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

Friday, May 4, 2012

Aussie Rules For Me

Sport 4 Thought guest writer Andrew Hatch goes down under to investigate what makes Australian Rules Football so wildly popular. A special report from the MCG, Melbourne.

I landed in Australia four weeks ago but only truly arrived this Saturday. 

The first weekend I was here it was suggested that I go see a game of ‘footy’ at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The game I was meant to see was the season opener between Richmond and Carlton but it fell through for one reason or another. I would have to wait another 3 weeks before I finally got my first taste. 

So on Saturday the 21st of April I was going to see Carlton, who I was told had made a blistering start to the season and were expected to challenge for the title, play Essendon: a mid-table team who would be lucky to escape without suffering an embarrassing defeat. This as you can imagine meant nothing to me because since missing that first game a few weeks earlier I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to the AFL, the game was nothing but a curiosity to me and if I’m honest I just wanted to see inside the MCG.

As a kid my only memories of ‘footy’ were seeing a bit of Aussie Rules on Channel 4’s Trans World Sport early on a Saturday morning before Going Live came on the other channel. This weird game played out on a gigantic, circular pitch befuddled me. Why were they allowed to use their hands? Why were there no nets in the goals? Why did they not have sleeves?

In the pub, (a strip bar naturally) before the game, I looked around and saw (besides the topless barmaids) Carlton fans mixing with Essendon fans. No sign of aggro, no sign of any kind of tension. Two sets of fans relaxing, drinking, talking. Nothing weird about that is there? Except for an English football fan there is a bit. Around Old Trafford there are ‘home pubs’ and ‘away pubs’. It’s not quite like Glasgow where a Celtic fan would be lucky to escape from a Rangers pub with his nose still attached to his face and vice-versa, but still, you won’t see many away fans, garbed fully in their team’s colours mind, mingling jovially with the home support. I asked my Aussie friend who the home side were; it doesn’t really work that way with footy, he told me.

Almost everything that came up in our discussions leading up to the game was related back to the Premier League in some way, partly to make the alien subject matter clearer to me and partly to manage my expectations of the game. ‘It’s not like in the Premier League’ was quickly established as the phrase of the day.

“How many can we expect there to be in the MCG today then?” I asked.
“There’ll be a big crowd, maybe 80,000, but the atmosphere won’t be anything like in the Premier League,” he said.
“It’s a big pitch for the players to cover, is the game all stop-start like rugby?” I asked.
“Oh no the game is quick, but it’s not like what you’re used to in the Premier League.”

So we approached the stadium, brushing past whole families wearing Carlton shirts, Essendon shirts and even a few Liverpool and Manchester United shirts thrown in for good measure too, with my expectation level well and truly managed. We shuffled past numerous statues of Australian sports luminaries, the majority of which I hadn't heard of, save for Don Bradman and finally got to our gate, which is when I got my first sight of the stadium.

I’ve been to some giant stadia before: the old Wembley in London, Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and of course Old Trafford in Manchester but I have to say that the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the biggest, grandest, most dramatic stadium I have ever seen. The sounds were equally impressive, both sets of fans (seated together) were getting warmed up and in terrific voice creating not so much a wall of sound but thanks to the stadium’s bowl shape, more of an enormous ball of sound that seemed to swell and linger on the pitch and could find no means of escape.

Never mind ‘not like the Premier League’, this was better.

Immediately I knew that this game, this strange hybrid of football and rugby, would compel me. And I was right. 

From the first siren I was impressed by the athleticism of these players. They sprint and leap and twist and turn with such ferocity and under such immense pressure. You think it’s impressive how Xavi engineers space, giving himself time to play his pass perfectly? Then you ought to see for yourself how quickly these men can receive the ball (more often than not at terribly awkward heights), find a teammate and offload it (in the legal manner: ‘knocking’ the ball with the fist) before two or three hulking men come crashing down on them. And have you ever tried sprinting whilst bouncing a rugby ball on the ground every 15 metres like you’re playing basketball? Not easy.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of rugby. I've been to a few Premiership games before, but the game just never grabbed me. I find the reliance on brute strength and physical attributes disheartening and prefer my winners to be the ones who were more wily, more creative on the day, not just simply faster, stronger or fitter (hence why I prefer the technique of a Federer to prevail over the brawn of a Nadal, the guile of a Barcelona to the dull, if determined, discipline of a Chelsea). I appreciate there are nuances to the game, that in my ignorance I do not understand and intricacies in skill that I just cannot see, but I will never be a fan.

I expected ‘footy’ to be more like rugby than like football. I expected the physical attributes of the players to have more of a bearing on the outcome than their wit and skill.

What I actually found was that ‘footy’ is almost the exact half-way point between rugby and football. It is required for the players to be on the whole tall, muscular, quick on their feet and tough, but at the same time I can not imagine, having seen this game first hand, a player succeeding at the top level without being able to marry these attributes to nimble hands and an exceedingly quick mind. It can appear at times as if they are merely playing hot potato but when you take a look at the wider picture and see the intricately set out patterns of the players and the almost telepathic knowledge of where their teammates should be positioned, it’s pretty obvious that there’s more to it than that.

Even the referees are athletic in this game. They need to be. The way they throw the ball back into the pitch when it has gone out of touch is amazing. They stand on the touchline with their back to the pitch, swing the ball low between their legs and fling it as hard and high as they can over their head, a sort of backwards tossing the caber motion. Most of the refs in the Premier League would put their backs out trying it.

I needed no more comparisons with the Premier League to be made once the game got under way. There were passages of play remarkably similar to those you might see in a football match with intricate one-twos being played, play being switched from one flank to the other, through balls being kicked in behind defences. At one point I even noticed how high the Carlton defence were up the pitch and remarked to my friend how dangerous that was given the pace Essendon’s forwards had displayed. My prophecy instantly came true and Carlton were hit on the counter attack on more than one occasion and trailed at half time. I felt right at home. 

I expected the game, due to the size of the pitch (2.8 times the size of a regulation association football pitch), to be played out at a relatively sedate pace. It was not. It was fast, intense, frenzied action for each of the four 30 minute quarters. Towards the end of the last quarter, some of the players were visibly tiring but only indulged in putting their hands on their knees or behind their heads during breaks in play. It was astounding stuff really. The fitness levels of these players is nothing short of freakish. Carlos Tevez would have needed more than a few run outs with the reserves to get up to speed in this game.

There was a moment where the referee felt it necessary to refer to a video. The footage required was shown on the big screen, high up in the stadium’s massive third tier and within quite literally three seconds he’d blown his whistle, made the call and the game was gotten on with. Another lesson to be learnt for the Premier League?

The game finished in a sound defeat for Carlton. Essendon’s supporters were delirious. The stadium rocked with noise. I was hooked.

This game, which began largely as a regional passion for Victorians, quickly outgrew it’s native state to encompass the whole of Australia, evolving from the Victorian Football League (VFL) into it’s current guise as the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990. With the right backing, perhaps similar to that which saw the Football League morph into the behemoth that became the Premier League in 1992, who is to say that this hugely entertaining game couldn’t one day prove every bit as popular?

I’ve already asked my friend for tickets to the next Carlton match.

Written by Andrew Hatch