Now the aftermath of that unforgettable match against Real Madrid is finally starting to settle down, there are a few lingering issues coming out of the game. The first is the reaction to the defeat. Tuesday was very painful, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a game we will remember for years, occasionally interrupting our thoughts to remind us what might have been. Anyone who still recalls the Porto match, or the Bayern Munich tie from a few years ago, will know the feeling.
Saying that, it’s far better than the alternative. The sense of injustice from that ridiculous dismissal (compounded by Roy Keane’s irate and illogical analysis of it) is never welcome, but it is far preferable to the emotions generated by the comprehensive defeats to Barcelona in the finals of 2009 and 2011.
After those games, I felt deflated. Downbeat. We were so well-beaten and out-classed it was demoralising, a feeling even Sir Alex hinted at. It almost felt like we would never win the Champions League again, such was the gap in quality between ourselves and the eventual winners. It was a long road to return to that level. Actually, forget deflated. It felt hopeless.
This time, though, it’s different. Leaving aside all the refereeing decisions and the tactical nuances for a moment, we were the better team. Even Jose Mourinho admitted it after the game (although it’s always worth taking his words with a pinch of salt). We were solid in defence, dangerous offensively, and tactically smart and mature.
Compared to the Barcelona post-match emotions, I feel very positive about next season. Our youngsters were excellent in this tie – Rafael, Cleverley, Jones, Evans, De Gea and particularly Welbeck all played their part – and not only did they fail to look out of the place, for much of the time they stood out. Coupled with the experience and quality we have around them, and the hope of one or two top-class additions in the summer, there should be plenty of optimism that we can be a real force in Europe next season.
The second issue that has prompted some debate, both in the media and between our fans, is the tactical performance of Sir Alex. In the first leg, he set out the team perfectly, stifling Madrid while still creating chances of our own (and could Van Persie’s scuffed attempt in front of goal be viewed at least as telling as Nani’s dismissal in deciding this tie?). In the return fixture, Sir Alex surprised everyone again with his team selection, and then almost as much with his tactics, playing Giggs on the right, Nani left, and Welbeck behind Van Persie.
It worked to great effect. Madrid, who wanted to sit deep and counter, had to force the play, dominating possession but doing little with it. As we know, it all changed with the red card, and debate has centred on Sir Alex’s subsequent decisions. I’ve seen and heard a fair few comments that he failed to act quickly enough, that he should have brought Rooney on immediately, and changed the team shape. His alleged dalliance was exploited by Mourinho who brought on Modric and effectively won the game.
However, Sir Alex did make an immediate change. Welbeck moved left to fill the gap left by Nani’s departure, while Van Persie dropped a little deeper to get nearer Alonso. Obviously the pressure was less intense on Madrid and they began to dictate the play with greater purpose and threat. Part of the problem was there was no genuine central midfielder on the bench to help shore up the middle (how we missed Phil Jones at that point) although Rooney could have played that role.
Hindsight makes management easy but, tactical tweaks aside, the main problem was the United players were seemingly in a state of shock for ten minutes or so. It did take us far too long to regain our focus but it was understandable such was the irrational nature of the dismissal. If Nani had been dismissed for an obvious sending off offence, strangely it would have been better – the players would have been angry or shocked, but only momentarily – it’s likely they would have regrouped much quicker than they did, rather than continue in a state of bemusement. The crowding of the referee at the end of the match illustrated how much it was still playing on their minds.
The line of thought seems to be that United should have been even more defensive, and tried to hold out for the remainder of the game. There was almost thirty-five minutes remaining. Could we have withstood relentless Madrid pressure? It’s doubtful. And even if we had restricted them to one goal, that would have led to extra time – another thirty minutes of pressure. It was unlikely to end well.
I think Sir Alex weighed up the options and decided, on balance, it was best to retain an attacking edge. We had looked dangerous all night and Madrid were fallible at the back. This was further proved as we created four good chances with ten men. I’m sure better finishing and a less emotional reaction to Nani’s red card would have justified Sir Alex’s reasoning. Condemning him for his team failing to hold out against a high-quality Madrid side with ten men seems highly critical to say the least.
Comparing our loss to Chelsea’s or Inter Milan’s victories over Barcelona with ten men is missing the point – those triumphs were extraordinary, not typical. Play with a man less against one of the best teams in Europe for over half an hour and most of the time you’ll lose. Those wins demonstrate it isn’t impossible, but they certainly don’t show that it’s likely.
The third issue is Wayne Rooney. Whether or not you think his omission worked on the night, it appeared to be a tactical decision. Yet it was inevitable that as soon as he was left out of a match of that magnitude, Fleet Street would be excitedly preparing a raft of stories about his departure. The depressing thing is we have five or six months of this ahead of us.
It’s strange how, before this one match, the press failed to declare this series of ‘bust-ups’ and ‘fallings out’ and the fact Sir Alex and Rooney have an ‘uneasy relationship with each other’. It’s funny how if Sir Alex ‘no longer trusts Rooney in the big games’ he has played virtually all season when fit, and has been selected from the start in all of the major Premiership fixtures. It’s also odd how after signing Van Persie, he talked about how he was looking forward to pairing him with Rooney. And it’s peculiar how when we needed an equalising goal Sir Alex turned to Rooney first, even though he had a variety of alternative attacking options on the bench.
It’s not impossible Rooney will leave in the summer. It’s highly unlikely but you never know in football. But the way in which the media are exploiting one tactical decision is, sadly, entirely predictable. Welcome to the silly season.