March roared in like a lion for Manchester United. They had a lead of twelve points in the league, reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup and scored an away goal in a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in the Champions League. As happens at this time of year when United remain in all three of these competitions football journalists begin to talk about The Treble. Manager Alex Ferguson fed the mania with quotes about his current squad being superior to that of the ’99 vintage.
Now prior to United’s legendary achievement in 1999 only three other European sides had won a treble of domestic league, domestic cup and the (highest level) continental trophy – Celtic in 1967, Ajax in 1972 and PSV in 1988. An obvious average of once in a decade for this footballing feat. In a freak variation to upset the average, ten years after United won the Premiership, the FA Cup and the Champions League (the first treble in the new continental format) Barcelona and Inter Milan won respective trebles back to back in 2009 and 2010.
The stats would point to the simple fact that these trebles do not happen often. No football club has repeated the feat and only the Netherlands has offered more than one side into this elite club. Bayern Munich, perennial German champions haven’t accomplished it. European giants AC Milan have also come up short. And the greatest European giants of them all, Real Madrid, haven’t managed a clean sweep. So obviously it’s bloody hard to do. You need to be really good and a little lucky to win a trophy. To win three in one season you have to be very, very good and very, very lucky.
Of course the English press loves their headlines and hyperboles and nothing screams as loud as Manchester United and The Treble, even a crisis at Arsenal, or unrest at Chelsea. And while it may be expecting too much to think that England’s football writers would incorporate a little common sense or balance to their stories, it’s a little strange that Ferguson and United’s players constantly get sucked into comparisons with the ’99 side.
Up until the hour mark against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, even the most realistic and level headed United supporter could be forgiven for thinking about another treble. Then the Portuguese Nani got sent off and, unfairly or not, what followed has shed a little light on Ferguson.
Despite the most slender of advantages in the tie, Ferguson made no substitutions after Nani’s red card. He stood at the edge of the touch line and got the Old Trafford faithful revved up into a fervor, but no substitutions. Mourinho, looking sour as ever, threw on Modric and guess what? Modric scores, Modric crosses for Ronaldo to score and then Ferguson decides to make his substitutions.
The ridiculousness of Nani’s red card covered up the glaring tactical naivety from Manchester United. Ferguson who took such pains to shore up United’s defense and tactical prowess in the 2000’s, should have known he couldn’t keep the same shape, discipline and intensity without making a change. While they might not publicly support the idea of “parking the bus”, Manchester United are, like all football clubs, in the business of winning matches and you cannot do that on motivation alone (despite what the British football collective might still believe).
Fast forward to the weekend with Chelsea visiting in the FA Cup. A domestic double, according to Ferguson, would still be decent and most people assumed United would feel aggrieved and fired up for the match. 2-0 up after a quarter of an hour and United were cruising.
Then Chelsea fought back with a brilliant second half display to force a replay at Stamford Bridge. The reaction from the United camp? Fatigue. No mention of Chelsea having played in Romania on Thursday night. And who were United’s worst performers in the second half? Valencia and Rooney – two players who only had cameos midweek against Real Madrid and should have been fit. Valencia didn’t even start the FA Cup tie and yet, as a replacement for Nani, looked unable to complete a pass. And if fatigue was the issue, as anyone could expect, why not focus on the most susceptible players? Carrick and Cleverly in central midfield must have been exhausted after their efforts against Madrid and yet they both started the cup tie with Chelsea. Ashley Young came on as a sub against Madrid but didn’t feature at all against Chelsea and Anderson, who didn’t even make the squad in the Champions League and didn’t leave the bench in the FA Cup. Ferdinand, who has only rarely played two matches back to back, started and played the entirety of United’s past three matches. He has only done that once this season, back in October.
The issues of poor referring and fatigue are red herrings for the more important, managerial issues of tactical substitutions and squad rotation. A month ago, United’s squad were better than ’99. Now, if you believe everything you read, Rooney is off to PSG, Nani and Anderson are no longer wanted, Valenica has gone off the boil and, whisper it quietly, “footballer of the year” Robin Van Persie has lost form. Rio Ferdinand is also out of contract at the end of the season. When United won the league title in 2011 and almost won it again last year, most people thought Ferguson had practically dragged them to the finish line himself. He’s obviously still kicking boots, spraying the old hairdryer and retaining a hunger for success, but he’s also still human, making mistakes, and nowhere near a comfort level where he can walk away from the managerial position at Manchester United.
To wrench the domestic league title back from the riches of Manchester City would be an incredible accomplishment. However, if they don’t win the FA Cup as well, most people will look back at the season as something of a damp squib given the promise of hyperbole. At one time it is a shame and yet, on the other hand those are the standards of Manchester United and Alex Ferguson.