You impress domestically, you make the top four, you land yourselves into the Champions League. Then you are faced with a big question – how do we impress on the European stage?. The answer can be found by taking a look at the pattern emerging over the years from the teams that indeed have already impressed in Europe (and no, Chelsea doesn’t count). We have Dortmund, Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG. Last season had Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and the season before had Porto. Perhaps the key to renewed English dominance in Europe (relatively speaking of course, but once again, Chelsea doesn’t count, admirable as their triumph was) lies in understanding what made those teams so dangerous. The key is fluidity – a player taking on much more of a transitional role on pitch.
The connection starts and ends with fluidity, a principle that the world has grown to death in hearing about. Anyone and everyone with access to any sort of footballing media will know about Michel Rinus, and Johann Cruyff, and total football, and other philosophical sounding things that nobody really understands but has to pretend to know about otherwise their suddenly Borussia Dortmund-supporting friends will laugh at them.
However, the amount of media saturation on the topic makes the point no less important. A great offense means a varied offense, with multiple threats and routes of attack. To use an example, when Barcelona play at their best the opposition never knows which player is going to pop up in the box to slot home. Conversely, their recent Messidependencia has made them too easy to stop. Munich are the closest thing world football has to the old Barcelona and even Dortmund retain a lot of fluidity and cohesiveness while playing something akin to a traditional number nine in Robert Lewandowski.
The last English team to truly have a swagger about them in Europe was probably Manchester United in the years before Cristiano Ronaldo left. Not coincidentally, they were probably the last English side to successfully embrace the concept of fluidity, something foreign to a land that takes comfort in the security of a fixed reference point up front.
Michael Cox use two shapes to illustrate the fluidity of that Manchester United side circa 2006-09. The first graphic shows their lineups for big games, the second the starting eleven from the Champions League final against Chelsea. The key to understanding United’s tactics lies in how many players are capable of filling multiple roles. Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney are advanced but are all capable of going anywhere in the offensive half and causing havoc. Runners and water carriers like Park and Anderson burst into the vacated space. The centre of the park was never left unprotected and often United would outnumber the opposition five-three. Ferguson has often talked up United’s tradition as a club of width, but his most convincing side in Europe focused on midfield and the penalty area.
That United side was an indicator of a time in the Premiership where big strikers and the long ball were being relegated to the garbage with the ever-increasing arrival of foreign managers and foreign players. Arsene Wenger was modelling his side on the Barcelona that beat him in the 2006 Champions League final. Rafael Bénitez had a great pure striker in Fernando Torres but the Spaniard always played off the shoulder of a single centre-half, trying to separate himself from his partner so a wide player like Babel, Kuyt or an onrushing Steven Gerrard could take advantage. Chelsea of course were going through managers at an alarming rate so for them there just wasn’t enough time to work on the chemistry that fluidity requires. Even Blackpool coming up from the Championship played with positional freedom, anchored by Charlie Adam playing the Paul Scholes role.
Since United have been unequivocally replaced by Barcelona as Europe’s Colossus, and one supposes now Bayern Munich, although it is exceptionally early doors and no superlatives should be doled yet, they seemed to have retreated from their continental smoothness into more English helter-skelter. Nowadays Ferguson usually plays two out and out central midfielders, usually a runner combined with a passer, or this season two passers with a runner just ahead, with an emphasis on tricky wide men. Their strikers are pure strikers, aside from Wayne Rooney. Javier Hernandez is a poacher and Robin Van Persie has evolved from the roamer he was early in his Arsenal career to become focused on the penalty area. Danny Welbeck does not have the same creative movement as Park, Tevez, or obviously Cristiano Ronaldo (not meant as an offense, few do).
The contrast is exemplified by examining a recent lineup from the Manchester derby. The two passers in midfield were outnumbered easily by City’s Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, Samir Nasri, James Milner, and Carlos Tevez. United managed only 45% possession with five midfielders surrounding Giggs and Carrick while Young and Welbeck made no attempt to help out. Rooney didn’t do much linking up with the midfield either, most of his passes were spread wide to the advancing fullbacks or the wingers.
This is not to decry United for a counter-attacking approach, there is no law on how to dominate a football game. But to win the Champions League in a convincing fashion, to imprint your style upon the competition whatever offense you use, has to have danger from all areas. United’s only way of creating chances in the derby were through wide men running with the ball and swinging it into the penalty area, or a genius combination between the two front men.
In a league match, by and large over a season the best players doing the same things over and over again will generally win enough points for a successful season. But in Europe, where there’s only 180 minutes of football and all teams have attained a certain measure of quality, rapidness and transitions are key.
Another example, from United’s defeat against Real Madrid. Look how this European lineup has changed from the second screenshot. No runners in midfield, forwards again looking to combine only with each other, and wingers concerned with occupying the fullbacks.
Again, the point of this isn’t to chastise United for being defensive, Madrid are an excellent team on the break and it was pragmatic to allow them the ball. But it was too rigid, with the only form of chances on the break being from wide players beating a man and passing into the box. Despite Welbeck staying on Alonso to prevent him being a ‘quarterback’, Khedira was left free and Real Madrid were never overloaded and pressured enough in the midfield to unduly worry Varane and Ramos. Compare this United side to the won that played against Chelsea. That side had the capacity to create chances from overloading the opposition midfield zone with Tevez dropping off, dragging a central defender away from his partner to compensate for the shortfall and Rooney and Ronaldo charging through. They could also create opportunities from Ronaldo’s aerial ability against a full-back. They could also create chances by passing their way through the center with Hargreaves tucking in and Scholes to breaking forward. Or the wide players acting like normal wide players. Or Tevez holding play up in the box and linking with Rooney or Ronaldo. The variety was amazing, and the quality between the two sides hasn’t changed that much, despite the glaring absence of Ronaldo.
Imagine this lineup against Madrid. United still would have been able to play compact, narrow, and on the break, but there would be so many more options offensively. Alonso and Khedira would both be occupied, unsure whether to stick or twist as Kagawa and Rooney combined and switched positions. Nani was a free player in both systems as Arbeloa is the weak link in Madrid while two diligent players on the right contained Ronaldo and Coentrão, exactly as in the original plan.
Of course, one can say this, but the question is why has Ferguson, with all his experience, become so standardized in Europe when his most free-flowing and arguably his greatest side won the competition with total footballing principles? A possible answer is as a counter-balance to Barcelona. Initially many suspected that Ferguson thought to match chaos with order, hoping that the natural holes Barcelona leave behind their tiki-taka would allow a diligent side with enough regimented trickery to overcome them. However after being humbled by the Catalans in 2011 and not progressing past the group stage of the Champions League in 2012 the Scot seems to have changed his mind. The signing of Kagawa and the failed attempt to land Lucas Moura is evidence that Ferguson seems to be trying to return to the free-flowing United circa 2008/9. Perhaps injury to the former and the focus on wresting back the league prevented experimentation this season, making next season’s European sojourn all the more enticing.
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