Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ferguson's Age Causes Concern

Fergie looking to the future
The Premier League season 2011/12 will be remembered as the most scintillating in English top-flight football history, although it was undoubtedly a season Sir Alex Ferguson would rather forget. As the media produces a cacophony of apparent support in Roberto Mancini’s favour, despite having rallied wholeheartedly for his removal just three weeks previous, the Manchester United faithful focus their own spotlight on the man responsible for their club’s unrivalled success in the last two decades.

Originally set to step down as manager in 2002, Ferguson has since scrapped two further dates for his retirement, claiming, "Retirement is for young people... If I get off the treadmill, where do you think I am going? Down there. Trust me. When you get older, don't retire."

No Manchester United fan would dream of questioning Ferguson, yet those left shell-shocked by the manner in which their ‘noisy neighbours’ stole their Premier League crown, are understandably concerned at their recent inability to perform in big games. Blame for inconsistent performances must fall on the players, but a closer analysis of the tactics employed by the Red Devil’s boss raises questions of their own.

The famous night in Barcelona
A brief history of England’s most successful domestic outfit is not complete without mention of the likes of Best, Charlton, Law, Cantona, Giggs, Ronaldo and Rooney. These names illustrate a few examples of the ruthless attacking potency that has defined United’s success – a club based on fast, direct, skilful offense, bombarding defences with unrelenting waves of aggressive football.

‘Ruthless’, ‘direct’ and ‘aggressive’ are indeed adjectives that many would have chosen to describe Ferguson, especially in his earlier years, but at the ripe age of 70, the Scotsman’s number two, Mike Phelan admits “He has mellowed out, definitely.” The boss himself concedes, “I don't have any confrontations really, not nowadays, although maybe when I was younger I would have.”

Ferguson, famous for recognising potential talent and moulding great teams over time, has always had his personality firmly emblazoned on every side that has graced Old Trafford. His never-say-die attitude has become a trait so dominant in each of his creations that United are now renowned for scoring late goals to save and win matches, such as the 2-1 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 at the Camp Nou, owing to two injury-time goals.

Too much on his shoulders?
As Ferguson ages and his ability to become aggravated subsides, his tendency to err on the side of caution dramatically increases, powerfully highlighted this season through his choice of formation and tactics in numerous games, in which United have failed to gain the result they required and were expected to achieve.

In seven key fixtures this season, Ferguson fielded a United team that boasted just one lone striker, resulting in four defeats and three draws, causing their exit from Champions League, F.A. Cup and Europa League competitions and directly effecting their surrendering of the Premier League title:

Sep 27  Basel         Champions League    3-3      Draw

Oct 15  Liverpool     Premier League        1-1      Draw

Nov 22  Benfica      Champions League    2-2      Draw

Dec 07  Basel         Champions League    2-1      Loss

Jan 28  Liverpool     F.A. Cup                  2-1       Loss

Mar 15  Ath. Bilbao  Europa League         2-1      Loss

Apr 30  Man City     Premier League        1-0       Loss

United have won countless trophies in the past, operating a tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation, allowing two strikers to work together, forming a lethal partnership and running opposition defences ragged, exemplified by combinations of: Bobby Charlton - George Best, Mark Hughes - Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke - Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - Teddy Sheringham and Wayne Rooney - Cristiano Ronaldo.

United legends
However, in recent seasons, Ferguson has felt the need to play a lone striker in United’s big games, in a move that signifies a lack of belief in his team’s ability to overpower their opposition. The only successful operation of a lone striker policy arises when the chosen forward is exceptionally tall and able to win every aerial battle, or outstandingly fast, capable of breaking offside traps and running around defenders.

In Rooney, United have a wonderfully talented player, but one that is neither especially tall, nor particularly quick, yet, Ferguson insists on forcing his most talented asset to play a role he is entirely unsuited for. Rooney is a world-class striker who has shown through electric partnerships with Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez that he can expertly dictate games against even the classiest of opposition.

To strip Rooney of a striking partner is to remove The Hulk of his anger – it significantly reduces any threat that he may otherwise pose. For United, this has led to opposition teams being given a free ride in defence, confident that four men could always outrun or out-jump the England international.

Will the power shift be temporary?
In Ferguson’s defence, the modern game has evolved and we are currently in an era where possession of the ball is more important than ever before, as so flawlessly exhibited by Barcelona and the European and World Cup Champions, Spain. Increased numbers of teams flood the midfield in an attempt to retain possession in a Muhammad Ali-esque tactic, which focuses on tiring the opposition, both mentally and physically, before launching scathing attacks. When playing superior opponents, who are masters of the art of ball retention, it becomes necessary to match their numbers in midfield and for this reason, we witness a growing popularity of a lone striker formation.

United supporters must also appreciate that having never replaced Ronaldo or Tevez, that they are not the force they once were. In relying on players in their late 30’s, such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who lack pace, there is always a vunerability in the midfield. This is often accounted for through use of an extra holding midfielder, at the expense of a striker and although Michael Carrick had his best season for United, when comparing any of this trio to a player of Yaya Toure’s ability, the gulf in class is all too apparent. In any case, the best form of defence is attack.

United followers will be hurt by their loss this season, but given City played the better football, they will be more concerned by the manner in which they seemed to surrender their apparent stronghold on the title. Playing a midfield five at the Etihad of Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Park and Nani, against City’s 4-4-2, Ferguson made a shocking error of judgement. Only Nani boasts any pace, though himself and Park had a mere three starts between them in the previous ten outings. The likes of United’s most in-form stars in Valencia, Young and Welbeck, who all offer speed in abundance, languished on the bench as the one striker policy provided City with 90 minutes of unanswered domination. In essence, Ferguson played for the draw and was punished for doing so.

The young, ruthless Ferguson
If you pose no attacking threat to your opposition, there is only one possible outcome. Being beaten by a better team holds no shame, but failing to play for victory is a sin at any level, especially for Manchester United, one of Europe’s elite empires. A sin that a young Ferguson side would never make.

With Manchester United enduring their first barren season since 2004/05, the future looks uncertain at Old Trafford. Manchester City fans are quick to suggest this is the end of an era for the red half of Manchester, though only a fool would fail to recognise this is hopeful optimism. United still hold a strong squad, thriving with young talent and their narrow failure this season will undoubtedly result in significant summer signings.

However, personnel aside, the real key to United’s response lies not in the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson, but in his head. The lack of confidence in his players’ ability was all too apparent this season, epitomised by his negative tactics. If he is to mastermind a comeback, as he has done on so many occasions before, he must take heed of the Manchester United motto and once again ‘Believe’.

Written by Dom Wallace

1 comment:

  1. Good article Dom. Sir Alex's team selection for the City match was clearly wrong. He has used a 4-5-1 formation for many 'key' games over the past few seasons, especially in Europe. Park has often played a role in these 'big' games. Alan Green of 5-live has often led the praising of the diminiative Korean. Unfortunately for United, both Sir Alex and Alan Green have dramatically over-rated Park's ability.
    Tactics have rarely been Sir Alex's strong point. His reluctance to change a team when things are going wrong, have cost United on many occasions. Late substitutions have occasionally paid off. One famous occasion in 1999 springs to mind. But generally tactical changes are made far too late, the City game being the perfect example.
    Sir Alex's fire still appears to burn brightly, and United will undoubtedly come back next season stronger than ever.
    Sir Alex is unlikely to change his ways after all this time, and United will continue to be successful, despite the bosses shortcomings.


Sport 4 Thought will reply to all comments within 24 hours...