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Ten reasons why United are out of Champions LeagueBen Blackmore December 9, 2011
After Manchester United suffered the ignominy of crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage on Wednesday, the terminal decline of Sir Alex Ferguson's Red Devils was quickly predicted in rather knee-jerk fashion by several media outlets.
Certainly United's shocker in Basel was bad, but Ferguson's sustained success over 25 years at Old Trafford suggests the problem is rectifiable, so we take a look at ten reasons why the Premier League champions flopped so badly this season.
David De Gea
We've seen enough of young goalkeeper David De Gea to know there is plenty to suggest he could become a fine custodian for United. The saves earlier in the season at Liverpool from Dirk Kuyt and Jordan Henderson spring to mind as evidence of his quality, but there have also been far too many shreds of evidence to hint he may be a gamble that backfires. The Spaniard was at fault for Benfica's second goal at Old Trafford on Matchday Five with a poor clearance (usually one of his strengths), and then he inexplicably chose to use his feet rather than his hands (maybe having watched Vito Mannone the night before) to set up Basel's opener on Matchday Six. Those mistakes effectively cost United three points, and all the while Ferguson had Anders Lindegaard on the bench, who was man of the match in the opening game at Benfica.
Fergie's selection tombola
Ferguson hasn't got much wrong in his quarter of a century at United, but there can be no denying that he has been punished for treating the Champions League a little bit like the Carling Cup this season. Those who have had tickets for United's European games this season will testify that guessing the starting line-up has been equal to predicting how long Carlos Tevez gives it at AC Milan before throwing his dummy out the pram once more. Only five of the United players who started in Basel on Wednesday also started the opening game in Benfica. Similarly, only six that started in Switzerland also began the home game with Benfica, even though United needed a result in both matches. Fergie's "selection tombola" has been discussed on the stands at Old Trafford this season, United have not looked cohesive throughout, and the manager must take blame.
Manchester City's league form
Ferguson's tombola may well be a direct result of their "noisy neighbours", who have not allowed the champions a moment's peace this season. Last year's title race became a battle of which top club had faded the least, with United coming out on top of poor Chelsea and Arsenal teams. The league table does not lie in that respect. United won the league with 80 points in the 2010-11 season, while Chelsea and Arsenal had 71 and 68 respectively. The year before Chelsea won the title with 86 points, ahead of a United side that picked up 85 and Arsenal who had 75. Manchester City's rise to prominence (they're currently on course to smash the 90-point barrier), has made every league game a must-win for United, meaning Ferguson has used European competition, not the Premier League, to rest players.
Once again, this could be seen as a direct result of the above. All teams get injuries but United have suffered a shedload this season. Nemanja Vidic is a huge miss anytime he is not playing, and the nasty blow picked up in Basel wasn't his first of the season. Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov were missing at the crucial time in Switzerland, Rio Ferdinand has had time off, while perhaps the two biggest losses have been Anderson and Tom Cleverley - both in superb form prior to their respective setbacks. Neither man has played since November 2, and United have only managed eight goals in seven matches during that period.
The old ones are the best
If Cleverley and Anderson have been missed, it has been because there was no Wes Sneijder, Samir Nasri or Luka Modric to knit the midfield together. United had central defender Phil Jones and converted winger Ryan Giggs occupying the midfield berths in Basel, and it is fair to say that - for all of Jones' huge potential as a centre-back - a cultured midfielder he is not. Former captain Roy Keane made the post-match point that you "can't be depending" on the 37- or 38-year-old Giggs, and the void left by Paul Scholes only looks like widening in the current circumstances.
If there is a reason why Messrs Sneijder, Modric and Nasri are not at United, the bulk of the blame has to rest at the door of the Glazer family. Yes they spent in the region of £50 million bringing in Ashley Young, De Gea and Jones, but when you consider the lightening of the wage bill through the retirements of Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Scholes - in addition to other player departures like John O'Shea and Wes Brown - that actually represents a pleasant summer's business for the Glazers. Quite simply, United's owners cannot compete for Europe's biggest players, and if inside rumblings are to be believed, Fergie has already been told he will not get his top target in January.
Regardless of what players United don't have, they still have about 25 individuals with bigger reputations and pay packets than the majority of the Basel team. Several of those high earners "need shaking up" in the words of Keane. Certainly Ashley Young looks like his honeymoon period will result in quick divorce if his form since the opening month of the season is to continue. Not quite as bad as the boy Downing at Liverpool, but it's becoming a tight-run race. Patrice Evra can come out with big words like "embarrassing" but he needs to look no further than himself, as does the likes of Rio Ferdinand.
Missing from the list above was of course Mr Rooney, who should consider himself lucky if he even gets a place in Fabio Capello's England squad for Euro 2012 at this rate. Since getting sent off in Montenegro at the start of October, Rooney has scored just two goals for United, and they both came in the same game against Otelul Galati. His first-half miss in Basel was indefensible, and it is difficult to argue that he deserves to start ahead of Danny Welbeck right now.
Evans help us
If Rooney and Co are failing to bang them in at one end, United need to be watertight at the other. When Ferdinand and Vidic have been together, they've generally been OK, as proven by three clean sheets in their last four league games (would have been four but for a dodgy linesman's decision against Newcastle). However, the back-up option for when one has got injured has been short of the required standard. With Phil Jones often being forced to play as a square peg in a round hole in United's midfield, Ferguson has turned to Jonny Evans, who was surely the next man set for a switch to Sunderland prior to Steve Bruce's axing. Evans' defending in the 6-1 loss to City, the 1-1 draw at Benfica, and the 2-1 loss to Basel all leave little case for the... well... defence.
The United 'yes' men
Ferguson is undoubtedly a man with an ego, as most top managers are, but he will be the first to admit that his success over the years has, in part, been down to the likes of Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz. Assistant managers don't always make the best managers, but the best managers always have very good assistants. Currently United have the consistently perplexed-looking Mike Phelan sat next to Ferguson, while Rene Meulensteen is also assigned coaching duties. Neither possesses the confrontational, winning mentality of a Kidd, nor the global respect of a Queiroz. If Ferguson is asked what he wants for Christmas, the chances are he might ask for a wall to bounce ideas off. Phelan's response? "I'll get right onto that for you sir".