Say what you like about Alex Ferguson — within the bounds of libel law, obviously — but he knew how to manage a football team. With VfL Wolfsburg once again on Manchester United's horizon, we have the chance to revisit one of his finest (three) hours; no, it wasn't a title win, and no, it wasn't knocking Liverpool off anything, but in its own modest and largely irrelevant way, United's victory over two legs in the group stage of the 2009-10 Champions League is as unlikely an achievement as anything else on his long, long list.
Okay, maybe we're exaggerating a little there. But it was pretty good, and more than that it was pretty weird. For a start, Wolfsburg, unlike some of the sides that United have handily dispatched in the Champions League, were a decent side. Felix Magath's brief and disastrous spell at Fulham may have ensured him permanent punchline status in England, but in 2008-09 his Wolfsburg side scored goals by the fistful on the way to their first (and so far only) German title.
Though Magath had gone by this point — he'd agreed to join Schalke before the title had been won — the spine of the team remained. Up front were a pre-City Edin Dzeko and Grafite, who'd shared 50 goals between them while winning the title, and behind them the bewitching Zvjezdan Misimović, who'd chipped in with 20 assists. Admittedly, new manager Armin Veh would be gone by January, sacked with the champions in a distant eighth place, but the fact remains. These weren't makeweights. You may recall Grafite doing this:
Whereas United, at least in a certain proportion, absolutely were. With Edwin van der Sar struggling with a hand injury, Tomas Kuszczak got the nod in goal ahead of Ben Foster, while Michael Owen started up front, though only lasted 20 minutes before limping off himself. Despite that, the rest of the team was fairly strong, and though Dzeko opened the scoring after 56 minutes, goals from Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick were enough to claim the win.
It was come the reverse fixture that things got a bit silly. United had already qualified with ten points, but Wolfsburg needed a win to pip CSKA Moscow to second place in the group. One can only assume Veh, Dzeko and co. started salivating when Ferguson, whose injury list now encompassed a comical thirteen players, sent out a lineup without a single recognised centreback, and only one actual defender, Patrice Evra. Not that Ferguson was feeling unduly pessimistic:
Well, it's worth trying going with one defender. Manchester United are always first at doing something, so we'll try that one tomorrow. It's easy to organise one person.
He didn't just shuffle the personnel, however. In one of his rare and reluctant dalliances with a back three, Carrick and Darren Fletcher were asked to fill in alongside Evra. Ahead of them, Anderson, Paul Scholes and Darron Gibson patrolled midfield, Nani and Park Ji-sung ran the wings, and Owen led the line alongside a 20-year-old Danny Welbeck. The bench was even more motley. Alongside the recognised professionals — if that's not too grand a term for Gabriel Obertan — were four names to stretch even the most dedicated Sporcler: Michael Stewart, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Matthew James, and nepotism's Oliver Gill.
So, in summary: Wolfsburg, who needed to win, could call on two lethal strikers and a sensual playmaker; United, to whom the result was entirely irrelevant, had no defence and a profoundly erratic goalkeeper at one end, a child and a crock at the other, and almost nothing on the bench.
Obviously United won 3-1.
The highlights seem to have vanished from the internet, but the goals can be found from 39 seconds on in the video below, and from them we can reasonably conclude three things. One: despite his presence at the club being an embarrassment for all concerned, Owen was a pretty decent finisher. Two: Obertan! And three: Wolfsburg, having taken the must-win nature of the game to heart, had decided not to bother defending.
They were a little sloppy at the other end, too. United's defence began the game well as you might expect from two midfielders and an attacking fullback, but both Andrea Barzagli and Misimovic missed eminently presentable headers. And there was a little luck involved, as the referee apparently took pity on Carrick and let him off a clear man-before-ball incident. Then, to quote the Guardian's match report:
Three minutes from the interval Nani, whose ineffectiveness may have led Wolfsburg to forget his existence, crossed right-footed from the left and Owen headed comfortably past Benaglio. [...] Veh's side had been a disappointment to neutrals as well as a provocation to their followers.
If they were provoked by that, they can't have enjoyed the sight, shortly after a Dzeko's equaliser, of Obertan slicing his way down the wing, dancing past three challenges, and rolling the ball to Owen for the third. One fan even ran onto the pitch to ask his failing football team what exactly what they thought we were playing at, and we can assume that the neutrals were thoroughly amused. After that, Owen just had the simple matter of a footrace into an empty half to seal his hat trick and the win.
Nobody would seriously put this slightly fluky, rather peculiar victory in a European dead rubber alongside any of Ferguson's finest moments; it is, from a United point of view, nothing much more than a diverting curiosity. There was no pressure here, nothing on the line; perhaps, if there had been, United would have turned in a far less relaxed performance. But there is still something fundamentally Ferg-esque about it: the way in which minor squad members stepped up into a breach; the character of the team in the face of adversity; the sheer audacity in getting away with it.
There is also something fundamentally Ferg-esque about the fact that Manchester United, by this point four years be-Glazered, had Owen knocking about the squad in the first place. Thirteen injuries will excuse a lot, but not everything. Yet for all the wider sins that can — and, frankly, must — be laid at Ferguson's door, you really wouldn't have wanted anybody else sitting Carrick and Fletcher down, telling them they were going to be defenders, and instructing them that they were going to win.