Wednesday, 28 September 2011
All Change On the Continent
In amassing a collective 32 points and scoring a total of 41 goals between, the Manchester clubs have been the Premier League’s dominant forces thus far. If you don’t count Newcastle. But while all and sundry can only foresee the title race involving two Mancunian horses, it has been a little more difficult to translate such swagger onto the European stage, on which England’s current finest have thus far amassed a measly three points and five goals.
The foibles dismissively associated with each were conspicuous last night, as they had been in the first round of matches. United ‘looked shaky at the back’ and ‘weren’t strong enough in midfield’. Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra in particular had evenings to forget last night, the latter experiencing just the latest instalment in a fairly lengthy period of poor form. City were ‘unable to keep all their superstars happy’ – we don’t need to go into what happened there.
While domestically, these potential shortcomings have been overlooked in the wake of excellent form, the Champions League has the ability to exploit them, big time. And you can make all the excuses you want, but United have looked dodgy at the back all season. The 8-2 against Arsenal could have been far closer as the defending on both sides bordered on schoolboy. Chelsea were worth a point at Old Trafford. So irresistible going forward, United could be severely found out at the back by teams better equipped to do so than Benfica and Basel.
Perhaps United believed their own attacking press, though they still threatened in attack. At the back, they were certainly careless on too many occasions, as the manager himself said: "We played too many players forward, far too many, and though we prepared properly there is a possibility that playing a team like Basel, the players think they can do that. We left too many spaces between our midfield and back four. If we had concentrated on the defensive part we might not have had as many problems. Complacency may have been a part."
That said, the appetite to have a go at them doesn’t appear to exist at many Premier League clubs. A return to domestic duty against Norwich on Saturday should see a similar story to that which has framed their march back to the top of the league.
Would City, probably boasting the most formidible weapons domestically, ever really go out and attack United? Certainly not historically, but based on the game in Munich, Mancini might at least be beginning to consider it; Chelsea enjoyed some degree of success; Stoke had a go in the second half at the Britannia. In reality, it’s about balancing the pressure you can put on the champions’ defence without compromising the fact that they can rip you to pieces at will down the other end. Clearly, this is a particularly tricky task. But all the food for thought from United’s European exertions so far should at least fuel a bit more adventure (though Benfica was classic United away in Europe). You don’t have to be Barcelona to cause Manchester United problems, but you do have to be brave.
Admittedly, United’s first-choice team wasn’t used against Basel. City, who have the luxury of being able to pick three or four teams and call any one of them a ‘first XI’, suffered from a) playing an excellent Bayern Munich team and b) getting the balance of egos wrong for almost the first time this season (not that this is an acceptable excuse, we hasten to add). Oh – and c) continuing to play Gareth Barry, another example of the nominative determinism that seems so popular right now.*
Mancini’s will to attack Bayern was somewhat undone by the more ponderous nature of his defensive midfielders, one of whom was presumably meant to get close to Franck Ribery – with Nasri and Aguero stationed further forward – when he cut inside whichever full-back he was in the business of giving a torrid time. For Bayern’s first, it was Yaya Toure, a fabulous player but one with a turning circle akin to a wheelie bin, that couldn’t get near as Ribery skipped inside Richards. For their second, it was Edin Dzeko, taking it upon himself to chase back, who gave away a free kick against the overlapping Philip Lahm. One gets the feeling that Barry, completely skinned by Ribery (who else) earlier, would have fared little better.
In a football sense alone, Bayern deserved the win, even if City played well for the first 35 minutes or so. In a team harmony sense, Jupp Heynckes’s side were helped on their way by a crack that has had the potential to open into a chasm all season. There is no excuse for Carlos Tevez’s behaviour, especially if it undermines his manager’s game plan. It has oft been said that City ‘need to get the balance of egos right’, but the least they can expect is for some of the highest-paid players in the world to act (even semi-)professionally. It’s like turning yourself into an onion and rendering yourself completely useless for the chef’s finest apple pie just because you weren’t the first apple in the mixing bowl. Staggeringly selfish.
Anyway. Two very different competitions then, the league and Europe, and two very different outcomes for United and City so far. It’s hard to see anyone in England overcoming the Manchesters in the league and as alluded to earlier, most expect the title race to be a two-way fight. But the translation of their abilities into Europe has been tricky, though United have been the most suspect (City have played two very good sides indeed).
Admittedly, there aren’t many teams in the Premier League with the same kind of technical aptitude as those in the Champions League. However, those facing up to United and City should at least be inspired by the event s of last night and be slightly less in thrall of the respective arrays of attacking talents, given the apparent potential for both to err in defence. It’d be nice to see some more adventure from teams taking on the top two (or top few, even), rather than the crux of their game plans being firstly ‘not to get beat’ and then merely ‘to keep the score down’. We can but hope.
*Barry White = shite, in case you were wondering. ‘He’s absolutely Barry’ being an example.