Combining alcohol and football heartache isn’t always the best idea as many of us can testify, but it was the often potent mixture which fuelled Sir Alex Ferguson’s speech at the Manchester United Player of the Year awards last May. Speaking the night after two last-gasp goals saw United surrender their grip on the title, Ferguson spoke of those questioning his place in the modern game: “I’m a dinosaur, I’m an absolute dinosaur but what I am, I’m a winner”.
Through a management career which has spanned five decades in which Ferguson has guided his clubs to a total of fourty-eight trophies; it is perhaps surprising that his signings, tactics and selections are so openly criticised amongst social media and online forums. Or maybe it isn’t. After all, Manchester United are the most scrutinised club in world football and various websites are dedicated to analysing every decision made and running it over with a fine tooth-comb. The internet is full of football fans masquerading as journalists and prophets of sporting knowledge. Their views should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
However, not even those most loyal to Ferguson believe he is beyond criticism. His constant rotation of Anders Lindegaard and his obvious superior David De Gea unquestionably harms the progression of one of the finest young goalkeepers in the world, and hinders the cohesion between him and his back four. The sentiment afforded to older players, particularly Ryan Giggs, has seen United out powered and outmanoeuvred in the centre of the pitch all too often. But then again, football manager heroics aside, what have I ever won?
Sir Alex often holds his hands up when he gets it wrong too. Last year’s 6-1 shredding by City was humbling and humiliating in equal measure. Ferguson immediately apologised to the fans for encouraging his ten-men to push forward at 3-1 down, leaving his side open to the brutally efficient visitors who filled their boots. Lessons may have been learnt from that for the league return at the Etihad back in April, but the limp performance was even more disheartening as a lifeless United failed to create a meaningful opening in a 1-0 defeat by the then Champions-elect.
The wounds inflicted by these defeats still resonate with Ferguson and his players as the screams of their noisy neighbours reached a deafening crescendo. The wily old Scot reacted swiftly, realising the need to build for the club’s future could not compromise the urgent needs of the present.
The summer-long pursuit of Robin van Persie represented United’s most significant signing since Wayne Rooney. It reassured fans that the club were still competing for the most high-profile names in the game but more importantly, the manager believed it would eradicate any replication of losing the title by the cruel decider of goal difference again. The match at the Etihad demonstrated Ji-Sung Park’s work-rate was no longer sufficient in these big matches, and the South Korean never played for the club again. Instead, the wonderfully creative Kagawa was drafted in from Dortmund, and two of the most exciting young players in the world were captured – Nick Powell and Angelo Henriquez.
The need to find a winning formula in the toughest away matches was essential. After fleetingly flirting with the diamond midfield formation early in the season, this was scrapped for United’s away match at Stamford Bridge as Ferguson reverted back to a conventional 4-4-1-1 formation with Rooney floating between the midfield and the dynamic Van Persie upfront. The powerful Valencia was employed on the right flank with the elusive Young on the left, backed up on either side by the energetic full-backs Rafael and Evra.
This rip-roaring wing play injected some much-needed impotence and zip into a side whose Achilles heel has been its fragility and lethargic style of play. It afforded the midfield duo of Carrick and Cleverley the time to thread the right passes through to start the potent counter-attacks.
The central defensive partnership of Evans and Ferdinand has performed admirably this season, but the constant worry of the absence of pace meant that the defensive line had to sit deeper. Soaking up pressure and affording the visitors the lion’s share of possession aren’t often associated with United sides, but the ability to adapt and prosper with a deep-line and deadly fluent counter-attack are just as important.
The decisive goal at Stamford Bridge may have been fortunate, but the shape of the game was dictated by two early United goals, as the Reds swarmed down Chelsea’s left flank like ravenous ants and profited with two early goals. Sunday’s match was not dissimilar as United, after soaking up early City pressure, were in cruise control on the half hour with a two goal cushion. This allowed the team to play reactively: not having to play to City’s strengths but by setting their stall and pouncing ruthlessly on mistakes.
Whilst only the second came down United’s right side – the cut-back from Rafael to Rooney was identical to Valencia’s pinpoint fizzed cross into Van Persie for the goal at Stamford Bridge. Interestingly, 57% of United’s attacking possession was down their right flank, as opposed to a mere 25% down the left. The stats were similar at Stamford Bridge.
All this points to Ferguson having done his tactical homework, knowing that City and Chelsea both flooded the centre of the pitch but were vulnerable down the flanks, especially in the left-back area. Indeed, City have conceded the majority of the goals down their left-side, especially against their ‘top’ opponents – all three Champions League teams included. Ferguson targeted Clichy as the weak link, and gave special instruction to Rafael, Valencia and Rooney in particular to overload this area.
The games at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad even showed United’s flaws. Being overrun in the centre of midfield was always going to be the main issue, and a prolonged period of sloppiness in both games saw them pegged back to 2-2. There was more than a hint of fortune over both winners, but the tactics justified United taking six points where last year they took only one. Indeed, had it not been for an outrageous decision to rule Ashley Young offside, United would have had an unassailable 3-0 lead at City with half an hour to go.
For all the top teams, it’s important to get squad rotation right. Having already alluded to the exceptions – goalkeeper rotation and overuse of older generation – Ferguson has proved year after year that he is the master of this. Rarely do you hear of United’s players discontent. Javier Hernandez is positively beaming when he comes off the bench to score a winner, in stark contrast to the moody Edin Dzeko at City. Ferguson already had the closest-knit squad and most flexible team at his disposal, but with the summer additions, he perhaps now has the highest level of individual quality available to him too.
One thing is for sure – Ferguson, approaching the grand age of 71, may be a dinosaur but he is far from becoming extinct. Equally unsurprisingly, he seems to know more than the occasional blogger and tweeter too.