide and swing crosses in, and expect them to be easily dealt with by Smalling, Ferdinand, or Vidic. It has worked ever since our knockout in 2005, but without Vidic it has been our Achilles. We will probably see a lot of Johnny Evans this season, so Fergie needs to sort this tactic out. Rio does not function properly without the Serbian, and despite Evans being relatively strong in the air he does lose a lot of aerial battles.
There was not much we could do about the Basel game. Inexperience is not an excuse as many of our players have partaken in the Champions League for many, many years. Injuries are a big issue, and they combined with our poor defensive performances this season knocked us out. Offensively United do not do too much wrong, it is just the killer instinct that is lacking. As soon as our chances turn into goals, we will see players gain confidence and more will fly in. The injuries forced Fergie’s hand, as Park and Rooney were our only striking options, unless you count Macheda of course. Welbeck has been injured for a long time, and trying to force him back in these injury ridden days is on the brink of idiocy. As soon as he came on United started to threaten and looked dangerous, and it was his rebounded shot that eventually led to our goal. If only he had been properly fit.
United have a team built up with a squad made to win any game. In the squad you will find players who can do different things and offer our squad new dimension based on what opposition we face. But with all these injuries, no-one really sees that. The team does lack two incredibly vital things though. A core, and a talisman. Rooney seems much more comfortable being the supplier than the big offensive threat, and United do not have that player who can give defenders nightmares or turn a game on its head within seconds. A touch, a shot, a trick, something to fire everyone up. Whether this player is a midfielder or a striker does not really matter much at United, but the club does need someone with that extra special. After the 2005 experience Ronaldo grew into exactly that player, and hopefully there will be someone who can do the same thing this time around. As a team, it is hard to see a proper first XI out there for United. Squad rotation is obviously hurting our players, and Rooney seems to be the biggest victim. Being a supplier, he needs a solid foundation around him. He, along with United, have played well when he has been partnered up front with Chicharito, but having to switch between striker, midfielder, and headless chicken, having to change his game twice a week, is hurting him. It is not the Wayne Rooney we all know. Hopefully someone within the club will pick it up, because it definitely needs sorting.
United are always at their best when disappointment is at its highest. Pain and humiliation is just an experience these players will have to learn from, and hopefully they will show results. For now, let us hope they bounce back with a real victory against Wolves!