Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Manchester United’s performance in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday as one of the very finest in the club’s history. It is, perhaps, over-egging this particular pudding but there is no doubt the Scot’s side has reached a hitherto unobtainable peak. It is one that few could have foreseen through the first six months of the season, where United so often played without the ‘stardust’ that has become the club’s moniker. It is a phrase, first coined by Didier Deschamps, that Tuesday’s performance threatens to make irrelevant.
Creative, attacking and assured in possession, United was everything at the Veltins Arena that was missing from the side’s play in so many matches earlier this season. Think back to insipid draws with Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion in the autumn, where United’s midfield was not only outpassed but was arguably criminally understrength for a club with pretensions on four fronts.
That may well be a truism, after all much of United’s creative midfield play came from converted 37-year-old winger Ryan Giggs and striker Wayne Rooney on Tuesday night. Yet, there was a spark and swagger that Ferguson’s workmanlike outfit has not often demonstrated against top quality opposition this season.
Indeed, Ferguson praised United’s passing in western Germany, where the Reds maintained nearly 70 per cent possession and created a score of genuine chances, only to be denied by the brilliant Manuel Neuer.
“We’ve had some fantastic performances in Europe and Juventus [in 1999] will always be high on the list but this certainly ranks as one of the best,” Ferguson said in the aftermath, whose side is now within touching distance of a fourth Champions League final of the Scot’s reign.
“Our concentration and the intensity of our play and the speed of our passing was outstanding. It was a really top performance and credit to the players for having the belief in themselves and the trust in one another.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere but it never cowed them once. They kept on playing their football. They had confidence and trust in each other. I think we are coming to a peak. We’ve shown not only throughout this campaign but the past few years that we’ve got a way of playing away from home.
Much of United’s record away from Old Trafford – in Europe at least – is based on the side’s patience and ability to defend with high quality. Indeed, at times United defends in numbers, with Michael Carrick excellent on Tuesday in screening in front of the back-four. Then, as a pair, there is no better than Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
“It is a different tempo at times and requires really good concentration,” adds United’s manager.
“Credit to the players. They have shown that throughout the campaign. But over the past two or three years we have got a way of playing in Europe away from home. It requires some experience of course. The most important thing is to have confidence in possession of the ball. We seem to be better away from home in Europe than anyone else.”
But the real surprise in Gelsenkirchen was United’s outstanding creativity. For much of the campaign Ferguson’s side has struggled to match quality opposition from the centre of the park; the aforementioned early season draws saw United outplayed by the mediocre. In fact, Ferguson’s failure to strengthen despite Paul Scholes’ ageing legs and Anderson’s stultified progress was undoubtedly a failure, whether born of financial paucity or misguided strategic thinking.
Yet, the Scot also takes much credit for the change in United’s make-up in recent weeks, for it has been a significant one, both in attitude and personnel. Those early season draws, especially on the road, were marked by a timidity in the Reds’ play that was certainly not the ‘United way’. By Tuesday, United was liberated, with Rooney pulling the strings from deep, Giggs bursting forward from central midfield and Javier Hernández creating cataclysmic gaps in Schalke’s back-four.
Rooney is once again central to United’s cause, despite months of on and off-field drama involving the former Evertonian. No 34-goal haul this time out but now returned to his natural position, far deeper than the 25-year-old played at any point last season, Rooney has become United’s creative heartbeat. And he is absolutely aided by Hernández’ presence in the side.
Cruel on Dimitar Berbatov perhaps but United simply could not have made this tactical change with the Bulgarian leading the line, slowing play and allowing the opposition to defend deep.
The changes have created a new dynamic. Despite post-Christmas losses to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, there is now a confidence coursing through collective veins. It is born of a tactical change and a defiance of critics, both those in the media and closer to home. This is a team now greater than the sum of its parts, finally inspired by its leading star.
“I remember before the home game against Bursaspor [last October], which we won 1-0, people were saying it was the end of the empire, the end of Manchester United, the worst team ever,” said defender Patrice Evra last night.
“I said, ‘Sometimes you have to pay the musician at the end of the show, not before’. Tonight there was only one side on the pitch but the players, everyone, was a little bit frustrated because we were thinking, ‘How can we go into half-time without scoring a goal’ when you create a lot of chances like we did in the first half. But, in the end, 2-0 away in a semi-final, not bad.
“The only thing that can stop us is if we don’t respect that team again. United played well because we respected that team. Before the game we got everyone together and said, ‘We are not playing against Schalke, we are playing to reach the final’. That’s why we played with that spirit, that mentality, and we win that game.
“Wazza, when he plays behind the striker he is very dangerous because he has more touches of the ball and Wazza can create the goal as well and can score. He enjoys playing that position and it is a good benefit for the team.”
Barcelona almost certainly awaits in the Wembley final, with the Catalan giants having beaten Real Madrid 2-0 in the Spanish capital on Wednesday. Pep Guardiola’s side is brilliant; arguably the best of any in the past 20 years. But with a defence that has not conceded away from Old Trafford in European competition this season and a confident Rooney pulling the creative strings, United at least stands a chance.
Six months ago few would have believed the turn-around possible. Not least, one suspects, Rooney himself.