بارسلونا [2009-11] - کوچک زیباستکتاب: زندگینامه من- الکس فرگوسن / فصل 21
بارسلونا [2009-11] - کوچک زیباست
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NINETEEN - BARCELONA [2009 - 11] - SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
BARCELONA were the best team ever to line up against my Manchester United sides. Easily the best. They brought the right mentality to the contest. We had midfield players in our country – Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson – who were strong men, warriors; winners. At Barcelona they had these wonderful mites, 5 feet 6 inches tall, with the courage of lions, to take the ball all the time and never allow themselves to be bullied. The accomplishments of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were amazing to me.
The Barcelona side that beat us at Wembley in the 2011 Champions League final were superior to the team that conquered us in Rome two years earlier. The 2011 bunch were at the height of their powers and brought tremendous maturity to the job. In both instances I had to wrestle with the knowledge that we were a really good team but had encountered one that had handled those two finals better than us.
I wish we could have played the Rome final again the next day. The very next day. There was a wonderful atmosphere in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, on a beautiful night, and it was my first defeat in a European final, in five outings. To collect a runners-up medal is a painful act when you know you could have performed much better.
Bravery was a prerequisite for confronting those Barcelona sides. They were the team of their generation, just as Real Madrid were the team of theirs in the 1950s and 1960s, and AC Milan were in the early 1990s. The group of world-beaters who formed around Messi were formidable. I felt no envy towards these great sides. Regrets, yes, when we lost to them, but jealousy, no.
In each of those two European Cup finals, we might have been closer to Spain’s finest by playing more defensively, but by then I had reached the stage with Manchester United where it was no good us trying to win that way. I used those tactics to beat Barcelona in the 2008 semi-final: defended really deep; put myself through torture, put the fans through hell. I wanted a more positive outlook against them subsequently, and we were beaten partly because of that change in emphasis. If we had retreated to our box and kept the defending tight, we might have achieved the results we craved. I’m not blaming myself; I just wish our positive approach could have produced better outcomes.
Beating us in Rome accelerated Barcelona’s development into the dominant team of their era. It drove them on. A single victory can have that catalytic effect. It was their second Champions League win in four seasons and Pep Guardiola’s team were the first Spanish side to win the League, Copa del Rey and Champions League in the same campaign. We were the reigning European champions but were unable to become the first in the history of the modern competition to defend that title.
Yet we shouldn’t have lost that game in the Eternal City. There was a way to play against Barcelona, as we proved the year before. There is a way to stop them, even Messi. What we did, 12 months previously in the away leg, was to deploy Tévez off the front and Ronaldo at centre-forward, so we could have two areas of attack. We had the penetration of Ronaldo and Tévez to help us get hold of the ball.
We still found it hard, of course, because Barcelona monopolised possession for such long periods and in those circumstances your own players tend to lose interest. They start watching the game: they are drawn into watching the ball weave its patterns.
Our idea was that when we had any semblance of possession, Ronaldo would go looking for space and Tévez would come short to get on the ball. But they were busy spectating. I made that point to them at half-time. ‘You’re watching the game,’ I said. ‘We’re not counter-attacking at all.’ Our method was not that of Inter Milan; they defended deep and played on the counter-attack throughout. We were in attack mode in the second half.
A major inhibiting factor in Rome, I will now say, was the choice of hotel. It was a shambles. For meals we were in a room with no light; the food was late, it was cold. I took a chef there and they dismissed him, ignored him. On the morning of the game, two or three of our team were feeling a bit seedy, particularly Giggs. A few were feeling under the weather and one or two played that way. The role Giggs was assigned came with a high workload that was incompatible with the slight bug in his system. It was too big a task for him to operate on top of Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s defensive midfielder, and then advance as a striker and come back in to cover again.
You would never think about criticising Ryan Giggs, not in any shape or form, after what he achieved at our club. It was just a pity he was below his normal energy level that night in Rome.
We started the game really well, however, with Ronaldo threatening the Barcelona defence three times: first, from a dipping free kick, then two shots from distance, which heaped pressure on Victor Valdés, their goalkeeper. But ten minutes in, we conceded a really awful goal on account of our midfield’s failure to retreat in time to stop Iniesta making a pass to Samuel Eto’o. Eto’o struck the shot and Edwin van der Sar didn’t quite deal with it as the ball slipped inside the near post.
Barcelona began with Messi wide right, Eto’o through the middle and Thierry Henry wide left. Just prior to the goal, they pushed Eto’o wider right and Messi into midfield, as a deep central striker. They changed Eto’o to the right-hand side because Evra had been breaking away from Messi, early on. Evra was racing forward persistently and they changed their shape to stop him. Afterwards Guardiola acknowledged that point. Messi had been moved to save him from having to deal with Evra.
By making that alteration, Barcelona created a position for Messi he enjoys, in the centre of the park. That’s where he played from then on, in that hole, which made life hard for the back four because they were unsure whether to push in against him or stay back and play safe.
After Eto’o’s goal, and with Messi central, Barcelona had an extra man in midfield. Iniesta and Xavi just went boomp-boomp-boomp, kept possession all night. They were superior to us at ball-circulation. I won’t waste time contesting that fact.
Conceding the ball to Guardiola’s men came at an awful price because their numerical superiority in midfield reduced you to a spectating role again. To counteract their passing game, I sent on Tévez for Anderson at half-time and watched him miss a fine chance when he went round a defender but decided to beat him a second time, pulling the ball back in and losing it. Barcelona’s clinching goal came an hour after their first: a header, unusually, by Messi, from a cross by Xavi.
Later I discussed Barcelona’s evolution with Louis van Gaal, their former Dutch coach. The basis of their philosophy was laid down by Johan Cruyff, a terrific coach who conceived their ideas about width and ball-circulation, always with an extra man in midfield. After Bobby Robson, they went back to the Dutch way, with Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard. What Guardiola added was a method of pressing the ball. Under Pep they had this three-second drill, apparently, where the defending team would be allowed no more than three seconds on the ball.
After the win in Rome, Guardiola said: ‘We’re fortunate to have the legacy of Johan Cruyff and Charly Rexach. They were the fathers and we’ve followed them.’
What I could never quite understand is how their players were able to play that number of games. They fielded almost the same side every time. Success is often cyclical, with doldrums. Barcelona emerged from theirs and went in hot pursuit of Real Madrid. I don’t like admitting, we were beaten by a great team, because we never wanted to say those words. The biggest concession we ever wanted to make was: two great teams contested this final, but we just missed out. Our aim was to attain that level where people said we were always on a par with Europe’s best.
To beat Barcelona in that cycle you needed centre-backs who could be really positive. Rio and Vidić were at an age where their preference was to defend the space. Nothing wrong with that. Quite correct. But against Barcelona it’s a limited approach. You need centre-backs who are prepared to drop right on top of Messi and not worry about what is happening behind them. OK, he’ll drift away to the side. That’s fine. He’s less of a threat on the side than he is through the centre.
They had four world-class players: Piqué, the two centre-midfield players and Messi. Piqué was without doubt the most underrated player in their team. He is a great player. We knew that when he was a youngster player with us. At a European conference, Guardiola told me he was the best signing they had made. He created the tempo, the accuracy, the confidence and the penetration from that deep position. That’s what we tried to nullify by shoving our strikers on top of them and being first to the ball or forcing them to offload it. For the first 20 or 30 minutes it worked really well, but then they score. They wriggle out.
They had this wonderful talent for escapology. You put the bait in the river and a fish goes for it. Sometimes it doesn’t, though. Xavi would pass the ball to Iniesta at a pace that encouraged you to think you were going to win it. And you were not going to win it, because they were away from you. The pace of the pass, the weight of the pass, and the angle, just drew you into territory you shouldn’t have been in. They were brilliant at that form of deception.
The Premier League desperately want a more lenient policy on work permits. There would be a danger in such a laissez-faire approach. You could flood the game with bad players. But the big clubs should be granted that freedom, because they have the ability to scout the best players. That’s a bit elitist, I know, but if you want to win in Europe, one way round it is to change the work permit status in favour of the clubs. In the EU we could take players at 16.
Two years later, our clubs converged on the final again, this time at Wembley. We had the same intention as in Rome, started well, and were then just overrun in the middle of the pitch in a 3–1 defeat. We started with Edwin van der Sar in goal, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidić and Evra across the back, Giggs, Park, Carrick and Valencia in midfield and Rooney and Hernández up front.
We didn’t handle Messi. Our centre-backs weren’t moving forward onto the ball. They were wanting to sit back. Yet the preparation for that game was the best I have seen. For 10 days we practised for it on the training ground. You know the problem? Sometimes players play the occasion, not the game. Wayne Rooney, for example, was disappointing. Our tactic was for him to raid into the spaces behind the full-backs and for Hernández to stretch them back, which he did, but we failed to penetrate those spaces behind the full-backs. For some reason, Antonio Valencia froze on the night. He was nervous as hell. I don’t mean to be over-critical.
We never really attacked their left-back, who had just come back from an illness and hadn’t played a lot of games. We thought that would be a big plus point for us – either him or Puyol playing there. Valencia’s form leading up to the final had been excellent. He tortured Ashley Cole two or three weeks before Wembley and had twisted the blood of the full-back at Schalke. You might be better going back to your box against Barcelona, but we should have been better at pushing on top of Messi. Michael Carrick was below his best too.
The first newsflash that night was that I had left Dimitar Berbatov out of the match-day squad. Instead, Michael Owen took the striker’s seat on the bench. He obviously took it badly and I felt rotten. Wembley has a coach’s room, nice and private, where I explained the reasons for my decision. Dimitar had gone off the boil a bit and wasn’t always the ideal substitute. I told him: ‘If we’re going for a goal in the last minute, in the penalty box, Michael Owen has been very fresh.’ It probably wasn’t fair but I had to take those decisions and back myself to be right.
I signed Berbatov in the summer of 2008 because he had that lovely balance and composure in the attacking areas. I thought it would balance out the other players I had in the team, but by doing so I created an impasse with Tévez, who wasn’t having it. He was sub, playing, then sub again. In fairness to Tévez, he always made an impact. He would get about the game. Yet it definitely caused that blockage and gave his camp something to bargain with at other clubs.
Berbatov was surprisingly lacking in self-assurance. He never had the Cantona or Andy Cole peacock quality, or the confidence of Teddy Sheringham. Hernández also had high confidence: he was bright and breezy. Berbatov was not short of belief in his ability, but it was based on his way of playing. Because we functioned at a certain speed, he was not really tuned into it. He was not that type of quick-reflex player. He wants the game to go slow and to work his way into the box in his own time. Or he’ll do something outside the area and link the play. His assets were considerable. Although we had a few inquiries for him in the summer of 2011, I was not prepared to let him go at that stage. We had spent £30 million on him and I was not willing to write that off just because he had missed a few big games the previous season. We might as well keep him and use him.
In training he practised getting to the ball faster. But when the play broke down he was inclined to walk. You couldn’t do that at our place. We had to regroup quickly or we would be too open, with too many players up the pitch. We needed people to react to us losing the ball so the opposition would be under pressure quickly. But he was capable of great moments. He also had a huge appetite, of Nicky Butt proportions. Head down at meal-times, and sometimes with food to take home as well.
Berbatov wouldn’t have featured in the Wembley game, even if he had been on the bench. I had been forced to take off Fábio and send on Nani, which left me with only two options. I wanted to get Scholes on because I needed an experienced player to orchestrate our passing, so Paul came on for Carrick. We had talked about Scholesy’s retirement for many months and I had tried to talk him round, to entice him with one more season, but his view was that 25 games a season were not enough. He also admitted his legs tended to be empty in the last 25–30 minutes. He had survived two knee operations and an eye problem that had kept him out for months at a time, yet he was still playing at that high level. Phenomenal.
The goal he scored at his testimonial that summer was a beauty. He gave Brad Friedel in goal no hope. It was a rocket. Eric Cantona, the visiting manager, was applauding. On Talksport later I heard a presenter say Paul wasn’t in the top four of modern English players. His assertion was that Gascoigne, Lampard and Gerrard were all better players. Absolute nonsense.
After our second Champions League final defeat to Barcelona, I had to ask: what is the problem here? Fact No. 1is that some of our players fell below the level they were capable of. A contributing factor might have been that we were accustomed to having most of the possession in games. When that advantage transferred itself to the opposition it might have damaged our confidence and concentration. There was some credence in the theory that our players were unsettled by having to play a subservient role: even a player such as Giggs, or Ji-Sung Park, who, in the quarter-final against Chelsea, tackled everybody and was up and down the pitch all day. We never saw him, in that way, against Barcelona, whose starting XI was: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Mascherano; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Villa and Pedro.
They took the lead through Pedro from one of Xavi’s countless clever passes but Rooney equalised for us after a quick exchange with Giggs. But then the Barcelona carousel really started spinning, with Messi at the controls. He and Villa scored the goals that finished us off in Van der Sar’s last game for the club.
I made an error at half-time. I was still focusing on winning the game and told Rooney he needed to keep running into those gaps behind the full-backs. ‘We’ll win the game if you keep doing that,’ I urged him. I forgot the big issue with playing Barcelona. So many of their games were effectively won in the first 15 minutes of the second half. I should have mentioned that to my players. I might have been better assigning Park to mark Messi for the first 15 minutes and pushing Rooney wide left. If we had employed those tactics, we might just have sneaked it. We would still have been able to counter-attack. Those changes would have left Busquets free, so maybe we would have been driven back towards our box, but we’d have posed more of a threat, with Rooney attacking from a wide left position.
I had intended to replace Valencia after 10 minutes of the second half, but then Fábio was attacked by cramps again and I was forced to re-jig around his injury. My luck in finals was generally good. Favour deserted me in this one. On the balance of all those big games and the success I had enjoyed, I could hardly start pitying myself at Wembley, the scene of United’s win over Benfica in 1968.
We thought we might have a chance at corner kicks but they never came our way. As our defeat was confirmed, there was no smugness about Barcelona. Not once did they flaunt their superiority. Xavi’s first move after the final whistle was to make a move for Scholes’ jersey. Footballers should have a role model. They should be saying to themselves: ‘He’s where I want to get to.’ I had it with Denis Law. Denis was a year and a half older than me and I looked at him and said, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ In the days after that loss I began taking a serious look at the coaching in our academy. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and I exchanged a lot of opinions. I looked at appointing another technical coach to the academy. Our club was always capable of producing great players and Barcelona’s next wave were not better than ours. No way. Thiago was on a par with Welbeck and Cleverley but there was no fear about the rest of theirs coming through.
Looking ahead is vital. We were on to Phil Jones long before that Champions League final. I tried to buy him in 2010 but Blackburn would not sell. Ashley Young was bought to replace Giggs. The goalkeeping situation was all settled in December. Granted, David de Gea had a torrid start to his United career, but he would develop. Smalling and Evans were outstanding prospects. We had Fábio and Rafael, and Welbeck and Cleverley were coming through; Nani was 24, Rooney 25. We had a nucleus of young talent.
We shed five that summer because with Jones joining it wasn’t going to be easy for Wes Brown or John O’Shea to make the starting XI. They were good servants to me. The horrible part of management is telling people who have given their all for you that there is no longer a place for them in your plans. After the Premier League title parade, in the rain, we returned to the school from where we had started the procession. I spoke to Darron Gibson and asked him how he saw his future. Perhaps it wasn’t the perfect place to begin that discussion, but he got the gist of what I was thinking. He was off on holiday that night so we needed to start the conversation. Wes Brown, I struggled to reach by telephone. It was horrible to let players of that experience and loyalty to me go.
I lost five players aged 30 and above and let Owen Hargreaves go. We were bringing back Welbeck, Cleverley, Mame Diouf and Macheda from loan spells, and signing three new players. The average age of the squad was reduced to around 24.
With Scholes and Neville, my plan was to let them roam about the place, with the youth team, academy and reserves, then the three of us would sit down for an assessment of how strong we were. I was going to place a big burden on them to shape the future, because they knew better than anyone what it took to be one of our players. It’s something I’d wanted to do for years and years: feed my top players into the stream.
Scholes was a man of excellent opinions. His assessments were brilliant. Always in one line. There were no maybes. When we had a problem with Van Nistelrooy, Paul was instantly clear that Ruud could not be allowed to cause disruption. His language was blunt. Gary asked him, ‘Are you sure, Scholesy?’ – just winding him up.
At that point, on the coaching side, we had Brian McClair, Mick Phelan, Paul McGuinness, Jim Ryan and Tony Whelan. They were all United players or academy graduates. I wanted to strengthen those areas. Clayton Blackmore and Quinton Fortune did a few bits on the development side.
After the inquest, I told myself: ‘When we play Barcelona next time in a Champions League final, I would have Jones and Smalling, or Smalling and Evans, right on top of Messi.’ I wasn’t going to let him torture us again.
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