Here is an extremely detailed and erudite piece titled ‘Fergie Week: Manchester United 2-3 Real Madrid’ by Rob Smyth on the infamous Champions League Quarter Final in the 1999-2000 season. Smyth is (as far as I’m aware of) a journalist for The Guardian, and probably the media’s most knowledgeable and passionate writer on United. He is ordinarily very perceptive and analytical, although at times his intensity and zeal get the better of him, as they did when he dropped this clanger. To be fair to Smyth, he did write this when United looked to be at their lowest ebb: Sir Alex hadn’t come out looking good from the Rock of Gibraltar debacle two years earlier, and the whiff of distraction and vulnerability remained, particularly with his apparent inability to muzzle Roy Keane from lashing out at his teammates in the now-mythical MUTV interview; Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had just won their second consecutive Premier League in emphatic fashion, while Ruud Van Nistelrooy left in acrimonious circumstances and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes looked to be winding down after indifferent seasons. Then there were the really worrying signs: United had been knocked out at the group stages of the Champions League for the first time ever since the competition’s revamp in 1992, and this seeming sign of terminal decline was exacerbated by the signing by Chelsea of John Obi Mikel, who had initially agreed to join United only to perform an about-turn and opt for Stamford Bridge for more money (and this wasn’t the first time Chelsea nabbed a United target – Michael Ballack, Arjen Robben and Michael Essien had all looked headed for Old Trafford only for Abramovich’s cheque book to intervene). It appeared as if United could no longer compete at the highest stage both in performance and in terms of attracting top players.
Neither Smyth nor anybody else could have foreseen what was to transpire in the next half a decade: three straight league titles and four in five years, three Champions League finals including victory in 2008, and, perhaps the most symbolic, a nineteenth championship in 2011 which finally knocked Liverpool off their statistical perch as the most successful domestic team in England. This was a barely comprehensible development, particularly when you take into account that United were severely hamstrung by the Glazers’ debt-laden takeover in 2005 and the subsequent need to constantly service ruinous amounts of interest payment from the club’s revenue. Yet United played the majority of this period with a newfound tactical maturity and wily defensive stability that had seemed beyond Ferguson in the early part of the decade; more significant, United became extremely hard to beat in away games in Europe – as Smyth points out in the title article, after being unable to even keep a clean sheet on the continent, United started to shut teams out and, failing that, put themselves in strong positions in the second leg through important away goals (Roma in 2007, Lyon in 2008). This culminated in a number of performances that was of uncommonly high standard for a British team in Europe: the 2-0 away win in Rome in 2008 that was described by Zonal Marking as the finest away performance in Europe by an English team; the 0-0 draw in Barcelona the same year which featured Cristiano Ronaldo as a one-man attack behind whom the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ji-Sung Park and Carlos Tevez defended like possessed gnomes; the 3-1 win in the Emirates in 2009 which was a masterclass in counterattacking and opportunism; the calm, controlled 1-0 win in Porto in the previous knockout stage with a Ronaldo thunderbolt after a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford which had naysayers counting United out. Ferguson’s United went from haphazard thrill-merchants who were addicted to creating chance after chance at the expense of huge gaps between the lines, to a lean, mean control machine that could go to hostile stadiums in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal and dictate the terms of the play.
How did this come about? Smyth notes that that the reckless tactics which were so brutally exposed in this match alerted Ferguson to the need to adopt a different approach in Europe, leading him in the short term to break up the most complete midfield England had yet seen, and down the line to create the wonderfully fluid and sophisticated system of the recent years. The team of Rooney and Ronaldo that looked so commanding in Europe between 2006 and 2009 was in many ways the child of the Real match: retaining possession, rock-solid at the back, holding midfielders, hardworking, versatile wingers and one forward who at times wasn’t a forward at all – all these features were the opposite of what the 1999 team represented. Doing away with three flat lines, a specialist in each position, and a romantic commitment to attacking football, Ferguson’s United went through a period of uncommon misery before emerging, phoenix-like, as the team with an indisputably excellent record in Europe (including 25 unbeaten games until the final against Barca in 2009 – the best such streak in the history of the competition). Undoubtedly the wisdom of Ferguson’s momentous decision is there for us to see, yet we cannot help but lament that what could and should have become the dominant team of the early 2000s fell short of answering the call of destiny, instead being dismantled in order to better deal with the kind of threat that Real represented.
Going back to the quarter-finals in 2000, I’ve always felt that United’s failure had almost as much to do with their spending policy as with the cavalier tactics, and that their inability during the summer of 1999 to leverage their wealth and pulling power – then surely at an unprecedented high – into attracting the best players for their weak positions – center-half to partner Jaap Stam and a keeper to replace the outgoing Peter Schmeichel – prevented them from realizing their potential as a truly great team. Although widely derided by rival fans for their expenditure relative to other teams in England, United, despite their historically massive revenue (they already had the biggest turnover in the 97/98 season according to Deloitte and Touche and has never been out of the top four of the Deloitte Football Money League) had never really indulged in the level of purchasing power like the other major European clubs. Between 1997 and 2001 (a four-year period revolving around United’s Treble season), until United paid the then-club record £28m for Juan Sebastian Veron, the ten biggest transfers fees were paid by three Italian giants and two Spanish clubs (they are: Ronaldo to Inter in 1997, Denilson to Real Betis in 1998, Christian Vieri to Inter in 1999, Luis Figo to Real Madrid and Hernan Crespo to Lazio in 2000, Pavel Nedved and Gianluigi Buffon to Juventus, Gaizka Mendieta to Lazio, Rui Costa to Milan capped off by Zidane’s world record move to Real, all in 2001). Looking at this list from 1997 shows not a single United transfer, and that was before the stakes in the costs associated with player movement were raised exponentially, with figures rising from £19.5m for Ronaldo in ’97 to an unfathomable £45m for Zidane just four seasons later. Although at the time the £27m United paid for Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist seemed just another example of the Red Devils buying their way to trophies, in a wider European context it was the first legitimate ‘splurge’ Ferguson was allowed to go on that was comparable to the outlays permitted for his foreign counterparts. (The strong suspicion is that Ferguson was severely handicapped when it came to transfers by Martin Edwards, who famously underpaid the greatest British manager of all time for years until an incredulous George Graham faxed his contract to Fergie for reference.)
In the short term, after their annus mirabilis United reverted back to their usual policy of prudence. It meant that United never reinforced the Treble winners, and on the contrary, actually became weaker due to the replacement of Peter Schmeichel by Mark Bosnich on a Bosman free. Bosnich was a fine shot-stopper and a highly rated young keeper at the time, but he was an uncertain kicker and poor distributor, attributes that – as Van der Sar would go on to prove – are more important in a United keeper than agility or reflexes. Although he had a fine game at the Bernabeu, Bosnich represented the continuation of a transfer policy that did not befit a club of United’s stature. Likewise, Ronny Johnsen’s injury proneness meant that a proper, top-of-the-line partner for Jaap Stam would have been desired, and although efforts were reportedly made to sign Sammy Kuffour from Bayern Munich, no one came in. Thus, Henning Berg stood in for Johnsen on that fateful night when Fernando Redondo’s sensational backheel made him look a fool and allowed Raul to deliver the killing blow. Would Kuffour have made a difference? Who knows, but the point is that even in the hour of United’s greatest triumph there were definite areas for improvement, and if United had the spending policy of, say, Juventus or Barcelona, the holes would more likely have been plugged. There was a window of opportunity in the summer of 1999 when the right couple of signings in the right positions could – sod it, would – have turned United into an awesome power, but for whatever reasons it was missed. As it was, the Veron and Van Nistelrooy deals were made two years too late, and still didn’t solve United’s most pressing problems.
The long term implications of this match were obviously profound, but at the time it wasn’t immediately clear that a major reconstruction was about to take place. Smyth and others have rightly mentioned that the Madrid game led to Ferguson’s great reform, but this didn’t happen right away. In the 2000-2001 season, United had replaced Bosnich with the World Cup-winning French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and got Wes Brown back after a year out from cruciate injury, but kept the team largely intact (negotiations were also finalized for Van Nistelrooy to join, but his failed medical and the cruciate ligament injury he suffered afterwards would delay the transfer for a year). Although the team started off the opening European game in an explosive fashion by annihilating Anderlecht 5-1, they never topped their two group stages and ended up crashing out to Bayern in the quarters by losing both ties with performances of dispiriting impotence. Of particular consideration was the fact that United never won away the whole campaign, losing three times and drawing the rest (including knockout games), and was also notable for probably one of the most diabolical United performances I’ve ever seen, the away draw at Panathinaikos which was only secured through a barely deserved 90th minute equalizer by Scholes after being wretchedly outplayed by a poor opposition. If Ferguson harboured doubts about his approach before, then this was the season that made his mind up for him.
It was really the following season when the Beckham-Scholes-Keane-Giggs axis was broken up, with the signing of Veron from the Man City of the era, Lazio. Although the transfer is now seen as a flop and the beginning of the end of a glorious era, United actually had their best European campaign since 1998-9, and probably the most sophisticated one yet under Ferguson. They registered emphatic away wins at Olympiakos and Boavista, and should also have beaten Bayern and Deportivo La Coruna during the group stages (the ties against the latter team lost through a couple of Barthez howlers which helped start turning public opinion against him). In the quarter-finals against Depor, United proved the effectiveness of the new system by winning their first knockout games in three years in handsome style, and I think they were scandalously unlucky to go out to Bayer Leverkusen in the semis which, had they won, would have sent Ferguson to Glasgow for the final against Real. The 2001-2 season showed that Ferguson was right in adopting the new approach in Europe: United were much harder to beat, passed the ball better and controlled games with greater maturity with Veron in the side, and this would last into the 2002-3 European campaign, when United beat Levenkusen and Juventus away (the latter a scintillating 3-0 victory, although many Juve players were reportedly sick from a flu outbreak) and only lost the two games when qualification from their group was assured. While some point to the defeat against the Galacticos of Madrid in the quarter-finals as further proof of the general malaise at Old Trafford and the folly of the Veron signing, in truth it was no shame to go out against the likes of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo at their swaggering best, who showed up to be counted in a way they would not in the semis against Juventus (another expensively assembled side with over £80m spent on Buffon, Thuram and Nedved the year before).
One of the reasons why United never got to see the fruits of the Veron experiment had little to do with Europe – where he excelled – and more the fact that he never looked comfortable in the Premier League. England can be a tough and cruel place for new Latin arrivals at Old Trafford (see Taibi, Forlan, Kleberson and even Barthez) and Veron’s more passive playing style did not prove effective in the domestic competition. United fans and journalists had gotten used to seeing them win the Premier League often and with great superiority; when Veron’s arrival contributed to Scholes’s disaffection and coincided with Giggs’s listless form, and careless displays by United in general that led to Arsenal winning the 2001-2 season, he was scapegoated from every quarter. In the heroic title-winning season the next year Veron was on the fringes, not starting a single game against top-four opponents from the turn of the year when United went on their unbeaten run and none at all from March onwards. The clamour against Veron was so great that Ferguson first had to go on his famous ‘youse are all fucking idiots’ rant, and then to discard him for £15m to Chelsea a year later. This, together with Keane’s departure and their replacement by Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba and Liam Miller, forced United into the dark ages which prompted fans’ lamentation so eloquently echoed in Smyth’s ‘Shredding His Legacy’ piece.
For Real, this game also proved seminal. It provided a launchpad for Florentino Perez’s Galacticos policy, which gave fans everywhere the most extravagant displays of attacking football yet seen. It restored at a stroke the glamour and glory that was once symbolic of Real, and contributed to the desire of many young players to specifically sign for Real over other teams: Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil were all in their early-to-mid teens when Real were winning the Champions League bi-annually, and it surely led to their express preference to go to the Bernabeu when United and other European greats were putting in bids.
United would eventually emerge from their rut in 2006, just when things looked at their bleakest: Van Nistelrooy had just left for – wait for it – Real, the team’s two best young players, Rooney and Ronaldo, were at each other’s throats after the latter’s winking incident at Gelsenkirchen, and the only new signing of note was Michael Carrick from Tottenham. That United toppled a formidable Chelsea was difficult to foresee, but looking back it had a number of important causes that were long-term in making: Carrick, instead of being a decent but uninspiring addition, turned out to be exactly what United needed to implement their more considered style, sitting back and playing short passes, keeping possession while lubricating the flow of the play; Ronaldo blossomed into the most thrilling attacking force on the British isles since Henry at his peak Arsenal years, something that was signposted by his form since the end of the previous season and throughout the World Cup; Evra and Vidic, signed in the January transfer window, had initially looked shaky but were given six months of important time to adjust to their new surroundings; and Saha and Solskjaer came back from injury to provide weight to the front-line. Another, rather more underrated, reason was simply that the same squad of players like Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea, Brown, Richardson as well as the aforementioned stars had by then played together for two seasons or more, giving United the necessary continuity and understanding that would stand them in good stead when the opportunity presented itself through Mourinho’s falling out of favour at Stamford Bridge. The transformation had taken at least four years, the kind of time that is afforded to very few managers at the top level, but if anyone was deserving of it it was surely Ferguson. The patience, the perseverance, the power of will and vision to identify a flaw and implement change while the team was still for all intents and purposes highly competitive – all were eventually vindicated by the heart-stopping victory in Moscow in 2008. Even though the Treble team is considered by fans and TV pundits alike as the high point of Ferguson’s regime, and by some as the finest British club side of the last 20 years, the squad and the strategy that were eventually borne of the Real defeat in 2000 were more sinuous and versatile, better able to deal with opponents of differing styles, and ultimately more convincing in Europe. As to the argument that United should have won more European Cups, besides the fact that that particular feat has proved elusive for everyone else as well, the failure to invest to improve the first team after 1999 probably doomed United’s chances of establishing a defining era of hegemony on the continent, and who knows when that sort of opportunity will present itself again.