So the new continental campaign is nearly upon us. A few eventful weeks into the English season and Michel Platini’s European Roadshow is all set to steal a slice of the limelight. In my world Wednesday night will involve my second antenatal class in three days – yet even my heavily pregnant wife accepts that my thoughts are likely to stray towards events in Manchester.
Our noisy neighbours may be involved in the glamour tie of the round, but for Britain’s most successful club in Champions League history our opening fixture is the first step on the road to redemption.
For all the anguish that Sergio Aguero’s champagne moment caused, in my view our performance in the Premier League last season is one of overachievement. Defensive crises, a struggle to define our style and a challenge from our seemingly injury proof bejewelled neighbours provides a context in which to narrowly miss out on the Gold is no grounds for embarrassment.
Europe however was a different story.
A virtually hand-picked group tempted our great coach to dabble with hubris. Disjointed line-ups were assigned the task of despatching well-drilled, motivated opposition. Sport loves to punish arrogance and United were duly dumped out of the competition. It was as much the manner of the performances as the results – winning positions were squandered, amateur errors gifted opportunities and most damning of all, possession was turned over time and time again. The cardinal sin that Ferguson had fought so hard to eliminate as a characteristic from his teams of the 90s had returned. The lesson was driven home most emphatically in the ‘plate competition’ where Athletic handed out a chasing so emphatic that it brought back memories of Romario and co terrorising poor Gary Walsh at Camp Nou. Not once, but twice.
Fast forward to the summer. Ferguson possesses so many great qualities it is hard to establish a hierarchy, yet arguably his ability to judge when and where change is needed marks him out as ahead of his rivals. European humiliation demanded a response. That response came in the form of an injection of creativity and control directly into the brain of our team. The deployment of both Kagawa and Cleverley might have proved susceptible to the ‘rough and tumble’ approach of Everton and Southampton, but it could well prove the key to competing with the European elite. The boss has spoken regularly of his belief that in light of rule changes and advances in fitness, the technician has replaced the destroyer in the engine room. Many of his followers disagree. Barely a weekend goes by without calls for a Fellaini or a Tiote to bring some steel to our core; yet the manager shows no intention of bowing to such demands. That stubbornness might restrict our chances of recovering our domestic crown, yet it might just be that the course Ferguson has set will fulfill his desire to add a third European triumph to his CV before he finally calls it a day.
Games in Europe hinge on who makes better use of the ball – whether the suffocating possession of Barcelona or the clinical counter attacking of Chelsea and Madrid. The addition of forwards might have indicated a return to the gung-ho days of old, yet the squad that has been assembled over the last couple of years is technically proficient and tactically astute. Cleverly and Carrick provide a double pivot who exist to supply intuitive movement between the lines. In Kagawa, van Persie, Nani, Rooney, Welbeck and even Young we have footballers comfortable in each attacking role – able to take up four/five differing attacking shapes throughout a match in pursuit of new angles and combinations to prize open the opposition. This most closely reflects the ‘Barcelona’ model yet it should not be overlooked that those same players represent a potentially devastating threat on the counter once their appreciation of one another grows.
At this present stage the player who seems most out of sorts is Welbeck - our natural inclination is towards the comfort of ‘formations’ provoking the current concern at Danny ‘not being a winger’. Personally I believe the depiction of Welbeck the ‘ill-disciplined winger’ is misplaced. It appears to me that the manager sees Welbeck as a vital component of his next great side and recognises that minutes on the pitch are essential for chemistry to develop. The short-term cost of this is patchy, at time infuriating, individual performances but the potential long-term benefits make the juice worth the squeeze. As a young player it is understandable that having spent a season as a mobile spearhead, adjusting to a more nuanced role takes time. That said, I doubt it will take long. As product of Meulensteen’s Coever-inspired revolution Welbeck has consistently demonstrated an appreciation of the game that belies his years.
In order to pose a genuine threat to the major European powers, United will need to be an inventive, tactically astute, flexible unit. We’re not there yet, and it won’t happen overnight; but when it does I firmly believe we will have a side capable of competing with the very best.