Manchester United lost 2-1 away to FC Basel on Wednesday night, and that result sent them out of the UEFA Champions League. It was a stunning result, but only because of the name 'Manchester United' and the man in the dugout, Sir Alex Ferguson. There have been signs for the entirety of this season that Manchester United are an average team and plenty of indication that Basel are just as good at this point in time.
In a UEFA Champions League group in which every team plays each other home and away, FC Basel came away with more points than Manchester United. They were able to secure a 2-1 win over Otelul Galati and a 3-3 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford without their best player, Xherdan Shaqiri. They deserve to move on to the knockout stages and they did not get lucky.
While Basel cannot boast the depth that United has, their recent results and their first XI stack up just fine. The Swiss Super League is not nearly as high of a standard as the English Premier League, but they're six points clear at the top of that league. They won it last season. And now, on the final matchday of the UEFA Champions League group stages, they've defeated Manchester United.
They did not do it because of terrible defensive errors on the part of United, because Yann Sommer had the game of his life in goal, or because they played anti-football. They played defensively and got men behind the ball, but they only did this after United allowed them to take a 1-0 lead in the 8th minute. They did enough on the counter that they were able to nick a second goal. They broke out as fast as they went into their defensive shell, grabbing 43 percent of the possession and 12 shots despite the fact that they were defending a lead against a 'superior' team for 82 minutes.
Shaqiri displayed more skill than any player on the pitch on Wednesday night. Not only did he set up both of Basel's goals, but he was instrumental in helping them keep the ball while trying to kill off the game. At no point was any United player able to win the ball off of him. He routinely made Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones - a French international and budding England stars, respectively - look like much worse footballers than they actually are. This was not a surprise.
It was also not a surprise that, with Javier Hernandez out with an injury, the best goal scorer on the pitch was Alexander Frei. It was not surprising that Marco Streller, a 6'5" mountain of a man with vast international and European experience, was tough for United to handle. It was not the least bit surprising that Granit Xhaka, the highly sought after 19-year-old Swiss international, was the best central midfielder on the pitch. United's center of midfield was lacking last season as well and was routinely bailed out by the brilliance of Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic.
Those two players were at their best against Barcelona and kept the Champions League final from being a complete embarrassment last season, despite the fact that Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets dominated that game without really looking like they were trying. The midfield didn't really do anything in the 2-1 title deciding win over Chelsea last season either. That was more of Rooney being unmarkable and Vidic looking spectacular. Chelsea's midfield completely overran United's in the second half of that match. Michael Carrick put in one brilliant performance in the Champions League semifinals against Schalke, but their center of midfield is substandard for Champions League as well.
Alex Ferguson had plenty of opportunities to improve his midfield in the transfer window, but chose not to. Most felt that the retirement of Paul Scholes would force him into action, but he did nothing to improve that area on the pitch. Instead, he spent a combined £45 million on defender Phil Jones and Ashley Young. The latter is a winger, which most argue he did not need. The former is a central defender who often plays at right back and central midfield, two positions that probably should have been addressed in the transfer window.
Here's a quick listing some of central midfielders who were transferred in the summer, made available for transfer, or were linked to moves in what was more than just tabloid fodder: Luka Modric, Scott Parker, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, Raul Meireles, Mikel Arteta, Yohan Cabaye, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Nocerino, Alberto Aquilani, Gokhan Inler, Riccardo Montolivo, Fernando Gago, Lassana Diarra, Nuri Sahin.
Can anyone say, with a straight face, that there is not a single player in that list who would have come to United, made them a much better team, and been fantastic value for money? This is a listing of more than a dozen players, all of whom have demonstrated that they are good enough to play Champions League football. If Alex Ferguson decides to spend his money on one of them, there is a very good chance that they are still in the Champions League.
However, while the center of midfield is United's biggest problem, it is not their only problem. Vidic went off injured in the 43rd minute against Basel. Rooney was not at his best. Nani, while dangerous, didn't actually provide much in the way of service into the box after beating his man a half dozen times in the first half. Danny Welbeck entered the game in the 64th minute, about 64 minutes too late. And on top of all that, Basel's best players were very good on the night.
This result makes people take notice of United's flaws while criticizing Alex Ferguson's transfer window decisions and the performances of individual players. It takes something shocking like an early exit from the Champions League for people to acknowledge that there is a problem. The writing has been on the wall for a long time, however, and the public really shouldn't have learned much from Wednesday night's loss.
United's 6-1 loss to Manchester City back in October - a City side that also crashed out of Champions League - was the first major indicator that United are not an elite side. Though they've won four of their last five league games and gone undefeated since that City loss, they've done it in such a way that is indicative of a team lacking ideas, talent and a killer instinct. All four of the wins have been 1-0 victories against teams that are not very good. United have not scored more than one goal in a league game since October 1. They have been out-possessed by extremely average teams.
The match against Aston Villa on the Saturday before their loss to Basel should have alerted everyone to what was coming. Phil Jones scored in the 20th minute and that was it. The game was over. For the next 70 minutes, both teams proceeded to do a whole lot of nothing. This is the same Villa team that Manchester City and Tottenham never stopped putting pressure on in similar situations this season. It was a win that was more alarming than most losses, especially considering that all three of their previous three league wins had come in very similar fashion.
United went to Basel, Marco Streller scored in the 8th minute, and United didn't know what to do. They couldn't control the midfield and they didn't have a No. 9 to pull goals out of nowhere. They weren't playing a team who was poor at defending set pieces. They weren't up against a bad goalkeeper. Down a goal, against a tactically disciplined team, possessing a couple of players with technical quality and a solid center of midfield, they were clueless.
If their manager was anyone else and they had any other badge on their shirts, everyone would have seen it coming.