English bite with foreign spice
Euro 96: United will trawl the tournament for players at their peak after absorbing lessons of the Champions' Cup final; Ian Ridley says the Premiership standard-bearers can be even stronger
Sunday 26 May 1996
Across London from Chelsea, West Ham chase, too, the waning nomad Paulo Futre, surplus to requirements at Milan, whose city rivals Internazionale have obtained Zidane's French international colleague Youri Djorkaeff from Paris St Germain. It appears to give a gloomy picture of the domestic game in the wake of a European Cup final won by Juventus with a quality seen by some as beyond our best.
After watching the FA Cup final, the Ajax coach Louis van Gaal concluded that the English game was "limping between two thoughts". For success in Europe, it should either convert to continental thinking or have the courage of conviction that its own approach was effective enough.
More optimistically, you hope and expect that England's standard-bearers next season, Manchester United, will not be fooled by foreign agents nor misled by Van Gaal's appraisal. In fact, the evidence of the Champions' Cup final was that a melange of the English and European could be a potent recipe next season. As accomplished as both Ajax and Juventus looked in spells, a more experienced, strengthened United need not be unduly disheartened.
We saw Juventus playing a back four - as probably will Milan again next season - mixing long and short ball, their midfield pressing and stifling Ajax's attempts to establish a rhythm. The Dutchmen's celebrated three- at-the-back formation rarely came to terms with the Italians' two forwards augmented by Alessandro del Piero joining them when possession was won. It was remarkable only that Ajax, with a resilience that surely the English can emulate, took the match as far as penalties.
The conclusion again was that quality of player rather than system will always prevail. "The weapons were sharp," said the Juventus coach Marcello Lippi. Ajax, by contrast, were carrying too many blunted by the legacy of injury. The production line of talent, as van Gaal's often angry response to questions about the condition of his squad illustrated afterwards, may not be as long as imagined; no longer than United's is at present.
Are Ajax the great side, the great role models cited? Theirs is a scientific rather than artistic approach to the game. Terry Venables rightly purrs about their flexibility, passing and movement. And when in full voice - and at full strength - the teamwork is there to admire. But to excite? Where is the great player capable of moments of inspiration? Edgar Davids is held up, but his neatness is nice without being naughty enough and Patrick Kluivert is not yet a Marco van Basten. Cunning more than genius is evident in the veteran Danny Blind, all class and composure, Frank de Boer, a thoughtful player who moves comfortably between defence and midfield when fully fit, and Jari Litmanen, clever occupier of the hole and clinical finisher.
Juventus had the antidote. "I expected two strikers but they played with three," van Gaal finally let slip. "My players took too long to read the game." Intelligence is the Ajax password but, in a basic error, they stammered it out. We saw, because of substitutions, six Ajax outfield players switching positions. But so too did Juventus.
United are clearly pondering modifications. Alex Ferguson says he is seeking a quick defender who might enable them to play with a sweeper. With Gary and Philip Neville showing for England in China how well they can operate either side of a central defender, Ferguson may be looking for a de Boer type who can glide forward. Good examples this season have been Yuri Nikiforov and Ilia Tsimbalar of Spartak Moscow and Auxerre's Laurent Blanc.
As they comb Euro 96 for reinforcements, United are likely to go for players near their peak. They do already have one prized asset in a better goalkeeper than either Edwin van der Sar or Angelo Peruzzi showed themselves last Wednesday. In Peter Schmeichel they possess probably the best in the world, a towering presence more assured than the figure of the ill-fated campaign two seasons ago. And with the ending of the restriction on foreign players, no longer will he have to be omitted to accommodate outfield players.
Eric Cantona will also be available after missing four matches of the last attempt. Then there is Ryan Giggs, who should be capable now of the individualism that can turn ties. "I watched all those clips of George Best on the celebrations of his 50th birthday and I thought that maybe Ryan could do something like that for us," Jim Ryan, United's reserve coach, said.
Along with the also interested Brian McClair, Ryan, who will be part of Ferguson's player-hunting dragnet of Euro 96, was on a Roman busman's holiday last week and saw encouragement for his club. "I have always believed that there must be a niche somewhere between English and European qualities," he said. "But no one has exploited it since Liverpool.
"We have to do away with this nonsense about going into battle and hoping everyone will fall down before the might of the English army. It is more about resilience and belief. If we can express that belief in terms of our character and culture, the likes of Juventus will find it hard to handle. English teams have always been high energy. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you don't waste it."
A concern is that United become sidetracked by the strengths of others rather than stay true to their own expansive nature. The grinding out of results late in the season often made for an unsatisfying sight given the club's tradition but the Double secured again, perhaps they will rediscover themselves.
Their aim must be to ally the attributes of the English to the example of the Europeans. And with a wily Mancunian signing rather than wasteful metropolitan one, instead of limping between two thoughts, we might then see a double-edged sword.
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