Gabriele Marcotti
Friday December 9th, 2011

When Sir Alex Ferguson reviews how and why Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League he'll find a number of reasons. But ultimately he may well find he has to bear a lot of the responsibility.

Part of his success in four decades of stellar management has been the ability to adapt and learn from his mistakes. He's not likely to share any self-criticism with others (certainly not fans and the media) but in his mind he'll know that he made some massive miscalculations:

1. Overuse of rotation. First and foremost, he treated the Champions League group stage like some kind of extended League Cup exercise. There's nothing wrong with squad rotation, it has long been part of his success. But you can take it to an extreme, especially when you're trying to integrate a raft of newcomers into your squad. Stability matters.

Sir Alex used five different center-half combinations in the six group games. He used six different combinations of central midfielders, ending with, perhaps, the most bizarre one of all,: Phil Jones, a 19 year old "natural central defender" (Sir Alex's definition, not mine) alongside a guy who is -- literally -- twice his age, Ryan Giggs. That was in the final group game against Basel when there was no real margin for error. He also split the starts between his two goalkeepers, David De Gea and Anders Lindegaard.

Oh, and his best player, Wayne Rooney, played no part in two games and was deployed in midfield in two others. Any way you slice it, that's a bit too much. Were it any other manager -- and not Sir Alex -- he'd be accused of "not knowing what his best lineup is." Because it's Sir Alex, he gets the benefit of the doubt. (After all, he's earned it.)

Of course, some of the tinkering and upheaval was beyond his control. Players get injured and suspended. (Though, with United, you rarely have a very clear idea of who's fit and who's not: it's not the most forthcoming club, which is how Sir Alex likes it). Yet you wonder if the Champions League really is the place for such experiments.

2. Too young, too soon? And you wonder too if some of the praise heaped on the newcomers hasn't been a bit excessive. Jones is a phenomenal prospect, but he's also 19. Sure, getting kids playing time, is great, but Paul Scholes and David Beckham didn't become bona fide starters until they were 21 and 20 respectively. Chris Smalling is an exceptional defender, but with him at rightback United are a different side than they are with Rafael in that position. Ashley Young? Nice player, but, after a bright start, he too has fizzled. And you wonder whether spending £18 million ($28M) on a 26 year old with a year left on his contract was such a clever idea. Or, in fact, whether he's of the same quality of his predecessors.

3. Restricted spending? The Glazers may dispute this -- or, rather, they may dispute it if they ever spoke to the media -- but, over the past five years, United's average annual net spend has been less than £12 million ($18M). No fewer than seven Premier League clubs have spent more, not just the obvious ones (Manchester City, Chelsea, etc.) but also the likes of Sunderland, Stoke and Aston Villa. (Obviously that figure is skewed somewhat by the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo but, given what he has achieved since moving to the Bernabeu, you rather suspect that his valuation was pretty close to accurate.)

4. Midfield dilemma. So is United's problem a lack of spending? Obviously, the club would have been better off if -- like the noisy neighbors -- it had £30 million ($50M) to blow on David Silva (rather than £7.5M/$11.7M to waste on Bebe). But it's not that simple. Some questionable choices have been made as well. The most obvious -- but least talked about -- was the decision, made around this time last year, to extend the contracts of Anderson (through 2015) and Michael Carrick (through 2014). The Brazilian is 23 and has never started more than 16 Premier League games in a season (and that was back in his first year). He's injury prone and has been inconsistent. Carrick is 30 and, while he has played more than Anderson, he too has seen his playing time decline since his debut season. Neither is an automatic starter, yet both are now tied up in long, expensive contracts. Another central midfielder, Darren Fletcher, was also handed a new deal last season, this one through 2015. Again, when Fletcher is in top form, he's a legitimate top-of- the-line player. But he endured a horrible season last year.

You can see why Sir Alex would commit to these guys. Yet, at the same time, locking yourself in to all three in one go was a huge commitment. It ties up a big chunk of money (and, with the Glazers in charge, that matters) and, effectively, gives you very little flexibility. Moving for a world-class midfield general in January or next summer (as some have suggestd) now becomes more difficult.

Nobody likes to have "dead money" on their books. And if somebody does come in, with those three guys still around, you wonder what that means for the playing time of other gifted youngsters, like Tom Cleverley or, when he's ready, Paul Pogba. Hindsight is 20-20, of course. But would United have been better off moving Anderson and Carrick and, instead, committing that money to a legitimate midfield superstar? Probably.


That said, in situations such as these, there's always a tendency to overreact. The fact is that, despite not playing well, United has five more points in the Premier League than it did at this stage last season. It has also scored more goals and conceded fewer. (And, of course, last year it went on to win it and reach the Champions' League final to boot.)

Those are facts, not opinions. And they suggest that maybe this team isn't as much in need of an overhaul as some would suggest. Or, rather, the overhaul came in the summer, now it's time to execute and find the right balance. De Gea has shown he's a gifted goalkeeper, he needs to find some more consistency, and, at 21, you'd expect him to do so. At the back, Rio Ferdinand may well be in his last season at Old Trafford (he has another year remaining, but don't be surprised if he doesn't see it out) and, after a rough start, has been quietly improving. News that Nemanja Vidic will be out for the whole season was a big blow, but maybe there's a silver lining. Maybe it clears the way for Jones to settle in and make the position his own. Or, in fact, possibly Smalling, if one of the Brazilian twins -- Rafael and Fabio -- ever gets back to fitness and contributes and takes over on the right.

Up front, there's no reason to think that, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney can't do the job. Nani was arguably the best player in the Premier League for long stretches last year, no reason to think he can't regain his form. Even if the other attacking players -- Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia -- continue to blow hot and cold, there's enough there.

The issue is in the middle of the park. Ryan Giggs and Park Ji Sung are not credible week in, week out regulars, for different reasons. Cleverley might be one day, but it's a big ask. And so we're back to the trio to whom Sir Alex committed themselves so decisively last year: Anderson, Fletcher, Carrick. They've stepped up before, can they do it again? Will they justify Sir Alex's faith? United's season hangs on the answer to that question.

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