Manchester United: 10 Things They Can Learn from Chelsea's Progress This Season

Terry CarrollContributor IIIApril 29, 2012

Manchester United: 10 Things They Can Learn from Chelsea's Progress This Season

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    What can Manchester United learn from Chelsea's progress this season?

    To be honest, very little...and what progress?

    OK, so Chelsea have beaten Barcelona and reached the Champions League final, but actually Barcelona beat themselves. They were exhausted by the time they reached the semis, mainly because they rely on too few players—especially Lionel Messi.

    And Messi blew it big time with a penalty miss that could have put Chelsea to bed. Oh, and also Cesc Fabregas, who probably wished he was back at Arsenal after his atrocious first leg display.

    It's also no surprise that Pep Guardiola is likely to take some time away from the game, because he is unsurprisingly exhausted after the last few years.

    So in summary, although Chelsea are in the Champions League final, they are 22 points and light years behind United on the road to transition. Sir Alex will complete that with a few carefully selected purchases, with a focus on European success for next season.

    United can learn one or two things from Chelsea's European progress, but they can learn far more from their own failure and the good things they are doing in which Chelsea are way behind.

    So here goes...

Anyone Can Make the Champions League Final

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    In 2004, FC Porto beat Monaco 3-0 in the Champions League final. Going further back, Valencia were beaten finalists two years running and Borussia Dortmund won it in 1997.

    Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005 through sheer guts and determination and the greatest leadership that Steven Gerrard has ever shown.

    Coming closer, Apoel Nicosia made it to this year's quarters, while Bilbao and Benfica blew away United.

    So anything can happen with a bit of luck and the right mix of tactical nous and sheer determination not to get beat.

    Remember, Greece won the European Championships in 2004 despite being 150/1 outsiders. Again, the coach got everything right.

    Sadly, Fergie got a lot wrong in Europe this year; his players failed to show up. Comparatively, despite being an afterthought as coach, Roberto di Matteo got pretty much everything right.

    Chelsea are not good enough to win this year's Champions League and Bayern will walk it in their home patch. But they've shown what you can do on any night—especially when the opposition give it to you on a plate.

Fergie Can Win Another Champions League

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    Let's remind ourselves.

    Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008. They are the second-most successful side in the competition in the last five years, second only to Barcelona. If Sir Alex had freshened his midfield earlier and had better luck with injuries, who knows what would have happened?

    Barcelona's bubble is burst. They have lost both top trophies and their manager this season (although of course they have won the Supercup de Espana and World Club Cup in 2011 and could win the Copa del Rey against Bilbao). Mourinho has finally outsmarted them and Guardiola knows the right time to go.

    This means next season could see transition at both the top Spanish clubs who were supposed to play out the "Dream Final" in Munich. 

    While the system is self-sustaining at Barcelona whoever is manager, Guardiola was arguably their best ever; Xavi is 32 and Puyol 34. Together with the 28-year-old Iniesta and Messi, these five have been the buttress of Barcelona's best period of success ever.

    Will we ever see the same again?

    Bayern Munich will also be around, built on Teutonic values, but there are financial challenges in Spain and Italy. Together with the impact of Financial Fair Play rules, the top domestic leagues and the Champions League could become the most wide open it has been in years.

    But this is where United have an advantage. When the float goes ahead they will have no debt; their commercial success means there will always be transfer funds; they will not have FFP challenges in the way Chelsea, City and Liverpool will. 

    United are also ahead of the game in transition terms. City are trying to build a dynasty from scratch and the project has already cost in excess of £500 million. How much more will FFP and Sheikh Mansour allow?

    Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are further back down the curve. Of these, it is very likely that only Arsenal will qualify for the Champions League this season. That will further add to the FFP burden for the other two and help make it easier for United next season.

    The only question is, how long will Ferguson stay? Will Guardiola's availability heighten the tension of succession? Is there already a master plan in place?


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    United can also learn from Chelsea's indiscipline, which reflects on their own.

    John Terry has disgracefully let his team down with the Alexis Sanchez incident and his impending court case. Several of his colleagues will also miss the Champions League final—only two due to injury.

    Imagine Sir Alex's fury if United had made it to the final yet again, only to be deprived of possibly six or seven first-choice players. Bad enough to be without his two best players, Scholes and Keane, in Barcelona, where a miracle occurred.

    Manchester United have had their own challenges, however. Loss of discipline and continually giving the ball away are the two shortcomings most likely to prematurely end Sir Alex's managerial career.

    United were at their very worst against Basel, Blackburn, Benfica, Bilbao and, of course, Manchester City.

    Against Blackburn, they simply didn't turn up; in the 6-1 home defeat to City, they completely lost the plot.

    At the heart of these defeats were two key factors: The opposition played with an intensity, competitiveness and will to win that United failed to match; with their acting captain as the prime example, the team's collective self-discipline fell apart or wasn't there in the first place.

    It is no surprise that, with the possible exception of the Everton match in the second half, the re-establishment of the central midfield partnership of Carrick and Scholes has had a massive effect. This has been not only on the results, but on the collective calmness. Ferdinand continues to augment this.

    It would be easy to suggest that United lost this against Everton, but the key factor here was that Scholes should have been taken off as soon as the score went to 4-2, if not before. He was a spent force long before he was substituted and the nearest statue to Marouane Fellaini when the third goal went in.

    But the main culprit was Patrice Evra—both in lack of discipline and lack of leadership.

    He did show leadership of one sort—he was attacking like a headless chicken. There is something to be said for killing off the opposition and United were rampant when their fourth goal went in, but hey, this is the title race.

    Two-goal lead, minutes to go, shut up shop.

    Instead, just before Everton's third goal, it was Rafael and Evra inspiring a near miss at the wrong end of the pitch.

    Worse still, apart from Jonny Evans' dreadful lapses in concentration that handed City their early season win on a plate, once again Evra was the main culprit. For five of City's six goals, he was at the wrong end of the pitch. It was like taking sweeties from babies.

    So if Sir Alex wants to avoid another heart problem and early retirement and continue United's transition to the next stage of Premier League and Champions League ascendancy, he must attack the collective and individual lapses in self-discipline.

    For these reasons, there is a gathering momentum for a new left-back. If Nemanja Vidic stays next season, Rooney should replace Evra as vice-captain. His disciplinary transformation has been immense. England aside, he has only gotten two yellow cards this season. He is the future leader.

    No, Marcelo and Pepe won't be arriving at Old Trafford any time soon. Whoever arrives, in any position, will have to be able to attack and defend and be a calming influence on the team, someone like Denis Irwin, Jaap Stam, Duncan Edwards or Sir Bobby Charlton.

Selectively Rely on the Old Guard

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    These are old legs, great hearts, cool heads and—on their day—world-class players. But next season they are in the twilight of their careers.

    Chelsea have shown the twin follies—as well as the virtue—of relying on the Old Guard (in which I include John Terry).

    Like United, it was clear at least two seasons ago that change and re-invigoration were necessary. Right now United's Academy policy looks much more effective than Chelsea's. I'll get pelters from Chelsea supporters for that, after their youth team knocked United out of the Youth Cup.

    But last season, the reverse was true and most of those players have graduated to United's Reserves and First Team squad. The same cannot be said of Chelsea.

    Andre Villas-Boas was charged with reinventing Chelsea as a major force in the Premier League and Champions League. Unfortunately, he didn't have much choice in the transfer policy. He must have looked round the training ground midweek and wondered where the budding talent was from youth team.

    Meanwhile, Sir Alex has the opposite problem. How do you keep happy potentially 10 or 15 talented, hungry youngsters with red through their veins when you want to also sign a handful of talented or established players from outside the club?

    If you can't accept the squad system, don't sign for Manchester United—or, for that matter, any of the other top European sides. That is the reality. You fight for your place, get paid a load of money and win at least one medal at the end of the season.

    At Chelsea, several players have aged at the same time. They have also exerted too much influence in a dressing room that has been hosted by a succession of managers. Mourinho and Ancelotti dominated this domain, but the former was sacked for pragmatic football and the latter for failing to deliver a Champions League.

    In comes Villas-Boas—at 34, the brightest young star in the European firmament, but like Brian Clough at Leeds, being asked to dominate and manage an entrenched player mafia led by the same John Terry who was involved in the England revolt against Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup.

    Roberto di Matteo has achieved Chelsea's late success by letting the Old Guard dominate and reinstall the old patterns and dynasty that had achieved so much in the last ten years or so. That cannot continue next season, nor will the interim manager unless no one else is prepared to sip at the poisoned chalice.

    Next season, Giggs and Scholes should revert to squad players. They will gladly accept that role from Sir Alex. If United sign another centre-back, Rio Ferdinand may be cast in the same way; similarly Darren Fletcher if he recovers from his bowel condition.

    In return, the Boss will place them at the heart of his Cup and European squads, with the role of coaching and nurturing the developing talent, and being cool heads when needed—in matches and on the training ground. They will of course do the latter at all training sessions for every match.

    Meanwhile, Chelsea will undergo fundamental change. While Terry will probably stay because he craves the future responsibility of being a Chelsea manager, and Lampard has already reasserted his own loyalty, a clear-out is underway and new faces, such as Marko Marin, have started to arrive.

    But who will lead them forward on the pitch, as well as off it? Didier Drogba won't. 

Buy a Striker as Effective as Didier Drogba

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    Didier Drogba is a beast, in the best sense of the word, like Serge Betsen, one of the world's top rugby flankers ever.

    These men can dominate any team on their day. They can transform a match with one instinctive strike. They can terrorise defences when they are on song—even at 34 and 36, respectively.

    You may not like Chelsea, but you cannot fail to admire Drogba's strengths and abilities (and sneakily wish he had played for your team).

    Yes, he infuriated for years with his diving and play-acting, but even now he is a match-winner. Who would you rather have right now when the chips are down—Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres?

    There are very few players like Drogba anywhere. One thinks of Hulk nowadays, Nat Lofthouse or Tommy Taylor in the past. Even Kevin Davies at Bolton has that quality of being able to crash his body through a defence (with a fraction of the technical skill Drogba possesses).

    So what exactly are we saying when we talk about Fergie signing a player like Drogba?

    Physical strength.

    Pace and agility.

    Technical skill.


    A shot in both feet.

    Great heading ability.

    A great target man who can win and hold the ball up and bring others into play.

    A proven track record at the highest level.

    Ferguson has had half those qualities in Berbatov and most of them in Wayne Rooney, but if Berbatov departs, he needs someone at least four inches taller than Rooney.

    Danny Welbeck has the makings of being that player. He has many of the above qualities and will continue to develop. Surely, he is a better investment at 21 than Torres at 28?

    But with Berbatov and Owen going—together probably with Will Keane going on loan— Ferguson has room for one more striker. Surely the ideal would be a Drogba type.

    There are two who come close: Edinson Cavani and Fernando Llorente. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ricky van Wolfswinkel don't fit the bill. The latter will be no better than Keane (but is at least playing regularly at the top level) and the former has never quite made it in Sir Alex's estimation.

    Of the first two, Cavani would become a hero in the Cantona mould at Old Trafford. Llorente is 6'5" and would fill the Ruud van Nistelrooy vacancy.

Complete the Transition

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    Roman Abramovich has messed around with Chelsea too much. The transition has a long way to go. Marko Marin is a squad player at best—a bargain at £7 million if he can overcome a litany of injuries.

    Believe it or not, the transition at United is not far from completion. While people bemoan the passing of Scholes, Giggs and Keane, the former two will be at the heart of the transformation—first as players and role models, then as coaches.

    In my opinion, Sir Alex will be ruthless in completing the change. He himself will be surprised and delighted if he wins the title this year amid such squad turmoil and reinfusion. It would be among his greatest achievements.

    Not since the era of Eric Cantona and the "you'll never win anything with kids" era that followed has he achieved so much with—on paper at least—apparently so little.

    Now Sir Alex has to be ruthless. We have discussed in Part 1 of Wholesale Change the need to have a clear-out and in Part 2, the capacity he has to build a squad to dominate the EPL and ECL built upon the foundations that are already in place.

    In Part 3, we shall complete the journey by discussing his freedom to sign new players and the calibre he will seek to put in places the final pieces of the jigsaw.

    Chelsea have stumbled on the road to transition. Abramovich has been too ruthless with his managers and too jumbled in his transfer policy. Also, he may have an Academy in place for producing young players of ability, but how many will get their chance while the disjointed strategy and management regime continues?

If It Ain't Broke, Dont Fix It

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    Carlo Ancelotti may be the best manager Chelsea will ever have. He is one of the few managers capable of walking straight into Sir Alex Ferguson's job and keeping the momentum going. He brought Chelsea their first ever double and didn't even last two seasons.

    When you look at what has happened since, you have to ask what Abramovich was thinking. Ancelotti could have continued to deliver success while overseeing the transition. Unlike Villas-Boas, he had the utter respect of every single Chelsea player, including the Old Guard.

    He had the coaching ability and the personal strength and respect to change the team at will, attract top talent and build a Champions League-winning squad and a dynasty for the future.

    Instead he was sacked in a hurry, given an estimated £6 million payoff and now has the resources to build a top side at Paris St. Germain.

    United stuck by Sir Alex while he failed to win anything in the early years. Now they have left him to decide when he will retire and have a strong say in his successor. You can feel him licking his lips at the choice United will have, because he will be available as a mentor to whoever succeeds him.

    Ever since the days of Sir Matt Busby, United have set out to build a squad based on the development of youth in a combination with experienced players prepared to spend a lifetime at Old Trafford.

    It's a model that works. There are frequent references to different formations and many would wish Mourinho to succeed Sir Alex as manager, but neither would fit the tradition. Ancelotti and Guardiola would.

    Meanwhile, Abramovich mixed and matched his management and has bought a modicum of success with hundreds of millions of pounds. Yet Chelsea may not win anything this season, nor even qualify for the Champions League next season.

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Don't Appoint a Green Coach

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    Why would Pep Guardiola go to Chelsea? He might be promised the earth to build Chelsea in the Barcelona image, but based on recent experience, how long would Abramovich be able to hold back from interfering?

    It would take a truckload of signings and at least five to seven years to get Chelsea anywhere near where Barca are right now—even after Guardiola goes. And he would have to be allowed to dump the Old Guard and break the players' domination like Brian Clough wasn't allowed at Leeds and Villas-Boas couldn't.

    It would be unfair to label AVB as completely green. In only his first season at Porto, he won the Portuguese Supercup and a treble—League, Cup and the Europa League—before he was 33.

    Those triumphs marked him out as a star of the future, but maybe by winning so much so quickly he was given one of the biggest jobs in the world with only two years at the helm in a second-tier European league.

    To be fair, he had been sponsored by Sir Bobby Robson (like Mourinho) and had been a member of Jose's coaching team at Porto, Chelsea and Inter. But he is younger than his mentor and without the same strength of personality.

    Mourinho could manage the personalities at Chelsea at 41 and impose his own coaching theories. Villas-Boas could not at 34 and his own ideas were a step too far for the aging Chelsea stars, who rebelled and slumped in the table.

    Roberto di Matteo has the makings of a Premier League manager and has pragmatically allowed the players to reimpose themselves, resulting in a run of 20 games with only one defeat. 

    If Chelsea keep winning, you can't rule him out as manager and he would do what Abramovich wants, but he's not the man to rebuild Chelsea.

    You would no more think of appointing Brendan Rodgers or Paul Lambert, but who is going to accept Abramovich's coin when they look at the managerial road littered with casualties, some of which were treated poorly once they lost the owner's support?

    Chelsea won't get Guardiola and he's not green, but who would they get?

    Manchester United made the mistake of appointing Wilf McGuinness as manager in an attempt to keep the home-grown hierarchy going after Sir Matt Busby's retirement. Wilf could not fill the great man's shoes.

    Who could fill Sir Alex's? Some favour Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, but I believe he should start as number two to someone like Carlo Ancelotti or even Sir Alex, with a defined accession plan after say three years. Similarly if Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville were asked to step up.

    Frankly, however, when you are talking about the continuation of a culture, the perpetuation of a dynasty and a habit of success, do not appoint a green, or even relatively green coach. 

    This means, in my eyes, don't even consider David Moyes. He may have worked wonders at Everton on a shoestring, but that is not what he would face at Old Trafford and he has won nothing. He knows how to drag a team to safety and turn disaster into achievement, but those haven't been on the agenda at Old Trafford for over 20 years.

Sign Up Pep Guardiola

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    Chelsea want Pep Guardiola to succeed Villas-Boas as manager.

    That's hardly a surprise. Very few clubs in the world would balk at the chance.

    Guardiola has stated that he wants a year's sabbatical away from football. Abramovich will try to persuade him to forgo that or may even keep Di Matteo for a year until Guardiola is available. But that would require a commitment from Pep now.

    And how could he stay away from football and watch while someone else was managing and rebuilding the side he would inherit? Maybe he could become an interim Director of Football and then step down a notch.

    But surely, Pep Guardiola should be Manchester United's next manager? Who knows if contact hasn't already been made, maybe two years ago? The approach would have been made informally by Sir Alex Ferguson himself and formally by David Gill through Josep Maria Orobitg. 

    Who wouldn't be flattered to follow the great man? Would Guardiola rather name his price for Abramovich, be given apparent carte blanche and then have the owner interfering if success wasn't achieved overnight? What has his friend Carlo Ancelotti told him about life at Stamford Bridge?

    Or would he ask his friend who he would choose between Chelsea, United or a top Italian side.

    At Old Trafford, Guardiola would truly have complete freedom, working alongside David Gill and with the wisdom and support of two British Knights upstairs.

    Pep is never going  to manage Real Madrid, for obvious reasons, but wouldn't he jump at the chance to manage the second-greatest club in the world?

    At Chelsea, he would have to start again: The culture is very different from Barcelona and Manchester United. At the latter, two he would truly have a free hand.

    So one thing United can learn from Chelsea is for Sir Alex Ferguson to make an immediate approach to Guardiola, offering to step aside immediately if he would take the job; or in one year if Pep wants his break—if the Scottish legend hasn't already done so.

Keep the Owners' Hands Off

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    The Glazers operate in complete contrast to Roman Abramovich.

    When you look at the relative success of each side over the last five or six years, you have to ask yourself: Do you want the hands-off approach of the Glazers, or the hands-on of Abramovich?

    Chelsea had arguably the second-best manager in the world in Jose Mourinho. He could have gone on to create a lasting dynasty at Stamford Bridge, but the owner wanted to win the Champions League by playing attractive football.

    Everywhere he has been before or since, Mourinho has been a success. It is extraordinary that Abramovich is even considering bringing back the Portuguese after their acrimonious and very public split.

    OK, Roman has a right to dictate terms after having put so much of his own money into Chelsea. He will now have to invest maybe a further £100-200 million to keep Chelsea supping at the very top table of Europe. Ironically, his interference may be inhibiting the building of a dynasty like that at Barcelona.

    Meanwhile, if Sir Alex delivers a 20th title win this season, United's American owners will have presided over five wins in six years and an unprecedented era of success. None of them tell Fergie what to do.

    Some United fans may hate them and the debt they have lumped on the club, but the business and financial model has worked so far. At least it is an honest one, unlike the unrealistic levels of finance poured into Chelsea and City.

    Either of the latter two could struggle to meet the UEFA FFP criteria over the next few years. You can have as much cash as you want, but if the club doesn't make a profit, you'll find yourself out of European competition.

    United have the commercial capacity to make a thumping and legitimate profit. When they float, they won't have any debt either.

    If the Chelsea or City owners walked away tomorrow, either club would be bust unless another wealthy dreamer came along.

    There is a lesson in the Rangers debacle. We shall see a raft of clubs fail or go into administration in the next few years. The Football League and maybe even the Premiership could be unrecognisable from what it is now. And the same could happen in Spain and Italy.

    So the football, business and financial models have to be synchronised. In theory, the Chelsea and City models work—to a point. But the United model works like clockwork, whether or not you like the Glazers.

    Sheikh Mansour has adopted a similar approach to the Glazers and let the club get on with its business. But in the 2010-11 financial year, the Club reported a net loss on a recurrent operations basis of £160.5m.

    Chelsea also lost money. The City report crows that nearly £200 million of new equity has been created recently, rather than debt. But that simply means Mansour has poured more and more of his own money into the club. He will have to keep feeding the beast to create and sustain lasting success.

    And so will Abramovich.

    Every football club has owners. Very few are like Ebbsfleet and AFC United, owned by their supporters. 

    There are football projects at City, Chelsea and Manchester United. The former two are personal, whereas United's is commercial.

    Supporters might not like the commercialisation of their club, but football became big business years ago. It may be a hobby for Abramovich, but that's what keeps Chelsea at risk for as long as his interest remains. It's also why he keeps interfering.

    The Glazers model is for United to be able to stand on their own two feet, continue the self-sustaining success machine and be a commercial model that can outlast all its contemporaries, except possibly Arsenal.

    Chelsea, City, Real Madrid and Barcelona have unrealistic financial models that may not survive the intense scrutiny of UEFA in the case of the first two and the EC in the case of the last two.

    Once United's float has been completed, they can survive both footballing and financial challenges with the right manager at the helm.

    So in conclusion, there is little United can learn from Chelsea's progress this season, except how not to do the backward things.

    That is not to propose arrogance. It's been a challenging season whatever happens, but even if they finish second, United have achieved more against the odds and without the financial resources of Chelsea or City. They must be doing something right.