In the past they relied on a solid defence, but now a solid midfield trio provides Manchester United’s ammunition for Wayne Rooney, writes Richard Chambers
When the draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League was announced, there was almost immediate talk of a repeat of last season’s final with the juggernauts of Manchester United facing the immaculately graceful Barcelona. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will have been delighted by news that they will meet old rivals Bayern Munich before a potential duel with either of the French sides left in the competition, Lyon or Bordeaux.
Many spoke of a prospective duel between two of the world’s finest players, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi. While it has seemed at times that United are driven solely by the irrepressible will and talent of their talisman, there is more to the Red Devils’ European ambitions than first appears.
Ferguson’s tactical approach to European football has developed comprehensively since he first conquered the continent in 1999. His traditional 4-4-2 replaced over time with a five-man midfield and a lone striker in an effort to combat the creative ‘carousel’, as he referred to the midfield of Barcelona and other European giants. The disappointing failures in Europe preceding 2008’s victory over Chelsea have forced him to humbly reconsider his approach.
Wayne Rooney – and before him, Cristiano Ronaldo – has been the central force of his side, but behind these marquee names the harrying influence of Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung – and more recently the service provided by Antonio Valencia – are helping United to progress towards their goals of a fourth consecutive Premier League title and a fourth European Cup.
Fletcher, so sorely missed in last season’s final, was once billed as the new David Beckham in his early days at Old Trafford. He is now the combative midfielder that United have lacked since the departure of Roy Keane. The protestations of Arsène Wenger against Fletcher’s midfield aggression are as good an epithet as any that can be paid to Scotland’s captain.
Another international captain has an equally important role in United’s sojourns abroad. Korean Park Ji-Sung has often been criticised as a mere marketing ploy by Manchester United pandering to the lucrative fan base in the Far East, but he is far more valuable to Alex Ferguson than as a shirt salesman in Seoul. His role in the Champions League squad has been to frustrate and stifle threatening elements of the opposing midfield, regardless of position. His constant harrying of AC Milan’s Andrea Pirlo in the previous round is a fine example of why he has earned the nickname ‘Three-Lung Park’. It is likely that his manager will order him to ‘do a job’ on Bayern’s quick and imaginative wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben in the upcoming tie.
The countless headed goals from Wayne Rooney can be attributed to hours of practice by the in form front man as well as the quality of the delivery by his teammates – none more prominent than Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian purchased as a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo is a winger in the classical sense of the word. His attributes have reminded many of Andrei Kanchelskis, an archetypical winger for United in the early nineties. Following a slow start to his Old Trafford career, the former Wigan player has earned plaudits for his displays.
While no one can belittle the efforts of Wayne Rooney, these players offer the capability of United to challenge in Europe once again. United carry a reputation for attacking football, but the utilisation of Fletcher, Park and Valencia add a layer of responsibility prerequisite for success in the Champions League. Through this, progression to a third successive final – and perhaps more – should be a realistic goal.