Manchester United’s miserable Champions League record is anything but ‘football heritage’

Oliver Kay

This is football heritage. A four-word sentence that became a meme after Jose Mourinho said it seven times in a single press conference. This was the opposite of “I prefer not to speak”.

It was March 2018 and Manchester United had been beaten at Old Trafford by Sevilla in the Champions League’s first knockout stage. Mourinho was widely criticised for a highly cautious tactical approach that yielded four shots on target over two legs. Spanish newspaper Marca said they were “an unattractive, fearful team, rich in resources but lamentable in their play” while AS memorably accused them of playing “troglodyte” football.

Mourinho was not having it. He pointed out that an early elimination from the Champions League was “nothing new” for Manchester United. This was their fifth season since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and they had only got beyond the last 16 once (under David Moyes in 2013-14). Ferguson failed to win a Champions League knockout game in his final two seasons, too.

“So in seven years,” Mourinho said, “with four different managers: once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was the quarter-final.

“This is football heritage.”

Some thought it more like football sacrilege, particularly when Mourinho looked back further and suggested three European Cup/Champions League trophies was not a lot for a club of United’s size. But Mourinho was right. Where he was wrong was to suggest he was the man to rectify this underperformance.

The cycle has continued. So much — so much — has been said and written about the underperformance over the past decade, but nearly six years on from Mourinho’s “heritage” monologue, as they stare at the threat of another early exit, sitting bottom of a group containing Galatasaray and Copenhagen as well as Bayern Munich, United’s abject post-2011 Champions League record merits deeper scrutiny.

Is this football heritage?

It has not been an entirely barren period for United on the European front. As Mourinho would be keen to point out, they won the Europa League in 2017, beating Ajax in the final.

They reached the final of the same competition four years later under Solskjaer, beating AC Milan and Roma en route to a painful defeat by Villarreal in a penalty shootout.

They knocked out Barcelona in February, which, along with the Carabao Cup final win three days later, represented the high point of Erik ten Hag’s tenure and, arguably, of the past six years.

But when it comes to great Champions League nights over the past decade and more, there is only one place to start — and finish.

At the Parc des Princes in March 2019, with a makeshift midfield of Ashley Young, Scott McTominay, Fred and Andreas Pereira, United stunned Paris Saint-Germain by overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win 3-1 and reach the quarter-finals on the away-goals rule.

Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time penalty snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and former United defender Rio Ferdinand declared in the BT Sport studio that it was time to award Solskjaer a permanent contract as manager and “let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there” because “Man United are BACK”.

They were not back. They had enjoyed a bounce since Solskjaer took over from Mourinho on an interim basis, but Ferdinand’s excitement — shared by a board who appointed the Norwegian on a three-year contract and shelved plans to recruit a sporting director for another two years — was misplaced. They were beaten 4-0 on aggregate by Barcelona in the quarter-final and have only made one brief appearance in the knockout stage since: a limp 2-1 aggregate defeat by Atletico Madrid in 2022, by which time Solskjaer had made way for another interim, Ralf Rangnick.

But it was easy to understand the post-PSG giddiness because it had been so long since United had recorded such a resonant victory in the Champions League.

It is one of just two knockout ties they have won since 2011. The other came in early 2014 when, having lost 2-0 away to Olympiacos in the first leg, a Robin van Persie hat-trick secured a 3-2 win in the second leg, keeping Moyes in a job a few more weeks.

As for the group stage, their standout result over the period in question came in November 2018, when, in the unhappy final weeks of Mourinho, they claimed a smash-and-grab victory away to Juventus thanks to two Juan Mata free kicks, the second of them deflecting in off Leonardo Bonucci. Cristiano Ronaldo said his Juventus team “should have won the game easily, by three or four goals” and it was hard to disagree.

Beyond those few chaotic victories, there has been little to be enthused by. They beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 and 5-0 during a brief honeymoon period under Moyes, beat CSKA Moscow, Benfica and Young Boys home and away under Mourinho and beat PSG (2-1), RB Leipzig (5-0), Villarreal (2-1) and Atalanta (3-2) in group matches under Solskjaer, but few, if any, of them felt like a statement victory. On several of those occasions, a scrappy late goal or two papered over the cracks of a disjointed performance — and the same can be said of this season’s defeat of Copenhagen at Old Trafford, their only win in five games in Group A.

As for the low points, where do you start? Under Ferguson, they were knocked out of the 2011-12 campaign by Basel, with their only wins coming against Romanian champions Otelul Galati; 2013-14 saw that awful first-leg defeat by Olympiacos; elimination at the group stage in 2015-16 confirmed on a bleak night in Wolfsburg; chastening knockout defeats by Sevilla in 2018 and Barcelona a year later; comical defending away to Istanbul Basaksehir (remember this goal?) and Leipzig in 2020-21; another meek knockout defeat by Atletico a year later.

This season offered what looked like a gentle return to the big stage: yes, they were in a group with Bayern but Copenhagen (the lowest-ranked team from pot three, which could potentially have thrown up AC Milan or Lazio) and Galatasaray, who had not won an away match in the competition since 2013. A smooth passage to the knockout stage? Think again.

So many of Manchester United’s Champions League matches over the past decade have been forgettable. By contrast, this campaign has been memorable — for all the wrong reasons.

There was a sense of realism around the opening game away to Bayern, given the way Ten Hag’s team had started the season. A 4-3 defeat was not a disaster, even if the score flattered them. The coach blamed “easy giveaways”, not just from goalkeeper Andre Onana but from his entire defence. Ten Hag repeatedly said he wanted to see more “determination” from his team.

For much of the home game against Galatasaray, they played arguably as well as they have done all season. But at 2-1 up, they unravelled, losing control of midfield and making a series of defensive lapses. Galatasaray won 3-2 and Ten Hag blamed “errors” once more.

The home game against Copenhagen was anything but routine — United were frequently cut open by their unfancied opponents but won 1-0 thanks to a Harry Maguire header and Onana’s stoppage-time penalty save. At 2-0 up in Copenhagen a fortnight later, they looked like they were cruising, but then came a Rashford red card, a shambolic second half and a 4-3 defeat. They were 2-0 up again away to Galatasaray, but imploded again and ended up drawing 3-3, leaving them needing to beat Bayern and hope for a draw between Copenhagen and Galatasaray.

Rashford’s red in Copenhagen led to defeat (Mata Hitij/Getty Images)

The whole campaign has been a mess. Ten Hag refers to “incidents” and individual mistakes, “unnecessary and unavoidable”, but there has been an alarming lack of control and tactical discipline. Promising spells have yielded 12 goals but they have conceded 14. Errors — most obviously from Onana — have been a recurring factor, but so has the sense of collective paralysis that afflicted them in both legs of last season’s Europa League quarter-final against Sevilla.

The strange thing is the discrepancy between their Premier League record (1.1 goals per game scored, 1.3 goals per game conceded) and their Champions League record (2.4 goals per game scored, 2.8 goals per game conceded). It evokes the kind of British holiday-maker who steps off a plane, into the blinding sunshine, and is transformed by the first sip of sangria or San Miguel, briefly overcome by a sense of reckless abandon that might land them in trouble before they return home to a more mundane existence.

Did they intend to play like this in the Champions League? It has not looked like it. Yes, they started on the front foot away at Bayern (and how different might this campaign have been had Christian Eriksen or Facundo Pellistri taken advantage of an incisive opening in the fourth minute), but the cavalier approach seems to have come about by default, not design. Two goals up in Copenhagen and Istanbul, they lost control of the match and their destiny in the competition.

The more the European football landscape has been transformed for the benefit of the biggest and richest clubs in the biggest and richest leagues, the more inevitable most of the heavyweights’ presence in the latter stages of the Champions League has become.

Real Madrid have made the knockout stage of every Champions League since 1997-98. Bayern likewise since 2008-09. Barcelona’s group-stage eliminations in 2021-22 and 2022-23 were their first in almost two decades, reflecting their turmoil.

Over the past decade, English clubs have been knocked out at the group stage on just four occasions: Liverpool in 2014-15, Tottenham in 2016-17, and Manchester United in 2015-16 and 2020-21. Going into the final round of matches, Manchester United and Newcastle United are at risk of adding to that roll of dishonour.

There would be mitigating circumstances for Newcastle. Few of their players had made more than a handful of Champions League appearances. Eddie Howe had never managed in competitive European football. With no recent pedigree to boost their coefficient, they found themselves in the fourth pot of seeds and ended up in a group with PSG, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan.

For Manchester United, an early exit would be less excusable. Apart from the seeding and the draw, this is a squad full of players who have been competing in the Champions League for years: Onana for Ajax and Inter Milan; Raphael Varane and Casemiro for Real Madrid; Eriksen for Ajax, Tottenham and Inter and so on. Rather than target up-and-coming players, they have frequently gone for players who have seen and done it all elsewhere. It makes their regular bouts of neurosis on the Champions League stage all the harder to explain.

Onana has made a string of errors in Europe (Seskim Photo/MB Media/Getty Images)

They have won one, drawn three and lost five of their last nine away games in the Champions League. They have scored in all nine, but have conceded 21 times. Remarkably, they have kept seven clean sheets in 35 away matches since the 2011 final: against Otelul Galati (Ferguson), Leverkusen and Real Sociedad (Moyes), Benfica, Sevilla and Young Boys (Mourinho) and Villarreal (when Michael Carrick was in temporary charge).

Their home record is poor, too. Since the start of 2018, they have won just six out of 15 home matches and most of those victories (over Young Boys, Villarreal, Atalanta and Copenhagen) were far from comfortable. For a truly authoritative, dominant display at Old Trafford over that period, you have to go back to Leipzig (5-0) and Basaksehir (4-1) in the 2020-21 group stage, when there were no fans in the ground and they finished third in their group anyway.

None of this seems to make sense when you consider their impressive performance against Barcelona in the Europa League last season. But there have been too many occasions when, under different managers, they have performed meekly in the Champions League, the “fearful” team of Marca’s description. In their last seven home matches against what might be termed ‘leading’ opposition in the Champions League — Sevilla, Valencia and Juventus under Mourinho, PSG (twice) and Barcelona under Solskjaer, and Atletico under Rangnick — they have scored once.

They will have to score against Bayern. It is possible the German team, confirmed as group winners, will take it easy, but even a United victory may not be enough. Having surrendered winning positions against Galatasaray (twice) and Copenhagen, they could beat Bayern and still end up in the Europa League.

That might sound fair enough — what little enjoyment their supporters have found in European competition over the past decade has been in the second-tier competition. Liverpool are playing in it this season. Sevilla have seized the opportunity in the Europa League, winning it five times over the past decade while only making one quarter-final in the Champions League.

But that is Sevilla, who have never come higher than 22nd in the Deloitte Money League, which ranks Europe’s richest clubs each year. And this is Manchester United, who have never been outside the top five in terms of financial power, even having earned far less prize money than many of their domestic and European rivals over the past decade.

And this in an era in which European football has been dominated like never before by the biggest, richest clubs. While it is universally accepted that United are not at the level they were in the 1990s and 2000s, the scale of their underperformance in the Champions League is startling.

If that was the case in 2018, at the time of Mourinho’s “football heritage” monologue, it has been underscored since. Another group-stage elimination this season would be their fourth in their past nine Champions League campaigns. To quote Mourinho, it would be “nothing new”.

That is not Manchester United’s heritage. It is a cycle they have to break.

(Top photos: Joe Prior/Visionhaus/Matthew Lewis/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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