I’ve always found personally, that knee jerk reactions to attitude changing events are usually counter productive so I have delayed writing a post on Saturday’s Champions League Final between Barcelona and Man Utd at Wembley Stadium in an attempt to try to digest what happened and come up with some kind of intelligent explanation of what the future holds at Old Trafford, and in many respects, where football in Europe goes from here, because trust me, there will be some sweeping changes going forward.
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, unless you were off the planet on Saturday, Barcelona systematically took apart Man Utd to record a 3-1 victory that from where I was sitting as a rabid United fan, could have been a lot worse. It wasn’t the scoreline that was particularly shocking, but the manner in which the game was played. Barcelona dominated from the 15th minute on and even to the casual observer, it looked as if these teams competed at different levels in the sport. Almost like a pro team against a college side, or a lower division team against a National champion. It was flatly embarrassing, and I say that knowing that there wasn’t a darned thing that manager Sir Alex Ferguson, or the United players could have done to change the outcome. When a manager of Ferguson’s stature admits that his team took a pasting like never before, you know the principle hit the target. I will wager that you could have picked a World XI to play that game on Saturday and Barcelona would have murdered them too. For me, it was the single greatest display of football I have ever seen by any team, club or national, in my 40+ years of watching this game. It surpassed the Brazil, Ajax, and Liverpool teams of the 70′s, and the Barcelona and Milan teams of the 90′s.
To examine a little more deeply what transpired, you have to go back to the early 70′s and the “Total Football” concept that was begun by that wonderful Dutch team led by Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff. The theory had it’s roots embedded in the idea that rather than players in certain positions playing a certain pre-defined way, every player on the team was a defender, attacker and goalscorer all at the same time. The only specialist was the goalkeeper. This method proved very successful for Ajax who won the European Cup three years in a row in the early 70′s and to a lesser degree, Holland, who reached the World Cup Final in 1974 and 1978. Attractive to watch, and hugely entertaining, it transformed the sport in Europe where emphasis up to that point had been on defensive tactics to win games. Rinus Michels had perfected his concept at Ajax and refined it at Barcelona over two stints as manager at the Nou Camp in between managing the Dutch National team.
Fast forward to 1988 and the emergence of Cruyff as Barcelona manager after a successful career at the Nou Camp as their star forward. He began to implement the Dutch coaching model and brought in foreign players to supplement the club’s own crop of young players that had been groomed in their youth system. Cruyff embarked on a period of success that resulted in 11 trophies before he was dismissed after a relatively lean spell over a two year period. Trophies aside, the single greatest achievement that Cruyff was responsible for was the implementation of La Masia, the youth academy system that was pioneered at Ajax that produced so many talented players. interestingly enough, two of the first graduates to move into the senior squad were Carlos Busquets, father of Sergio who played on Saturday, and Pep Guardiola. See where I’m going with this? The point I’m trying to make here is that most successful entities in either the sports or business world, have their base in the continuity and success of the system. Saturday’s game was the culmination of over 30 years of a single minded approach to how the game of football should be played.
At the risk of being too long-winded I’m trying to show how this performance developed and how difficult it will be for Ferguson and United to overcome the Barcelona standards in the near future. First reports were encouraging that Ferguson does intend to stay on and rebuild his team with the help of ownership but time has shown, particularly at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City, that purchasing a “Dream Team” has it’s deficiencies, not least the difficulty in establishing a team chemistry that so graced the Wembley turf on Saturday. What many people forget is that United have a very credible history of developing young players themselves but in recent years, they have migrated to a policy of relying on recruiting the best players available through financial strength. The manner of Saturday’s loss will have shook the foundations of Old Trafford to it’s core but it’s difficult to imagine, given their current scenario, how things could be changed quick enough to be effective while Ferguson is still in charge
A crucial consideration here, and I know I’m going to get slammed for this, is that English teams are built for one purpose, and one purpose alone, and that is to win the Premier League title. In years gone by, Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, and Raphael Benitez have all attempted to compete in both arenas with varying degrees of success, but at the end of the day, when you hear the managers talk, they all regard the domestic title as their main target. I’m not sure that same situation exists in Spain. Whatever anyone says about the the quality of La Liga, it is fundamentally a less competitive League structure than and is not as difficult to win than it’s English counterpart, and although that statement is not designed to decry it’s level of quality, it’s simple to substantiate. Given the playing styles of it’s participants, the weather conditions, the fixture congestion, and the passionate environments within which the games are played, I would argue that the current Barcelona squad would find it difficult to win the Premier League title, as good as they obviously are. No doubt that they have the quality, but week in week out, a squad of Barcelona’s size would find it almost impossible to continue that high standard of play, home and away, over 38 games, on the pitches of Stoke, Bolton, and Blackburn. Arsenal have shown that.
So what is the solution? Where do United go from here ? Do they flush out half of their squad and retool in the hope of overcoming Barcelona next year ? That’s not such a smart approach as we all know that to even make it to a Champions League Final is hard enough in itself to achieve and it can never be accepted as a given in any year, by anyone, Barcelona included. Purchasing a level of talent that takes the club to a higher level is also a shaky reaction as that has no guarantee of success. Just ask Real Madrid. Ferguson has pledged to not just sit back and accept the finality of United’s deficiency, and has supposedly confirmed that he plans on staying for at least the next 2-3 seasons. We’ll see how serious he is about that. New players will come in during the summer transfer window to replace players such as Giggs, Van der Saar, Scholes, Berbatov maybe, and young players such as Smalling, Hernandez, and the Da Silva twins will get more playing time, but those changes were already part of the plan before Saturday’s result.
What seems to me to be a more logical way of moving forward is to recruit certain players that do actually take the club to a higher level, such as Wesley Sneijer and Luka Modric, move Rooney to midfield in place of Scholes and certainly introduce youth to be able to compete in the higher echelons of the Champions League competition, but also retain that level of power and strength which is still necessary to be successful in the Premier League. In addition, and this seems to be already part of Ferguson’s solution, English clubs have to revolutionise the way in which they treat their younger academy players. Rules in place at the moment restrict the time in which coaches and managers can spend with their young players. Quite a ridiculous set of circumstances in the current environment but that restriction needs to be ended. English players for years now have been so deficient in the basic skills needed to succeed at the highest levels of the game that, even though there were only 3 British players on view at Wembley, it is the philosophy that needs upgrading. I go back to the system. The successful Liverpool teams of the 70′s were dominant in England and Europe through the continuity of the system that remained intact through several different managers and coaches. The return of Kenny Dalglish to the manager’s seat at Anfield definitely looms ominously in Ferguson’s line of sight.
One prediction that I am willing to make is that with Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement imminent over the next several years, a replacement for him just thrust himself to the front of the line. I have always regarded Pep Guardiola, wrongly so of course, as more of a babysitter than a tactical or motivating force, but it is clear that he is an accomplished caretaker of the fundamentals of what makes the Barcelona system so effective. He would be my choice as Ferguson’s successor at Old Trafford once the old man hangs it up, provided that a certain Russian billionaire doesn’t plop down a ton of cash on his kitchen table to move to London. That would be a shame as his success would be fleeting in that type of scenario.
We should not forget to mention the impact of a certain Lionel Messi on the Barcelona style of play. He is fast becoming one of the best players to have ever played the game. He isn’t at the top just yet as only time and history can be the judge of that, but his abilities are astounding, and his diminutive size makes him difficult to stop without committing a foul. Either way, he wins. He ran the game against United and his goal from 25 yards out showed that he combines skill and flair with power. An icon of his sport and priceless to boot.
If you’ve been around this game for long enough, you will know and appreciate that almost everything revolves in cycles, and Barcelona’s domination of the game will be follow a path of up’s and down’s just as it has everywhere else over time, but they have put the whole world on notice that the style of the game has changed, and unless you change with it, you will be left behind. The temptation might be to just wait and hope that the fundamental approach at the Nou Camp burns itself out, but I would doubt that happens soon, and it’s clear that we have seen over the past couple of days, a defining moment in how football is played, particularly in Europe.
I can only hope that the powers that be are listening and watching deep in the corridors of Old Trafford, The Bernabeu, and The San Siro or other hammerings will certainly lie ahead for anyone else that is unfortunate enough to face the Catalans in that type of mood.