Manchester United's brand of football has been wonderful to watch at times this season, but a complacency and a few holes in their squad were showing last night against Basel.
‘Have you heard of Switzerland?’ Larry David asks a sweet little girl in Curb Your Enthusiasm. ‘It’s a country in Europe and they don’t like to fight. They let everybody do their fighting for them while they ski and eat chocolate.’ The Swiss champions Basel weren’t so laissez-faire at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, on the pitch and off it.
Associated with diplomacy, the Swiss contingent in the second tier of the Scoreboard End were as vociferous as they were in Anfield nine years ago, chanting throughout and showcasing their impressive English (‘you only sing when you’re winning’), whilst the Theatre of Dreams’ empty seats on display (a growing facet under the Glazer ownership) was an uncanny impression of the Etihad Stadium, the crowd as fervent as a funeral.
On the pitch, FCB should have administered a stronger dose of reality than Stoke City did at the weekend. United can reflect on their Britannia draw as a decent result after a series of injuries decimated the matchday 18 in the build-up and during the 90 minutes, but against Basel they exhibited a masterclass in frivolous complacency which emphasised why there is absolutely no hope of a fourth European Cup returning to the red side of Manchester in May.
The squad is that short of genuine quality that even Anderson and Michael Carrick (when they’re a double, expect trouble), consistently abject against the toughest opponents, surpassed their own negligence against ‘minnows’ Basel. Minnows because that’s how United must have looked upon their continental guests in what was a display bordering on nonplussed until the 76th minute.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-5-1 negativity in the two European matches so far this campaign is diluted by the grace of Ryan Giggs supporting Wayne Rooney and then Danny Welbeck in a bid to make neither feel like a leper, and ironically Welbeck getting isolated turned out to be a non-existent worry. A scuffed effort and a smart finish courtesy of two Giggs assists inside 20 minutes gave him his first Champions League goals in what was also a ringing endorsement to Fabio Capello.
Yet even before Welbeck tucked United into the lead, they were flustered by their visitors. The RotBlaus’ captain Marco Streller tormented a naïve Phil Jones and lackadaisical Rio Ferdinand, spurning an auspicious chance before later on in the first half flicking on to the experienced Alexander Frei, who missed a guilt-edged opportunity. Jacques Zoua ensured that the alarm bells kept on ringing, yet the United ears were deaf.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-5-1 negativity in the two European matches so far this campaign is diluted by the grace of Ryan Giggs supporting Wayne Rooney and then Danny Welbeck in a bid to make neither feel like a leper
Some will have been shocked at what then occurred, but it was inevitable that not only would United concede but that they would, at the very least, be in danger of losing the game. Streller was denied by an agile save from David de Gea in the opening stages of the second half in another warning shot before the other Frei – Fabian – made it a second successive match in which the Red Devils had conceded from a corner with a sweet half-volley.
Ferdinand when separated from Nemanja Vidic now resembles one half of Jedward on their own; forlorn. In only his fourth start of the season he evoked memories of the ostentatious and rash liability of yesteryear as he was spared of a certain red card thanks to the clumsy Italian referee Tagliavento after a clumsy trip on Alex Frei. Seconds later Frei showed his marker a clean pair of heels to equalise and on 76 minutes, after a rash challenge by Antonio Valencia on Streller, slotted his side into the lead. Extra Freis indeed.
Although their brand of football has been superior to the pragmatism of last season, United have been uncharacteristically loose in defence to the extent that Arsenal’s Carling Cup side were menacing in their chastening 8-2 defeat. Some form of hiding was coming, and only their tireless refusal to give in spared them defeat.
And the problem lies with Ferguson’s unfathomable refusal to invest in a midfielder. Even his ‘Glazernomicisms’ such as there being ‘no value’ were contradicted by quality defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra’s cost-efficient availability in the summer. When Owen Hargreaves and Paul Scholes ended their United careers, it was assumed that players of their ilk would be recruited, but instead Ferguson is reliant on a flawed quartet that would struggle to get into Arsenal’s midfield individually.
Whatever the pairing, it isn’t ideal. Carrick and Anderson are unworkable, Carrick and Fletcher is solid but impotent, Fletcher and Anderson haven’t complemented one another constructively whilst Cleverley and Anderson are too open. Cleverley’s positivity has been partly responsible for United’s quality of play this season (it is no coincidence that United’s passing has relapsed since his injury) but staking so much dependence on him is unfair and unwise when he is a United first-team novice.
Last night, Anderson and Carrick were so far off the pace that one had to check it wasn’t a pre-season match. Their incompatibility regularly exposed the back four whilst even when they weren’t functioning, Patrice Evra continued his post-World Cup finals regression and Valencia played as miserable as he looks. Jones, whose hesitancy was a recurring theme and led to dire consequences when Valencia conceded the penalty, endured his worst performance in a red shirt.
Ashley Young rescued a point thanks to Nani, whose impact as a substitute was enterprising and fruitful, but fortunately it didn’t mask Ferguson’s post-match assertion that the evening was a ‘wake-up call’. But Ferguson has been sleeping over the patchy midfield for nearly three years, and the next window of opportunity is over three months away. Good thing those Swiss can fight.
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