In 1999 Alex Ferguson wheeled off his perfect football match as “both teams trying to win with scant regard for the consequences.” You’d be a schmuck to ask him, but, fixed on that, how often might he have enjoyed taking in a Manchester United game in the last three seasons? Post-Cristiano Ronaldo, the one-goal win has usurped blood and thunder football as the club’s shtick, so you would have to guess at an answer of “not very often, son.” But if you want the reality, you would in all likelihood have him storm out on you instead of giving any answer at all, calling you something that wouldn’t make the final edit of this as he did so.
What United are today is difficult for even the storm-outs to spin into something more comfortable. Since the 6-1 shellacking by Manchester City, United had scored just five goals in five ninety-minutes’ of tedium, before a 4-1 win against Wolves came to the statistical rescue. In the same period, City scored 16 league goals, albeit it is hasty to label them freewheeling fun-hunters just yet. Gareth Barry remains a crucial cog in that wheel, after all.
Playing with grave concern for the consequences seemed to become more difficult to resist after the incident with the neighbours. David Silva’s through balls must still be etched into Ferguson’s psyche, and the names of City’s top-class strikers cannot be far from his players’ eyelids at any moment, either. Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko’s goals on the day acted concisely as a reminder of the depth of sharp-shooters that United themselves lack – or, alternatively, their relative lacking in every position. City’s lead at the top of the Premier League has not been broken since their big day at Old Trafford.
The shop-shutting by United has hardly been a total failure, though. Demonstrably weaker than the other title hunters, they lie (an apt enough term) only two points off the only place that matters in the league. Following on from their defeat to Chelsea last week City’s millions have so far contributed to just a two point lead at the top.
But pragmatism has fallen crucially short elsewhere. United’s Champions League exit exposed the worry lines once more: the squad is not simply weaker than those it is competing against, it is a hollow impression of a championship winning side. It could not, as it turned out, afford to have off days as it did against FC Basel, twice. The result of which was this parachuting into the Europa League – “the graveyard of European Football” – and a knockout round meeting with Ajax, rather than AC Milan or Barcelona.
The demotion is, on the considerable one hand a devastating blow to a proud club. On the other, however, it is an opportunity for a renewal of sorts. Amongst the suggestions for how to deal with Thursday nights on Channel Five, one has not been explored well enough. United are faced with, apparently, either playing the kids (not playing “with” the kids, as one pundit put it – that’s illegal), or taking it “seriously”.
It has hit very few that United, playing in a competition in which they would, ideally, be playing no part, could play the Europa League “with scant regard for the consequences.” Perhaps a 4-4-2 or a real 4-3-3 could be brought out. Perhaps Dimi Berbatov could be allowed to have a touch of the ball; a few quiet moments of passion with it for us all to watch, like perverts. The intense focus required to win the Champions or Premier Leagues, plus the financial implications of failure, impose strict consequences on players at the great Manchester United. Every moment is on some level defining. But the paradigm wriggles away from that now that they are in Europe’s graveyard. Perhaps there is room for fun.
Last week’s draw sets the stage even more thoroughly. Ajax, their opponents, were unlucky to fall from the Champions League themselves: they are, by the accounts of those in the know, “pretty useful”. The possibility of both United and Ajax throwing caution to the sanitised Champions League wind, brings the tie into the realm of interesting, then. Two legs against a good but not great team, with nothing to lose, certainly has potential. Should Ajax be bypassed, there remains enough opposition of quality to make winning the thing a genuine achievement. Perhaps the manager can enjoy watching them again.
The game is, of course, already afoot. FIFA have threatened to suspend Swiss clubs from world football today, leading to doubt over FC Basel’s involvement in the Champions League knockout rounds. United, the team they eliminated, could take their place. Best for all concerned – and what remains of dignity – that that doesn’t happen.