Leeds for the final: that's what the tortoise says

Why did Man Utd and Arsenal do so badly in Europe this season? And what does it suggest about English football? I've had to ask myself these deep questions, as no one else in this house is interested. I tried to engage the tortoise in a meaningful discussion, but she sloped off, not even interested in my offer of a squashy strawberry. My wife prefers to talk about what colour to paint the front door. Jake, my son, my main hope for some intellectual chat about things that really matter, is all taken up by his cat, Sutra, which has been run over and has so far cost £155 in vet's bills. I do wish people would get their priorities right.

People have said it just shows what rubbish the Premier League really is. Just people. I dunno which people. Folks out there, the great unwashed, they've all been mouthing the same old stuff. Man Utd have won the fuckin' league by miles, right, so the rest must be fuckin' crap, are you with me, yeah, I will have another fuckin' pint. Cheers.

What happened with Man Utd was that they didn't peak. They were steady enough for the first half of the season, consistent enough to get ahead of a very average chasing pack without slipping up against the also-rans, but they didn't grow better as the season went on, as Leeds and Liverpool did.

So why didn't Man Utd get better? Wes Brown lost confidence. Gary Neville was, well, Gary Neville - steady enough, but a journeyman player, out of his depth against top-class forwards. The rest of the team seemed to slump into a sort of limbo land, going through the motions, unable to fire themselves up when it really mattered in Europe.

I blame Fergie. It's his job to fire them up, yet it was noticeable during that final Bayern Munich game, when all was not yet lost, that his head was down, his eyes glazed, as if he couldn't muster the energy to be furious with them - knowing the game was up and Man Utd had been found out.

There is a school of thought which says that you need stability in a team, a settled formation, players who are pretty sure of their places, tactics that they all know and understand. True enough, but in this day and age, with saturation television coverage of the top teams, the world and his wife, not to mention his tortoise, also know every player in every top team, recognise their tactics, understand their formation.

I like to think I could identify from a distance of a hundred yards the back of Stam's head, the lope of Keane's walk, the motions of Scholes's little legs. I know from long experience the range and direction of Beckham's passes and what Sheringham is likely to do at a corner. And I'm just an amateur. I rarely put in more than, let's think, six hours a day watching football. I try to draw the line at more than three matches in any one day. I do have another life - yes, yes, I'll think about that stupid front door when this game finishes, give me a break, woman.

But the real experts, and these days a top club employs scores of them, are full-time, watching every possible opposition player, as well as studying hundreds of videos, slowing them down and analysing, putting the results on a computer. I should think the brain boxes behind Bayern knew as much about the Man Utd team as Fergie did.

Two or three new players would not only have provided a vital stimulus for the existing players, re-energised, remotivated them - it would, just as importantly, have confounded and confused the opposition. They would have had to rethink their own strategies until they had worked out how to cope with the new players, the new danger areas. As it was, in every Euro game that Man Utd played this season, the opposition had them well and truly sussed, even before a ball was kicked.

So that's why I blame Fergie. He didn't buy anybody new this season, apart from a goalie, thinking his existing squad was good enough and that he could still motivate them, ignoring the double benefit of introducing some new faces. Now he is exposing himself all over the shop, flashing his big chequebook, starting with Ruud van Nistelrooy. When Liverpool were at their height, they bought new each season, regardless of who they had or how well they had done. When you are at the top, as any businessman will tell you, you can't stand still.

There's a phrase in football, beloved of coaches and players, about "setting out our stall". The inference is that, once we've got ourselves organised and our players in place, let the other team worry about us - we won't worry about them. It is pure, blind arrogance. Once you have got your stall set out, you are instantly vulnerable. Think how many times Beckham became anonymous this season. The world got wise to him.

It was interesting at the quarter-finals stage - when we still had three teams left, which is the best we've done for years - that there was no jingoistic triumphalism, no dancing on the terraces, and people didn't get carried away. Which people, Hunter? The same ones, down the pub, do listen. It's true that one or two daft commentators said we could have an all-English final, but most people knew Man Utd and Arsenal wouldn't go all the way. We'd got wise to them, just as the opposition did.

But, but . . . we still have Leeds and Liverpool in Europe, hurrah for that. Two out of four isn't bad, at this stage of the season.

And, oh look, the tortoise has eaten the strawberries, after all. She is staggering in, looking for, what can she want, oh goodness, she has come to offer a prediction. "Leeds to make the champions final," she says, "but get beaten by one goal by Real Madrid. Liverpool to beat Alaves and win the Uefa Cup." Thanks, Tortee.

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