If The Score Is So Dangerous, Sir Alex, Surely You'd Do More To Avoid It

Via the Guardian, Daniel Taylor, and a nice piece of video they have on their site, we have Alex Ferguson's surprising thoughts on Manchester United's Wednesday, 0-0 result at Stade Vélodrome. As we discussed in our match preview, United has a long established history of playing mind-numbingly conservative on when the first leg of a Champions League tie is on the road.

As such, you would expect Ferguson to be content with yesterday's result. Perhaps he is, though when he uses a phrase like "dangerous score" to describe his club's situation, you have to wonder: Why is Ferguson electing to put United in peril?

There's also the possibility that Ferguson is merely paying a good Marseille team their due respect. Regardless, 0-0 is a dangerous score. If Marseille happens onto an early goal at Old Trafford, United's need to score two would give Didier Deschamps incentive to bunker. If late in the match United is up one and elects to try and preserve their lead, a fluke goal would send them out.

Why does Ferguson elect to put United in this situation? Perhaps because the strategy seems to work. Over the last four years, United's started a knockout phase tie on the road eight times. They've advanced seven times, employing this approach on at least six occasions, with their only defeat coming last year, when Bayern Munich used a man advantage and a wonder strike from Arjen Robben to win on away goals.

That's the risk of the strategy. You leave yourself open to such scenarios, and given Manchester United almost always enters these ties with (what most would describe as) superior talent, the risk seems unnecessary. When you're the better side, why would you want to shorten a 180-minute match to 90 minutes?

Perhaps United's not the better side and Sir Alex knows this. Or, maybe Ferguson is using the most obvious of rational:

In Champions League ties, you get a home match, and I get a home match. Your best chance to score goals, win - effect a positive outcome - is when I'm away from home. If I can neutralize that advantage while maintaining my own edge at home, I improve my chances to advance.

How much you buy into that logic depends on how heavily you weigh home pitch advantage and away goals, though the rational seems to have two flaws. First, it doesn't seem to factor in away goals at all, and per UEFA's rules, an away goal does have more (if only potential) positive effects than home goals. Second, it assumes that both sides are evenly matched, which is not always the case.

All of which leaves Manchester United in another "dangerous" position, though whereas most of us try to avoid perilous situations, Ferguson annually invites them. This year, though, he'll be facing a stronger Marseille side in his home leg. André-Pierre Gignac may be back. Loïc Rémy, Mathieu Valbuena, and Brandão are all likely to be healthier. Any of that quartet could craft an away goal, and on March 15, they'll be more likely to do so than they were Wednesday.

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