Something I wrote
Everything happens for a reason...
...Losing to Benfica in 2005, included.
Close your eyes. Turn your mind back to 21:30 on 7th December 2005. Can you remember how you were feeling at that particular moment in time? After a dismal night at the Estadio da Luz, in front of 61,000 fans Manchester United were embarrassingly dumped out of the Champions League at the group stages, coming 4th thus not even qualifying for the then named UEFA Cup.
Turn the clock forward some two and a half years later, and picture the fingertips of van der Sar pushing away the penalty by Anelka in a rain soaked night at the Luzhniki Stadium.
How is it even possible, that a team who failed to progress in 2005, could reach the semi finals in 2007 and go one step further in 2008 and become Champions Elect of Europe?
As United’s players trudged off the pitch in Portugal and Ferguson looked on in despair, cue the utter pandemonium and madness, Manchester United and Alex Ferguson were not only slaughtered in the morning papers but a thorough dissection took place to find out the reasons why they faltered and where United would go from here, seemingly it was suggested in the summer United and Ferguson would depart, after some 20 years at the helm.
With the takeover of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, and the Invincible era of Arsenal under the watchful eye of Arsene Wenger, it was difficult to see how United were going to come out of this. Finishing 3rd in 2003/2004 and again in 2004/2005, the ‘experts’ proclaimed that Ferguson had reached the end of his life at United, it was time for him to move on and allow someone with youth, vigour and panache to take over. This coupled with no Champions League football guaranteed going into 2006, meant United were going through a ‘rough patch’ given how they previously reigned supreme in English football. Was the tide changing towards the South? Could Ferguson work his magic? Or was it time for Ferguson to walk away with the dignity he had left to ensure no further humiliation?
With the departure of Roy Keane at the beginning of the season, fans were becoming restless. Who would fill that void? How much worse were things going to get, and were they ever going to get better? As United fans it is plain to see, under the tenure of Sir Alex we have become spoilt, and anything less than a win is questioned. Going into the Benfica game, videos of George Best and the first European Cup triumph for United filled our minds. We needed to win and the memories of the past would allow us to do that. An excellent start with a goal from Paul Scholes seemingly settled some nerves, only for Geovanni to bring Benfica back into it and Beto to finish us off. That tells half the story. Not progressing to the knock outs for the first time in 11 years was all United’s own doing, two 0-0 draws against Villarreal, coupled with a home draw against Lille at the Stade de France, we left ourselves with a mountain to climb.
Ronaldo and Rooney, the two players who United looked to for inspiration flattered to deceive, in the middle of the park with Smith and Scholes United repeatedly lost possession and gave the initiative to Benfica, who didn’t need too many invitations to put their marker down on Group D.
Back where United claim their ‘bread and butter’, things weren’t running smoothly either. Losses to Blackburn and Middlesbrough in the Premier League along with draws v Liverpool and Tottenham, United had succumbed to 4th place by mid November, only for a 1-0 home win v Chelsea bringing them up to 3rd. Chelsea and Arsenal though, still the teams to beat and United were falling behind.
With no chance in Europe and erratic results in the Premiership and no signs of Chelsea slipping up, United turned to the FA Cup and Carling Cup, to give this youthful United side a taste of the silverware. A subsequent loss at Anfield in the 5th round of the FA Cup, left the Carling Cup as United’s source of inspiration and motivation. Nicknamed the ‘Mickey Mouse’ cup and deemed worthless by many, United went into the final at the Millennium Stadium having beaten Barnet, West Brom, Birmingham and Blackburn Rovers. Having seen some of the younger players perform with such vigour in the earlier stages, Ferguson was left with something of a selection dilemma come Cup Final day v Wigan. It was here, that United then saw glimpses of the future. It was here, where seemingly things changed, and the dark cloud which seemed to shroud over Old Trafford in mid-December, seemed to be making way for better times.
Ronaldo and Rooney ran rampant, the swagger and mantra of ‘attack, attack, attack’ that the United faithful were so used to seeing seemed to come naturally. Wigan shell shocked, and Ronaldo and Rooney probably thinking they could get used to this.
This is where I feel it all changed, and this is why in hindsight I believe that not progressing into the knock out stages that season was a wakeup call, and in essence a positive for Manchester United. United went back to basics, having been trophyless, a piece of silverware once mocked was the stepping stone for the new era of Manchester United players and a source of encouragement for Sir Alex Ferguson as he looked to build.
Finishing the season 2nd, one ahead of Liverpool but eight behind Chelsea, meant that Champions League football was certain with no need to go through the qualifying stages as previously.
The 2005 Champions League campaign brought home several truths, the frailties were obvious, our players were not good enough to play alongside Europe’s elite, changes needed to be made and above all, tactics needed to be changed. Evidently, the style of play could not be transferred from the Premier League. With the summer acquisitions of van der Sar and Park, along with the arrivals of Vidic and Evra in January, Ferguson was already beginning to build the next part of his Old Trafford dynasty.
With the season over and a Carling Cup success to ponder over, the debacle against Charlton meant Ruud was now on his way out, United’s major signing was to be Michael Carrick wearing the vacant number 16 shirt, for many United fans, it was a Roy Keane-esque player that we were missing in midfield, the lack of supposed passion, no urgency in play, poor possession of the ball, coupled with players not performing to their absolute best, 2006-2007 was to be a telling season for Manchester United.
If Manchester United had learnt anything over the past several years, it was obvious that no-one would do them any favours. If they wanted their trophy back, they would have to do it themselves and excel themselves to a level where they would become England’s elite. Four outstanding performances, meant by mid September, United had not moved from the number 1 spot, Saha and Giggs particularly impressing.
The discussion of Alex Ferguson and his ‘lack’ of success in Europe in comparison to other ‘great’ managers was always bubbling. The promising performances in the Premier League were coming thick and fast, Ronaldo, Rooney and Saha showing exquisite skill and signs of things to come. It was however, the summer purchase of one man which seemingly altered the manner in which United looked at matches, in particular in Europe.
United’s new No. 16, Michael Carrick played an unfashionable role in the middle of the park, very non-English like but very continental. With Carrick sitting deep in the midfield, this allowed United’s attacking play to flourish, there was ample protection for the back four but also a licence for United to move forward without worry. Although now many United fans are undecided on the impact of Carrick or whether or not he can fit into the new look United team of 2011, it was clear in 2007 that the side could not function without the intelligence of Carrick. His interceptions, passing, ability to bring calmness in the middle of the park and that crucial eye for a delicious pass across the pitch left no doubt as to why Sir Alex had forked out the amount he did.
The change of tactics in Europe often meant playing a 4-5-1, with Ronaldo upfront, and Rooney playing on the wing. This was detested by many as Rooney was being shunned out wide and not flourishing like many felt he could, however it is true that with a more disciplined performance this was the way forward for United in Europe. Rather than go at teams in the same vein as in the Premiership, playing it in a more continental style (maybe copying the tactics deployed by Benitez during his time managing LFC in Europe), meant that United were able to press and retain possession much better. The use of the wingers and the new position Ryan Giggs was finding himself in proved to be a catalyst for success.
With the Premier League eluding United in previous seasons, the hunger and quest by Sir Alex and the team was ever more. It simply drove them more and wanted them to beat Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool. Whoever it may be in their way. For me, it was clear to see that the nightmare at the Estadio de Luz could not be repeated, and it was key to do well in Europe, but equally United needed to lay down a marker in England, using the Caring Cup as a stepping stone the hunger for silverware roared United on to another league title, leaving many bewildered at the transformation over the past 18 months. This was to be the beginning of a period of domination which included Rooney and Ronaldo at their best.
Whilst United faltered at the semi-final stage in the Champions League stage, to eventual winners AC Milan courtesy of two outstanding performances by Kaka, yet another learning curve took place. And whilst it was not quite back to the drawing board, it was more a lesson for the men in red as to what needed to be improved to take the next step towards European success. Not many will forget the game at Goodison Park, United down 2-0 to come out 4-2 winners, for many this took it out of the players prior to the midweek European game however this was also the game that set the foundation for a stunning end to a victorious season.
With noises being made of Ronaldo wanting to leave for Madrid, Ferguson wasn’t going to let this happen without a fight. It was unlikely that, someone who Ronaldo considered himself a father figure, was going to let a player go until it suited Manchester United. The club always comes first. Following an acrimonious summer, a struggle with Bayern Munich and crucial performances for England in what was a disappointing World Cup in 2006, Owen Hargreaves made his way to Old Ttrafford. Followed by Nani and Anderson from Portugal and Tevez from West Ham.
Manchester United had just become a whole lot stronger. A statement of intent had well and truly been set by Ferguson to the rivals, but also to his own players. Whilst 2006/2007 was a good season with a Premier League medal to suit, it wasn’t enough. Manchester United must keep on improving and keep on working, the players are kept on their toes to ensure they never rest on their laurels.
Having a barren spell of silverware during the early years of the Millennium, coupled with a loss at the hands of Arsenal in the 2005 FA Cup Final (most one sided final ever!), it became clear that Ferguson was not willing to return to that time.
The 2007/2008 season can be summed by one single venue, Luzhniki Stadium. After a power struggle for several seasons in England, United and Chelsea faced each other in the Champions League final. The telling story is that just as required, the team had made progress. Having gone out to AC Milan at the semi-final stage last year, this year United beat Barcelona at home courtesy of a stunning Paul Scholes strike to send the Old Trafford faithful delirious. So different the emotions here in comparison to the game v Benfica in 2005. Looking back at 2005, did we ever think we would come so far in such a small space of time? The rest as they say, is history.
Whilst United had acquired several star players, it was one youth team player who made his mark and emerged showing his true potential. Darren Fletcher and his commitment to the cause cannot be understated, for years he was the butt of all jokes, many wanted him to leave yet Ferguson continued to show faith in him which bore fruit. His dynamism and athleticism in the middle of the park, coupled with key tackles, and a partnership with Carrick was a key part in United achieving the double.
2008-2011 and onwards
On the back of a Premier League and Champions League double, United fans were feeling untouchable. The team playing scintillating tiki-taka like football, in the Premier League this was swift counter attacking, effectively deploying wingers with the full backs overlapping, Michael Carrick in imperious form as he protected the back four bringing out a new player in Scholes and Giggs. Carrick’s eye for a pass, the key interceptions he was making in the middle of the park and swiftness of the movement of United, United were once again a feared team across Europe.
Ronaldo and Rooney were spear heading this side, a crucial cog in the way Sir Alex expected his players to perform. The partnership of Vidic and Ferdinand cannot be overlooked, they continued to compliment one another, Vidic your old school defender, making key interceptions and tackles whilst Ferdinand poised as a new breed of player, both of them oozing class. van der Sar was beginning to raise questions as to why he wasn’t bought in earlier.
We saw glimpses of a new Giggs emerging in 2008, and well into 2009 this continued. Ferguson is clearly a master tactician and astute in his dealings with his players. Many felt Scholes and Giggs were finished as players for Manchester United, yet new found roles for them gave them a new lease of life. Scholes, although not playing 50 games a season, was still showing his ability to be a match winner, and for Carrick, the Ginger Prince proved to be the perfect teacher in the school of ‘pass and move’, yet it was the enigmatic Giggs who was capturing the headlines. Swapping the left wing for the centre of the park, we saw less of a Giggs that was running down the wing but more of an experienced player who was enjoying his time on the pitch alongside a relatively young side still learning how to play together. Giggs’ intricate passing, his link up play with Rooney and his movement on the pitch told that he still had a lot to give.
Ronaldo continued in supreme form, such a different player from that one we saw v Benfica who became frustrated and demonstrated his anger at the home fans at the end of the game, so different from the one who spent too long on the ball, who didn’t pass, who didn’t cross and had little end product. The media outcry after 2006 actually brought Ronaldo a new level of maturity, his relationship with Ferguson improved and two years later, Ferguson and we began to see the player that we expected, but a lot more. His partnership with Rooney and Tevez meant, United were always likely to score and create chances. Particularly true in the league where Ronaldo ended the season as top scorer, before his move to Madrid in the summer.
After a disappointing end to the season, where United lost to Barcelona in Rome in the Champions League final, the rumours diminished and Ronaldo moved on. But not without another league title. And this, once again showed the genius of Sir Alex, as NOW the time was right for Manchester United. Nani beginning to show glimpses of what was to come, crucial performances from Anderson against Arsenal and Liverpool in midfield winning key battles against Fabregas and Gerrard left the fans speechless. Just how good could this United side be? The media as ever, had written us off. Because, we didn’t have Ronaldo. Because, he was our goalscorer and what would United do without him. Forward three seasons later, and we can clearly see who came out the better from the transfer.
Nani has come out of his shell, Rooney has progressed to a whole new level, Anderson and Cleverley have developed an encouraging partnership in the middle of the park, the acquisition of Young this summer along with Valencia means United now have two of the best wingers in the league, players who create goals, score goals and continuously fight for the team. And, I haven’t even mentioned Berbatov yet.
Compare this to the performances we saw in 2003, 2004 and 2005. We all remember them defeats to Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Benfica, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Southend.
After the loss in Rome against Barcelona, the fire in the belly of Sir Alex to win the Champions League became borderline obsessive. And although we haven’t repeated the feat yet, the fact we have found ourselves in three finals in four years, we have won four of the Premier League titles in five years and have a plethora of talent coming through the Academy, only one man is having the last laugh.
I could have prevented you from reading all this and simply posted the following:
United team v Benfica 2005
Van der Sar, Neville, O’Shea, Smith, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Ronaldo, Scholes, Rooney, Ruud, Giggs, Park, Richardson and Saha.
United team v Benfica 2011
Lindesgaard, Fabio, Evra, Carrick, Smalling, Evans, Valencia, Fletcher, Rooney, Giggs, Park, Hernandez, Jones and Nani.
That’s not forgetting the likes of de Gea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Young, Berbatov, Owen, Welbeck, Cleverley and Anderson either on the bench or left out. We’ve changed and moved on massively over the years. Whilst as United fans it was perplexing as to why we weren’t performing as well as we could, a pragmatic approach from Sir Alex addressed the issue and brought Manchester United into a new era.
The loss to Benfica set United on to a whole new level of awesomeness, the win against Wigan in the Carling Cup set the taste buds rolling for success and the expectation from the fans, means Manchester United never want to fail. We are so lucky to be watching the emergence of yet another amazing side being collated by Sir Alex, quite possibly his third greatest side, comparisons to the class of 1992 will always be drawn. However, we are in a whole different era now. We play different football and the dynamics of the game have equally changed. We must just sit back, enjoy and admire.