Schadenfreude, as its definition suggests, can be a very unpleasant thing.
But when you one minute find your Twitter timeline awash with Man Utd fans crowing about all how ‘the haters’ should wind their necks in because Di Maria and the other members of a really very, very impressive-looking front-six are running rampant over poor old Leicester, only to return an hour later to see Leicester had turned the game around in spectacular fashion, well… Schadenfreude can be a very enjoyable thing to indulge in indeed.
The fact is that football fans of my generation had to endure a 20-year period during which Utd truly dominated English domestic football; and, for a short time, even European football.
It was ghastly.
Utd were default Premier League champions from 1994 until 2012. Even if Arsenal or Chelsea pipped them to the title one season, you knew they’d be back to win it the next. If Utd were 1 – 0 down in a game with a few minutes to go, your heart was filled with dread at the thought that they’d inevitably end up winning 2 – 1 in ‘Fergie Time’.
And, annoyingly, Utd could rarely, if ever, be accused of playing anything other than fluid and exciting, quality football – so you couldn’t even retaliate to their unbearably smug fanbase with a ‘Boring, boring Utd’ shitty stick.
Why were they so good? How did the club manage to maintain such incredible success over such a long period?
The reasons are manifold. Infrastructure, investment, joined-up thinking between board and management, a tradition of success, expectation, healthy transfer kitty, blah blah blah…
A combination of a few reasons far outweigh all the others put together. Sir Alex Ferguson was an inherent winner, and therefore packed his squads with inherent winners. Champions, if you will. And his sides were committed to taking the game to the opposition – something they could do because Fergie’s sides were built on a strong defensive and midfield foundation.
A champion – in footballing terms – is almost invariably a blend of a ferociously competitive nature, talent, nous, experience, consistency, fitness, tactical ability, respect for the right manager, mental strength, coolness under pressure and an almost psychotic fear of failure.
Cantona. Beckham. van Nistelrooy. Stam. Pallister. Yorke. Giggs. Sheringham. Cole. Solksjaer. Robson. Johnsen. Berg. Gary Neville. Ronaldo. Schmeichel. Rooney. Hughes. van der Sar. Heinze. Bruce. Evra. Irwin. Ferdinand. Butt. Keane. Vidic. And, above all, Scholes. All of these players and more had that blend in varying degrees.
Players that were seen by Fergie to be deficient in one of these qualities or more were moved on. Veron. Ince.
Forlan. Rossi. Silvestre. All fantastic players that Fergie moved on because Fergie felt that they either didn’t have enough of the requisite qualities to succeed in the long-term at Utd, or else had lost one or two (in Ince’s case, he supposedly didn’t have enough respect for the manager). Stam, Keane and Beckham were all moved on in ruthless – perhaps even reckless – fashion because some of these qualities began to diminish in them.
Riquelme. Baggio. Basler. Ortega. Ronaldinho. Gazza. All outrageously gifted players of the type that Fergie might have considered signing at some point, but didn’t because they understandably didn’t fit his criteria.
Fergie’s great sides had a leader in goal (Schmeichel; van der Sar; and he clearly saw something in De Gea); a pair of great leaders in defence (Bruce and Pallister; Stam and Berg/Johnsen; Ferdinand and Vidic) quality and competitiveness in the middle of the park (Scholes and Keane; Beckham tucked in on the right, with Hargreaves and Butt as back-ups); pace and talent out wide (take your pick); a split striker that could drop off and create something (Cantona; Yorke; Sheringham); and a ruthless finisher (again, take your pick – but van Nistelrooy above all).
Plus, of course, the perfectly timed attacking substitutions (Solksjaer, Sheringham, Hernandez, Owen…) designed to spread panic in the opposition and cause them to pretty much beat themselves.
Fergie’s Utd, tactically, was committed to overawing the opposition. And they could do so because defence and midfield were solid and responsible. They could totally blitz sides. Or they could soak up pressure and hit them with devastating force on the break. They’d find a way of beating almost anything in front of them.
Look at Utd now, though.
Moyes took an approach that Rio Ferdinand alleges was based on ‘not getting beaten’. That was never going to end in anything but failure at Utd. It might have worked in Italy. Or at Chelsea. But never at Utd.
van Gaal and the Utd board have over-compensated by buying up a whole host of exciting, world-class attacking players capable of pulling any defence in the history of the game apart. But they can’t defend for toffee. And it’s hilarious. Such was the widespread panic and disorganisation among United’s defence once Leicester started to give it a go that it began to look like a scene from Threads.
When Utd suffered a nightmare week under Fergie (getting hammered 5 – 0 by Newcastle and 6 – 3 by Southampton in the space of six days, for instance), you knew you’d better enjoy that Schadenfreude while it lasted. The core running through the side was just too good, tenacious, powerful and tactically sound for it to keep happening. Just around the corner was a start of a long run of wins that would take them title, ultimately making those defeats academic.
Falcao, Di Maria, Mata, Rooney, Herrera, van Persie, Januzaj. All largely ‘champions’. A combination of these players will wreak havoc across the Premiership; and the signs are that van Gaal is prepared to unleash them en masse. It’ll be like Keegan’s Toon Army on steroids. And acid. (DISCLAIMER: I’m not actually suggesting any Utd players are on steroids. Or Acid.)
But, as Newcastle found, there can be too much of a good thing. A combination of just four – maybe even three – of these players would be enough to more than concern every defence in Europe.
On the flip side of Di Maria and co are Evans, Smalling, Blackett, Jones, Rafael – players that are patently not good enough (or, in Rafael’s case, too rash) to start for a European heavyweight club like Utd. There’s talk of Daley Blind being moved into van Gaal’s risky back-three alongside the unproven Rojo plus A.N. Other… but, then, hasn’t Blind been rather prematurely praised as the player shielding Utd’s leaky defence? If he moves out of that holding role, who’s going to fill it?
van Gaal will surely know that he might need to make dramatic steps to arrest this imbalance in the January transfer window, by which time Utd will be well out of the title race. Once they do, I’ve little doubt van Gaal will put them right back on track and secure the club a Champions League spot – and by the start of next season, they will be a serious force to be reckoned with again, on all fronts.
Until then, the bitter anti-Utd lobby (of which I am probably a member) can continue to guffaw with Schadenfreude at the expense of the Old Trafford (cough cough) ‘faithful’.
Come on, let’s enjoy it while it lasts.