When Bill Clinton successfully beat George H. W. Bush senior to the White House in 1992, the former Governor of Arkansas did so seemingly against the odds. The end of the Cold War, and conflict in Iraq, ensured foreign policy dominated the headlines at a time of intense national pride. But in assessing the contest, Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville correctly determined that it was not the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that would determine the November 1992 election, but the dollar in ordinary Americans’ pocket.
It was, to paraphrase the sign hanging on Clinton’s Little Rock campaign office, the economy, stupid, that would send the Arkansan to office. Clinton’s win, barely a year after Bush had received 90 per cent approval ratings in the polls, was gained on a more nuanced understanding of Americans’ needs than his predecessor could ever muster.
Six weeks after Manchester United’s humiliation in the derby, one wonders whether the club, like Bush, is on the precipice of acceding to a superior force. In Europe, given the result against FC Basel on Wednesday night, United already has.
In the period since City scored six at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has seemingly become ever more recalcitrant, stubbornly grinding out single goal victories – domestically at least. In the face of an ever-growing injury list, with the side’s rhythm broken by recurring absentees, United’s ability to win ‘when playing poorly’ is – as the old cliché goes – the stuff of champions. Points gained now could well have a significant impact come May, even in the darkness of the ‘morning after the night before’.
Yet, United’s performances since 23 October have been mired in the kind of sparkle-less midfield performance that – aside from a short period at the current campaign’s start – has become increasingly the norm. A new emphasis on midfield structure, built around the admirable Michael Carrick, and not the injured Tom Cleverley’s pass-and-move creativity, has replaced the free-flowing football played in August and early September. In truth those memories are now long gone; August an exception that proves the rule.
This observation is not new – supporters and pundits alike have complained of a glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad for years. Paul Scholes, ageing and increasingly pushed to the margins, always needed replacing. Roy Keane and Owen Hargreaves are long gone. Ferguson’s midfield is, even for the most optimistic Reds, at least two high-class players short.
Increasingly, Ferguson has taken to experimentation in search of a solution. Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung have each been deployed in central midfield in recent games. The position is unnatural to all of them.
And so to Wednesday, when United crashed and burned at St Jackob-Park, and Ferguson’s side was sent packing into the ignominy of the Europa League. In midfield Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones made up the odd-couple central midfield.
The Scot’s outfit did almost everything bar score the required goals, but in truth most supporters will have seen this coming. And in assessing the devastating loss, thoughts necessarily turn inwards, for this has been a failure of the club’s own making.
“It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League,” defender Patrice Evra said succinctly.
“I play for Manchester United to be in the Champions League. It’s a catastrophe. We feel very sad but we deserve to go out. “It’s a big disappointment. Since I played with Monaco, I’ve never been out in the first round. We played with fire. Against Basel at home we were winning 2-0 and we drew against Benfica as well. It’s not about tonight, it’s about the competition. We threw away that qualification. We should have woken up earlier in this competition.
“It feels like a dream. I feel I will wake up tomorrow and we will have qualified. But it is not a dream, it is the reality. Even if it is a friendly, when I pull on a United shirt I do my best to win that trophy. I play for Manchester United to play in the Champions League but some players dream of playing for United in any competition and you have to respect that.”
The question now is not whether the “embarrassment” will provoke a “response,” as Ferguson put it post match – supporters can expect no less – but specifically what that might be. For surely the United manager cannot believe his side did not try hard enough, or has more to give? Many supporters will argue that the response, if there is to be one, must come in the market to address the structural problems in the Scot’s squad.
It is worrying, then, that the Glazer family is unwilling to release funds this winter for midfield reinforcements, if the word on the street, currently doing the rounds, is to be believed. It is a truism that United was interested in Internazionale’s midfielder Wesley Sneijder in the past summer, only for the deal to flounder on the Dutchman’s substantial wages. Any move for Luka Modric was ended at the conceptual stage once the Croatian’s fee was established at more than £30 million on the open market.
Across town City acquired Samir Nasri at great expense from Arsenal, adding to the exceptional talents already at Eastlands, including this season’s best player, David Silva. That City’s vast array of midfield talents contrasts so starkly with Ferguson’s meagre resources is all the more disappointing for Reds keen to stave off the rising Blue Moon. To underline City’s riches, Nasri, also a target for Ferguson in the summer, has spent much of the campaign held in reserve by Roberto Mancini.
City’s midfield quartet of Yaya Touré, James Milner, Gareth Barry, and Silva, ran rings round United at Old Trafford. Just as, one might add, Barcelona had at Wembley in May. Anderson and Darren Fletcher failed against City, just as Carrick and Giggs succumbed to the Catalans six months earlier. Benfica and Basel have demonstrated that even clubs supposedly one tier down can more than match United. One wonders how many lessons it is going to take?
How much criticism is reserved for Ferguson, who dragged his limited squad to a glorious 19th domestic title last May, depends on how far you believe he is culpable for the marked decline in his midfield resources. One version paints Ferguson as the visionary, transforming his squad through vibrant youth, and investing in Cleverley as United’s next great playmaker. An alternate casts the Scot as the Glazer family’s lickspittle; a carpetbagger’s lackey, beholden to owners that are unwilling to invest in the club’s playing resources unless costs are cut elsewhere.
Which brings us back to Clinton. In ’92 the American people, who should have been emboldened by the Cold War’s end, and impassioned with militaristic pride at the successful conflict in the Persian Gulf, instead threw out the old regime and invested in the promise of a bright young southern lawyer. Ferguson is unlikely to cast aside the dead wood in his midfield, but it is, to borrow a now hackneyed phrase, the midfield, stupid, that will ultimately end United’s quest for 20 – as it has in Europe – unless something changes. And fast.