LONDON — Manchester United, ranked by Forbes as the third most valuable club in the world after Real Madrid and Barcelona, slipped out of the Champions League without making the cut as one of the 16 teams qualifying for the knockout stage.
If there are not yet inquiries into its European failures by the club’s American owners, then certainly the fan base back in Manchester is already asking, again, where the team goes from here.
United’s 3-2 loss at Wolfsburg on Tuesday was embarrassing because not one player for Manchester showed skills that you could say were world class. No one came close to the finesse, the control or the vision shown by Wolfsburg’s Julian Draxler when he opened up United’s defense in the first half at Volkswagen Arena. The score was tied at 1-1 when Draxler knitted together a counterattack that started in Wolfsburg’s goalmouth and ended up in the United goal. From the moment that Draxler was first on the ball, the performance had elegance written all over it.
The scoring play featured 11 passes — some of them long, sweeping brushstrokes, others just a delicate flick between teammates — with Draxler the conductor of it all. He could have scored himself on the final pass, but chose to let his Portuguese teammate Vieirinha apply the finishing touch.
Draxler, 22, is growing into the inspirational playmaker he was long expected to become, and was graceful, unhurried and balanced in those exchanges. He made United’s Bastian Schweinsteiger — who was let go by Bayern Munich after last season so that he could have one last and lucrative swan song in a league outside of Germany — look old in comparison. Schweinsteiger, 31, was a world away from matching the motion, speed and inventiveness shown by his younger compatriot.
There lies the nub of United’s embarrassment. How often did Alex Ferguson even contemplate hiring a former great — but a spent one — during his reign as Manchester manager from 1986 until 2013? The answer would be never. The old knight of Old Trafford made mistakes in the transfer market, but never as many at the same time as the club now does.
Ferguson chose his successor, David Moyes, but the club fired Moyes 10 months into a six-year contract. It then pursued Louis van Gaal, the veteran Dutch coach who admitted he had promised his wife he would retire to the “paradise” they had purchased in Portugal.
United’s call delayed that retirement plan but, at 64, van Gaal might secretly be harboring regrets. The club has spent $ 375 million on players to try to turn United back into the force and the draw that it was during so many of those Ferguson years.
Even when you account for the high number of injuries — seven first-team players were missing from the Wolfsburg game — it is hard to see the gems in the manager’s rebuilt team.
When the team ground out five 0-0 games over two months, van Gaal said he could not understand the crowd at United’s Old Trafford stadium chanting “Attack! Attack! Attack!” He felt that United needed to defend better and that the supporters needed to wise up and appreciate this transitional phase for the club.
In van Gaal’s mind, he is stabilizing the team, changing its gung-ho mentality and giving it a base so it can achieve sophistication over the long term. In truth, United fans prefer their team to be swashbuckling and to play with risk and flair, and if they lose that way, so be it.
It wasn’t just Ferguson who gave them that. Matt Busby established that attacking instinct when he rebuilt the team as manager after World War II.
After Tuesday’s elimination, van Gaal offered three excuses. He spoke about refereeing decisions in Wolfsburg and during an earlier group game at Eindhoven in the Netherlands. But replays confirmed Tuesday that the call in Wolfsburg that denied United a goal just before halftime was the correct one because Juan Mata had moved offside, distracting the goalkeeper.
The manager said that it was a crazy match and that it was unbelievable to him that his team could twice let Wolfsburg come back and score goals just minutes after United did. That could be interpreted as his team being careless, especially since both Wolfsburg goals came from the defender Naldo via routine set plays.
And the third excuse by United’s coach? That injuries keep piling up. Some might think these have something to do with van Gaal’s relentless practice sessions, a feature of his previous managerial tenures at clubs in the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.
His reputation as a proven winner who can also be insufferable has its drawbacks when top players question what is good for their careers or their health.
One star that van Gaal persuaded United to buy, Ángel Di María, started with a whirlwind of enthusiasm before suffering aches and pains. He departed for Paris St.-Germain 11 months later, with United taking a $ 30 million hit.
United is near the top of the English Premier League standings, but it is out of the top European tournament, where more money and glamour lie. It will be interesting to see whether the owners provide the cash to buy more players for van Gaal in the January transfer window.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.