The morning after the nightmare before. Manchester United fans are peering out into a broken world that did them wrong; their heavy eyes and heavier hearts agonise over the refereeing mistake that cast their downfall against Real Madrid.
Sir Alex Ferguson was "too distraught" to address the media last night (h/t Independent.ie). We didn't get a United player either, just good old Mr. Dependable, Mike Phelan—presumably the only representative from the dressing room who didn't have the choice to stay there.
United were justifiably aggrieved. But while Nani's red card was absolutely the wrong decision—and I stand by that, having read the FIFA rules and watched it back many times—we should not overlook the failure on Ferguson's part to react to it.
Perhaps he was stunned into inaction. Perhaps he was so convinced by his team's comprehensive performance up to the 56th minute that he believed they could continue on a similar theme with 10 men.
Twenty-six years in the job earns you the right to make any decision you like, but it doesn't free you from criticism should you make the wrong one. Ferguson's initial selection was validated by the cohesive defensive operation launched by a team sans Wayne Rooney, but he got it wrong after Nani's sending-off.
Ferguson should have gone to his bench immediately and replaced Robin van Persie with Rooney.
With 11 men, Van Persie's advanced role made sense. The Dutchman was there to hold up play and link with the midfield ranks of Nani, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs as they came forward in support. But with 10 men, Van Persie—who was largely a peripheral presence—was a luxury they could no longer afford.
As B/R's Sam Tighe pointed out in his detailed analysis, the biggest implication of Nani's red card was the fact it drew Welbeck away from his shackling duties on Xabi Alonso and into an orthodox left-sided midfield role.
"All of a sudden, Alonso was free," wrote Tighe. "He immediately attempted a direct ball into (Gonzalo) Higuain's feet in United's box, relishing his freedom."
Ferguson could have avoided this by bringing on Rooney—either using him in Nani's position, leaving Welbeck to continue his good work; or by having him take over the Alonso job, sending Welbeck out to the left, as he did. Both options called for the removal of Van Persie and the sacrifice of his role spearheading United's attack.
Ferguson did nothing.
And while one great manager stewed, the other seized his opportunity. Jose Mourinho introduced Luka Modric to capitalise on the the space left behind by Welbeck centrally, and within 15 minutes Madrid had the game out of sight.
Ferguson could very well have avoided that fate. But having planned so immaculately for 90 minutes at the Bernabeu and the first 56 at Old Trafford, the 71-year-old with his name above the East Stand appeared to have run out of bold decisions.
The game will be remembered for Nani's red card, but things could still have ended happily for United had Ferguson gone to his bench and restructured his 10 men to reflect the task they faced.
Ferguson has earned his failures, but this was certainly one of them.
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