It’s the nightmare scenario; we’ve built this side to conquer Europe, and on Saturday we were given an absolute thumping by Barcelona. We haven’t quite managed it.
We’ve spent years trying to figure out European football. Who can forget the years toiling under the three foreigners rule (Giggs being classed as foreign), followed by near miss after near miss, punctuated only by the glory of 1999? Let’s not forget, but for a miraculous grandstand finish, we’d only have 2008 to dine out on, back when Cristiano Ronaldo was winning games single handedly for us.
That said, 2008 marked a watershed for us. We’ve now made three champions league finals out of four, missing out in 2010 when we twice surrendered strong positions against Bayern Munich to bow out with ten men. This year our passage through the knockout stages to the final was almost serene, something unheard of only a decade ago.
How frustrating, then, for a team to peak at a level never before seen in club football just when we’ve solved the puzzle that’s plagued us for the best part of 20 years.
Although there is no shame in losing to this Barcelona side, it’s also not the Manchester United way to settle for second best. Therefore, we’ve got to take a long, hard look in the mirror and work out what our options are.
Of course, the priority has to be to continue our domestic dominance. We have a much bigger incentive now that we have the record of 19 titles to defend; especially given that Liverpool look like offering their sternest title challenge in years next season. Nothing would hurt more than the dippers waving 19 in our face next year, with the associated “anything you can do” rhetoric winging its way around twitter.
On that front, the team doesn’t so much need rebuilding as refreshing. With the likely retirement of Scholes and, maybe in a year’s time, Giggs, we’re going to have two fairly big midfield shaped holes to fill. Fortunately, it sounds like we’ve got the money to go out and sign players. You’d think Luka Modric and Ashley Young had already signed for us given the way some Reds are talking about next season. Excellent signings they would be, too.
If we’re going to overcome this Barcelona team in Europe, however, it’s going to take something much more radical than just knocking the cobwebs off the team. The vast majority of Barcelona’s team came through the youth system at their club, have it in their blood, and know each other’s game telepathically. Any gaps in the team (full back positions and one forward, currently) are filled with carefully selected signings of the top class.
We’ve got the talent in our youth team to do the same, but we’re going to have to start seeing it in our first team very soon. Leo Messi was a first team regular at 18, and having achieved all he has only turns 24 next month. If we’re going to be able to continue talking up the likes of Morrison, Tunicliffe and Pogba, then they need to start making some sort of impact next season, if only sporadically.
Perhaps that’s the option we should take. The club certainly has a tradition of promotion from within, at least as far as the playing staff is concerned. It was a brave decision in the August of 1995 to throw in the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt against Aston Villa. Alan Hansen would have you believe that it was stupid. Fifteen seasons later, who’s laughing?