Since the 1992-'93 season, when the new format in the Champions League was established, no club has played more matches than Manchester United.
No manager has had as much Champions League experience as Alex Ferguson, but neither has anyone learned so little from his errors.
In the past 16 years, United has played 264 Champions League matches, winning the Premier League on 11 occasions, but the holy grail of club football only twice.
Real Madrid and AC Milan have each won three times, with Milan finishing runners up a further three times.
Ferguson’s two victories owed a great deal to luck, with United played off the Park for most of the match against Bayern only for two goals in the final two minutes to win the match.
It took a slip by John Terry in last years final penalty shoot out to hand the impetus and opportunity for United to win. United played better in the first half, but when Essien switched from right back to central midfield, Chelsea had most of the game and the better chances.
United’s dominance in the premiership owed much to playing a high tempo game with two flying wingers in a 4-4-2 formation. This worked in the high tempo Premier league, but all too often United were undone in Europe by teams who played a deep lying striker or strung three across midfield and negated United's wing prominence.
Success in Europe is what all mangers ultimately crave, and it’s why Liverpool, who has not won the Premier league in 19 years, is still a dominant club because of its record in Europe.
Ferguson has never had the reputation of being a tactical manager. His strengths lie in man management and motivating his players. He is a known gambler and many times his substitutions during matches owe more to his gambler instinct than his better judgement.
Ferguson played his football and spent a great deal of his formative management years in an era when blood, guts, and thunder would win the day. Barcelona, in wining the Champions league twice in three years, has shown that football is again returning to its grass roots of pass and move.
Too many of United's midfielders are not confident in holding possession for the sake of possession—there is a constant need to move the ball forward. Giggs is a converted winger to a midfielder. Carrick is not one for the quick one-twos. The only comparable players to Xavi and Iniesta is Scholes, but at 34 he is facing his inevitable decline.
Ferguson greatest flaw in the final was his tactics. He played Ronaldo, a right-sided winger up front. Rooney, a deep-lying forward wide left, and Berbatov, a striker who prefers playing up front in the hole, and another who is better in the hole—Tevez—up front.
Compound that with the fact Brazilians are surprised that Ferguson plays Anderson as a deep holding midfielder instead of his more natural position as an attacking midfielder, and you wonder, how has United done so well to get to the final?
United only won two of the group's stage games against Aalborg and Celtic—two teams with no Champions League pedigree. In the last 16, they played their best football in the first half against Inter away. Ironically, they played poorly in the second match even though they won 2-0—mainly due to Ibrahimovic missing four glorious opportunities.
Their quarterfinal opponent, Porto had already progressed further than expected and it was again due to poor tactics and relying too much on Scholes that United were overrun in midfield, but still managed to draw the match.
The return leg was characterised by two incidents, Porto’s captain, Lucho Gonzalez, being injured and stretchered off and Ronaldo’s rocket strike—apart from that, United was not dominant and Porto was not as strong opposition as their previous encounter had suggested.
Against Arsenal Ferguson was up against another manager fabled for his teams playing beautiful football, but not for his tactical acumen. United did to Arsenal what regularly happened to United in Europe during their barren years—their midfield being overrun in both matches.
Just like their Premier League win, where they had just made it to the finishing line, United had sleepwalked and stumbled into the Champions League final. Once they went a goal down, realisation hit that they just could not raise their game.
The final was essentially over after 10 minutes.
For all Ferguson’s motivation skills, seeing him sat beside his assistant arms crossed with a blank expression devoid of any ideas epitomised Ferguson in Europe—when the tough questions were asked he had no answer.
Ferguson has achieved greatness through his haul of domestic titles, but when you consider the opportunities he has had in Europe, he has failed the true litmus test once too often.
Ferguson's fatal flaw is that he has never learned the European language of football—tactically he is weak.