Friday 15 November 2019

Old rivals ready to rumble as Euro elite vanish over horizon

'English football dominated when their Champions League sides had two defensive managers at top four clubs and the best team in England had Rooney and Ronaldo'
'English football dominated when their Champions League sides had two defensive managers at top four clubs and the best team in England had Rooney and Ronaldo'
'Louis van Gaal remains unknowable, a manager who stands on his record because without his record, it would be hard to understand at times what he is doing'

Dion Fanning

The cause of and solution to English football's problems will be on display at Anfield today. Liverpool and Manchester United played no part in the staggered exit of the Premier League from Europe over the last ten days. Liverpool avoided the inquest having surrendered in the autumn, adopting England's approach to the last World Cup: in an age of diminishing attention spans, fail early and, when the time comes to make sense of it, people will have forgotten you were there at all.

Manchester United are different. They are still English football's biggest story and the story has become more compelling since Alex Ferguson retired and we began to understood all that he had done, all that he had held together.

We have seen things many had thought they would never see. Last year, Liverpool were given three penalties when they won at Old Trafford; this season, two United players have been booked in front of the Stretford End for diving as Arsenal won in Manchester.

David Moyes suffered for many reasons, among them knowability. Moyes was easy to understand as he emerged blinking into a job he took on with such humility and deference. Moyes hesitated and took his time. Louis Van Gaal is a man with a plan. It doesn't matter if the plan today is different from the plan yesterday and, in fact, the mystery is part of the appeal.

Van Gaal remains unknowable, a manager who stands on his record because without his record, it would be hard to understand at times what he is doing.

In a detailed interview last week, Van Gaal explained his methods and much else. Van Gaal dismissed the notion that he is arrogant before adding, "I have the feeling that the fans love me. But you never know. It always depends at the end on results."

Any team that can lose at home to Arsenal and then beat Tottenham comfortably less than a week later can be said to share the manager's unknowability.

The revolutionary change at United last season was reflected elsewhere in an English season that was gripping and unpredictable. This season has been more circumspect and, like United, harder to understand. For a long time, it has been reaching an inevitable conclusion but slowly and with no drama.

Van Gaal talked last week about the appreciation the supporters show, even in defeat, but his supporters will show little appreciation if United lose today.

Liverpool and Manchester United had nothing to offer in Europe this season and, for some, this fixture will be a demonstration of the insularity of the Premier League, a different kind of insularity to the problem which has plagued their national team and coaches. This is one which depends on footballers of the globe for its success and its retreat.

The game takes place at a time when the Premier League is under scrutiny. There will be those who will sneer at the hype surrounding this match and wonder if it is justified in a week of such failure. They will talk as if the hype is the prelude to Stoke-Leicester City, not one of the most glittering fixtures in the English calendar. When English clubs dominated in Europe - who can forget ties such as the fondly remembered "shit on a stick" semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool? - they did so using methods generally ignored these days in the Premier League.

While Rafa Benitez was taking Liverpool to Champions League finals and semi-finals, he was often understandably criticised for not being more adventurous in the Premier League. As English clubs made their final exit on Thursday, Benitez's Napoli were out there doing their thing, or their anti-thing, qualifying for the quarter-finals thanks to a scoreless draw in Moscow, as if there had never been any other way of qualifying for anything.

There has been an attempt to find an over-arching theme for the failure of England's clubs, as if men like Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger had embarked on a joint mission and now must be examined collectively. Wenger, certainly, has suffered enough without being held responsible for Samir Nasri's character defects as well.

Some might even hope that a task force is set up to examine English football's problems and there has been ominous talk of a winter break.

If a winter break made it less likely that, say, Burnley would beat Manchester City then the Premier League would probably embark on that plan with great reluctance, aware that already the greatest threat to the league is not failure in Europe but a lack of competitiveness in England.

English football dominated when their Champions League sides had two defensive managers at top four clubs and the best team in England had Rooney and Ronaldo. Arsenal can be applauded for their consistency over the past five years at least. In 2012, Chelsea won the Champions League with a side that finished sixth in England but few took that as a sign of the strength of the Premier League, when it had more to do with randomness.

English football has abandoned defensive ways in pursuit of the dream as laid out by Barcelona, a way which has made people less tolerant of negative football except when they start demanding success.

For most football fans in England, last week's football was profoundly satisfying. Only the most parochial would believe that any kind of football justice would be served if Manchester City had qualified for the quarter-finals ahead of Messi and Barcelona.

Barcelona and Real Madrid will demonstrate tonight where the geniuses currently reside in European football but few thought they were anywhere but in Spain and Munich. Maybe the deluded believed they could be found in Manchester or at the Emirates.

Van Gaal will want to make a case for his own genius but not losing to Liverpool is his most urgent requirement. There will be sound and fury at Anfield today. Many will feel this week that it signifies nothing. But it is a tribal occasion for a worldwide audience gripped by its insularity.

dfanning@independent.ie

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