Unsung heroes lead United's challenge

Posted by John Brewin

Phil Jones and Jonny Evans make sure Cristiano Ronaldo gets no space in the boxGettyImagesPhil Jones and Jonny Evans make sure Cristiano Ronaldo gets no space in the box

Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines, and Robin Van Persie might have written his own. Manchester United's draw at Real Madrid was a red-carpet affair for the VIPs but it reminded too of the crucial importance of the humble foot soldier.

That United flew back from Spain with destiny in their own hands owed much to the readily dismissed, the players with a question mark against them. David de Gea was rightly praised for a night in his home city that will have done much to quieten the doubts but, ahead of him, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans were the players on whom a foundation to progress were built.

When fans and hacks alike make up their fantasy selections of teams combined together, as they would have done for Real and United ahead of Wednesday, here were three probably rarely selected. But United's qualified success saw Ferguson revert to one of his oldest practices. Going back to his days with Aberdeen, Ferguson has worked off a principle that a team is often only as good as its lesser players, and especially when a rearguard effort is required. While all must sacrifice themselves for the cause, such players must dig deepest of all. The unfamiliar must be embraced too.

At £16 million rising to £20 million for a teenage central defender, Jones was not bought to be an odd-job man. He arrived at United ahead of schedule in the summer of 2011 when Sir Alex Ferguson realised that Raphael Varane, then of Lens, had been won over by the pull of Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane, and that Premier League rivals were circling Jones.

Back then, Jones' physical gifts saw him compared - prematurely, and by those who should know better, including Sir Bobby Charlton - to Duncan Edwards, the lost genius who perished in the Munich Air Disaster. Madrid provided a glimpse of what Charlton might have meant. Jones was energetic in both defence and attack. He was to be found acting as an auxiliary defender one minute, lolloping forward the next. What Jones lacked in terms of artistic impression he made up for in brio and tactical discipline. Since the turn of the year, and following similarly solid performances against Tottenham and Everton, Jones has graduated from over-priced squad player to a go-to guy for the biggest matches.

Before this season, Evans had been a maligned presence in United's central defence. That there were few worries at his selection in the stead of Nemanja Vidic said much of his upward curve of development. From mistake-strewn stripling to tough-as-teak stopper, and one whose distribution has improved immeasurably, Evans' newfound dependability has taken him to the brink of becoming a first-choice.

Welbeck, the infamously non-scoring striker, answered those who questioned what the point of him is. The goal was well-taken, Sergio Ramos' flailing fist a recognition that he had been beaten to the punch, but Welbeck's overall performance caused Real a great deal of trouble. They struggled with his unorthodox movement and a strength that belies a stringy frame. There are not many players like Welbeck in Spanish football and he had followed his manager's instructions to the letter.

In these times of tactical obsession, algorithmic indices and formation wonkery, Ferguson continues the horses for courses approach that used to be regarded as common sense. Though sometimes, the horse has looked decidedly unsuited to the race it has been placed in.

On the big European nights, and in some of his team's most cataclysmic Premier League matches, Ferguson, a tinkerman by trade, has often placed responsibility on players filling unfamiliar positions. There have been notable successes but some punishing failures too. The 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final was won when Brian McClair, once a 25-goal-a-season man, was employed as man-marker on Ronald Koeman, Barcelona's deepest-lying defender but one through whom a nascent "Dream Team" channelled their passing moves.

The Champions League final of 1999 was the scene of Ferguson's greatest triumph but disaster was courted when suspensions to Paul Scholes and Roy Keane led him to play Ryan Giggs on the right, and David Beckham in the centre. United were overrun until Bayern's hubris and two famed substitutions swung the night. Earlier that season, full-back Phil Neville was employed as a central man-marker on Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola and an FA Cup tie was won, but later in 1999 the same approach saw Zola's team run riot in a 5-0 thrashing. Neville remained limpet-like, but Zola's team-mates flourished around him. Barcelona twice made short work of Park Ji-Sung as a defensive winger in European Cup finals.

John O'Shea
PA PhotosJohn O'Shea even played in goal on one occasion

Neville and later John O'Shea were the precursors to the player Jones might become, a super-domestique whose hard work allows the stars to shine. Neville was always employed when Patrick Vieira came to town; O'Shea played in every single position for United, including goalkeeper one afternoon at Tottenham. In that 1991 final with Barcelona, Clayton Blackmore, a converted midfielder, was the full-back who cleared a goal-bound Michael Laudrup shot in the dying minutes.

Ferguson is not alone in placing responsibility on the prosaic. Marcello Lippi's great Juventus team of the 1990s may have had Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero, but the foundations were laid by the likes of Gianluca Pessotto, Mark Iuliano and Angelo Di Livio. Jose Mourinho's Champions League wins with Porto and Internazionale made use of players who followed the system, and not systems to follow the players. And the image of Samuel Eto'o as an auxiliary left-back in the Nou Camp in April 2010 reminded that galacticos must play the system too.

The standing ovation from home fans that greeted Giggs in Madrid was an appreciation of a longevity at the top of the game granted by his own versatility. From left wing, to central midfield, to second striker to emergency left-back, Giggs, the player longest associated with the Ferguson era, is a career-long embodiment of a time-honoured belief that sacrifice is required in the successful pursuit of triumph. While the unsung can star, the stars must sacrifice themselves too.

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