The Fall And Plateau Of Manchester United
It is more of an FA Cup word than a Champions League word. But there’s no denying that during their 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich this week, Manchester United were “plucky.” The FA Cup analogy is not entirely inappropriate. I’d missed the meetings where everyone was told that United were in for the sort of walloping Arsenal and Tottenham have almost patented in big EPL games this season. So I was a little surprised that United were so reliant on scrapping for scraps of possession…and for the gushing reaction this produced in ITV’s Old Trafford lair. Manager David Moyes’ Manchester United has been a disjointed, ugly watch. The flow of the better sides playing at or near their best, including – painfully for Moyes – Roberto Martinez’s Everton, just hasn’t come from Rooney et al this season. And it’s not as if Everton were ugly and disjointed under Moyes, not most of the time anyway, even if “ugly and disjointed football” could easily be what Marouane Fellaini would tell John Humphrys when asked for his ‘occupation’ on an edition of Celebrity Mastermind.
I’m too young – just- to remember Wilf McGuiness’s Manchester United side in the immediate post-Matt Busby era. I can imagine, though, that there are valid comparisons to be made, even if history rarely recalls that McGuiness’s eighth-place finish in his only full season was an improvement on Busby’s eleventh in his last. However, for all that, I wasn’t expecting United to be as outclassed by Bayern as they were by Liverpool and Manchester City last month. Both English sides have won well at Old Trafford in recent seasons, even when United were still in title contention. And for City it is becoming the norm. But United at home in the Champions League, against the reigning champions is different. They hadn’t looked, in the modern vernacular, as if they were “at it,” or “wanted it enough,” against North-West England opposition. If Moyes couldn’t get them “at” or “wanting” it against Bayern, then his reign at Old Trafford would surely be short.
Hence my mild shock, both at just how limited United were against Bayern and how delighted a harsh but perceptive critic like Roy Keane was with those limits. “They’ve no chance” was his immediate pre-match take on affairs, and unless my telly was on the blink, that view didn’t come wrapped in any “if they play like they did against City” qualification. There were contradictions a-plenty on the night, and not just in Adrian Chiles’ juxtaposition of “great Champions League night” with “let’s join our commentators for the evening, Andy Townsend…” There had been agreement that it was time for the “real United” to show up, while it was acknowledged that they’d have to “find another level” to avoid a hockeying. And much was made of the likely influence of a 40-year-old Ryan Giggs, whose sunken cheekbones and scratchy black and white beard combo didn’t react well to the lights of a TV interview feature and made it something of a relief that he’d had a shave for the match. (Indeed, looking at him like that, I couldn’t help thinking that his well-documented lengthy absences from United’s line-up might be less down to a fall-out with Moyes than ill-health. After team-mate Darren Fletcher’s desperate recent struggles, I really hope those thoughts were misplaced).
Giggs did play well against Olympiakos but only in a manner that lets analysts say “give him time and he can hurt you.” Bayern’s midfield were not about to give anyone that time, let alone a still-supreme passer of a football such as Giggs. And when commentator Clyde Tyldesley said “Jones…long ball up to Giggs,” I winced. Giggs’ half-time replacement was a merciful release. If there is any reason for a non-United fan to want them to win this tie, it is surely because Giggs deserves a much better European swansong than…that. Bayern had their equivalent on the night, though, in the disorientated shape of Thomas Muller in the “false number nine” role which Guardiola brought into vogue in his Barcelona days. Of course, Guardiola had Lionel Messi at his most vibrant to race onto cutbacks from equally false “full-back” Dani Alves.
Muller did have Rafinha in the Alves role. In fact, Alves’s current form is so patchy that Rafinha would probably push him into second place in a “Dani Alves lookalike” contest. But Muller, like the rest of Planet Football bar one pouting Portuguese prima donna, is no Lionel Messi. And when he made a particularly ungainly mess of an early chance, some of the older United fans in the Stretford End might have been forgiven for having a “Garry Birtles” flashback. So for all Bayern’s pretty first-half patterns, United keeper David De Gea had been given more to do by West Bromwich Albion, until a trademark Arjen Robben curling left-footer from the edge of the “D” produced a save worthy of far more praise than it appears to have thus far received. And United’s Danny Welbeck had had the best two chances. He had an early goal disallowed when he tried to pick Javi Martinez’s nose with the toe of his right boot before thumping the ball home. And then came his folklore-destined wrong option when clean through on Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer – even Townsend knew Welbeck should just have just “drilled it.”
Townsend or Tyldesley – their inanities and wretched United bias had merged into one voice not long after kick-off – bemoaned the fact that United’s centre-backs Nemanja Vidic and a very alert Rio Ferdinand “don’t have anybody to mark.” This was 51 years after similar complaints on Billy Wright’s behalf as Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis wandered the Wembley turf instead of standing still near the penalty spot like all “good” centre-forwards. Muller, though, was no Kocsis either. I had wondered whether Bayern’s top scorer Mario Mandzukic was suspended or injured when Muller outlasted Giggs to start the second half and was surprised to discover that he was neither, he just hadn’t been picked. For the 28 minutes plus stoppage time he was on the pitch, the game took the turn many had feared – Bayern scoring once and creating three more clear chances with ample possession and geometrically magnificent passing (one ball across the six-yard box momentarily made the concept of Franck Ribery as world player of the year seem not so preposterous).
But by then, Bayern had a game to chase, having provided irrefutable evidence that zonal marking is, with apologies for the brief descent into football jargon, shit. Meanwhile, analysis of the goals provided equally irrefutable evidence of the mind-numbing bias of commentators such as Townsend and Tyldesley on nights such as this. In my “proper” job as a sub-editor on the Non-League Paper (NLP) I spend most of my Saturday evenings in the football season rewriting biased match reports. These are always written by volunteers from the home team, who are rarely journalists and are often club officials, such as secretaries, who have an amount of other work to do between their game’s final whistle and the NLP’s 6.30 deadline. As a result, opposition goals can often be “yards offside” (35 of them in one instance which will serve me as an early warning of Alzheimer’s if I ever forget it). And they are invariably scored, also from 35 yards on occasion, because a player has been “allowed” to do so by poor defending.
I can accept this from such volunteers, whose contribution to the paper is to be lauded. From Townsend, who is a professional journalist it is easy to forget, such nonsense is not remotely acceptable (Channel Four journalist Alex Thomson’s recent blog Patriotism, partisanship and football offers a readable view on broadcast bias on Champions League nights). Fine header though it was, Vidic was so unmarked for his goal that you wonder if he’d farted just before Wayne Rooney’s corner. Yet that was a “great” goal and Townsend was about to claim it was “well-worked” before he realised that Rooney had directed a corner towards the penalty spot and…er…that was it. Bayern’s equaliser, meanwhile, was less about Rafinha’s accurate far-post cross, Mandzukic’s excellent cushioned header into Bastian Schweinsteiger’s path and the midfielder’s fine half-volley than United’s slack marking (“someone’s got to get close” – Townsend). “Great technique,” Keane admitted, eventually. But even Vidic put the Bayern goal down to “a mistake” in his otherwise admirable post-match perspective.
ITV’s Gabriel Clarke asked Vidic whether there “was a sense of if only” among United’s players after the match. The Serb’s face said “if only what?” before he composed himself to point out that United had “played well” in the Champions League this season and, after a fashion, had merely done so again against Bayern. It was the same with Schweinsteiger’s late second booking when Antonio Valencia had somehow avoided that fate after his studs-up lunge on Jerome Boateng’s nether regions fifteen minutes earlier. “The ref sees it as a coming together” explained the usually precise and listenable Lee Dixon, without further explaining why, then, the referee gave Bayern a free-kick. Chiles rightly noted that “we’d be having a go at Robben for that sort of thing” when Rooney curiously belly-flopped to the floor after a Schweinsteiger challenge which could not possibly have contorted the United man’s body into that shape. “You can’t blame Wayne for that,” noted Keane, which rather seemed to make Chiles’ point.
So, United are not out of this tie. Not yet. They will almost certainly be “plucky” again in the Allianz Arena. And Bayern’s struggles, both under Guardiola and his uber-successful predecessor Jupp Heynckes, suggest that a higher-scoring draw than 1-1 isn’t the strangest dream a United fan could have without the aid of hallucinogenics. The smart money, and Ray Winstone in the Bet 365 ad, will be on a Bayern victory, though, and by a couple of goals if they are “at” it or “want” it…and pick a bloody centre-forward from the start. Anything other than a Bayern victory will be a shock – Keane’s post-match backtracking from Bayern being “favourites, of course” to “slight favourites” didn’t convince. And that, more than anything else in this mediocre Old Trafford season, is the sign of how far United have fallen.
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