Cautious Fergie can learn from Rafa’s courage

May 3 2007

The dust has settled, the hype has abated, and United have once again been found wanting in the Champions League.

But before we begin to assess the reasons for this failure, it should be noted that United were eliminated by an AC Milan team Back to the tactics board...playing at the peak of their organisational and expressive powers.

Fatigue was obviously a factor, as was the lack of no less than three first-choice defenders. No matter how dangerous your attack, no team can be expected to win when confusion reigns supreme in the back four. Gabriel Heinze’s erratic performance was particularly disappointing, but sadly not without precedent this season.

I think Fergie missed a trick with his tactics. 4-3-2-1, with a three-man midfield shield, looks solid enough on paper, but last night it succeeded only in inviting Milan to set up camp within striking distance of the perilously nervous United defence.

The 4-2-3-1 – a subtle but nonetheless significant variation – would have allowed United to take the game to Milan and peg them back in their own half. It was, after all, the formation that bewildered Roma so unforgettably in the second leg of the quarter-final, and it is the shape that has yielded United’s finest football in the last few weeks.

A 4-2-3-1 with Smith or Saha at its head allows Rooney to come deep in search of the ball, and doesn’t put him under the pressure of being the team’s only nominated centre forward. The World Cup demonstrated that he simply cannot lead the line on his own.

On Wednesday night Rooney struggled with the burden of the lone striker, and as he, Ronaldo and Giggs found themselves outnumbered, the Milan defence was able to step up and push them back towards the three men behind them who, in spite of their number, were unable to get to grips with Kaka’s movement and Seedorf’s subtlety.

Rafa Benitez has demonstrated on at least two occasions this season that when it comes to playing away from home in Europe, attack really is the best form of defence. As such, he fielded an attacking 4-4-2 against both PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, and this tactic was only negated in the away leg of the semi-final against Chelsea by a similarly bold performance from the home side.

It is this unique understanding of the demands of European football that currently puts Benitez above Ferguson and Mourinho when it comes to the Champions League.

Fergie may claim to favour attacking, expansive football – and the heights United’s football has reached at times this season certainly bears testament to that – but in the big European games a natural (and understandable) tendency towards conservatism costs him dearly.

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