I suspect that the majority of this paper’s readers, like me, have never known Manchester United to be managed by anyone other than Sir Alex Ferguson. When he took over at Old Trafford, the Berlin wall was still in place and Margaret Thatcher was at Number 10. In the twenty-six years since, through the rise of the internet, mobile phones, Middle-Eastern wars and a global financial crisis, Sir Alex’s tenure in Manchester has remained constant.
It’s a remarkably scary thought that the Ferguson era is coming to an end and it leaves me wondering where the hell we go from here. The simple fact is that Sir Alex is the most monumental figure in world football – for good reasons and bad. His managerial ability is all but unparalleled. He produces teams that got winning results week in, week out and have an infuriating propensity for snatching results at the last.
There is the slightly more dubious side of his game: his constant undermining of the officials. As entertaining as it could be, as the most recognisable face in the Premiership it was his responsibility to be setting an example of respect and support to the men in black. There’s also the way he tended to fly off the handle any time an opposing team’s player had the temerity to perform a less-than-perfect tackle upon one of his beloved players. This season saw the peach of the crop for me, after Ferguson claimed Robin Van Persie was “lucky to be alive” after having a football kicked at his head. It would have been very funny if you hadn’t felt that Ferguson was utterly convinced it was true.
That we have lost a great sporting character is obvious, but perhaps more pertinent, and worrying for United fans, is the question of who fills Ferguson’s chewing-gum-spattered shoes. David Moyes seems a sensible enough choice and he appears to be a replacement with a long-term future in mind, something a man such as Jose Mourinho probably wouldn’t provide.
But Moyes definitely isn’t Ferguson. His record at Everton is admirable, but United fans have got accustomed to challenging for at least one piece of major silverware every season. It remains to be seen whether Moyes can handle the pressure of that environment. And what happens if it turns out Moyes can’t? United may yet fall into the managerial carousel they’ve done well to avoid so far. United’s future is in the balance. On the one hand they may have found a new boss with the exact attitude required to take over Ferguson’s mantle – and you have to feel that Sir Alex will have laid some decent foundations for his departure. On the other, there’s the worry that 26 without a managerial change will make this swap more difficult than it needs to be. United fans can say as often as anyone will listen that Moyes will be given time, but in the hypothetical scenario that we reach Christmas next season and form is faltering, I wonder if they’ll feel the same. Whatever happens, though, with the possible return of The Special One to Stamford Bridge in the summer, next season’s Premier League campaign looks set to be one of the most gripping yet.
[caption id="attachment_37319" align="alignright" width="300"] Arsene Wenger has lamented the decline of English football[/caption]
“We accept that the rest of European football has caught us.” As Arsène Wenger reflected on his side’s exit from the last 16 of the Champions League for the third successive season, he brought to attention the troubling statistic that for the first time since 1996, no English side has successfully negotiated its passage to the quarter finals of Europe’s premier club competition.
“It’s a massive disappointment for English football. We have to take that into consideration when we think about the future of the Premier League.” So what is the future of the Premier League? It is tempting to not look beneath the surface of the plight of England’s top clubs. Arsenal have been unable to mount a serious challenge for either European or domestic silverware for some years, Manchester City have yet to master European football whilst Liverpool are still undergoing a period of redevelopment. It would also be easy to explain away Chelsea’s catastrophic defence of their maiden Champions League crown as a result of their merry-go-round of managers and the generally farcical situation down at Stamford Bridge.
These, seemingly, are all short-term problems that can be turned around in a season or two. An English side won the Champions League last year and it can win it again next year. 2013 was just a momentary blip. But don’t let appearances fool you. In reality Europe has been catching and since overtaken the English as long ago as Manchester United’s defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final. The sight of Cristiano Ronaldo moping about the Stadio Olimpico as Barcelona celebrated their victory was telling. His heart was no longer in England, but instead he wanted to follow the trophy to Spain – the most glamorous league in the world.
This is the crux of the problem. As much as we kid ourselves that the English league is the best in the world due to its strength in depth, the ultimate for the superstars of this world will always be to play in Spain or even Italy. You only have to look at the plethora of big-name movers from England to the continent to realise that ultimately the Premier League is not top of the food chain. Henry and Fabregas to Barcelona, van Nistelrooy, Alonso and Ronaldo to Madrid, Vieira to Juventus to name but a few. However many various mitigating reasons for each move, whether they be going back to their childhood club or looking for a new challenge at the end of their career, it is somehow hard to imagine the Premier League luring any La Liga superstars away from their sunshine and tapas.
This issue is compounded by the Premier League’s inability to produce genuinely world-class English talent. Thus it has seen itself overtaken by a rejuvenated Serie A and Juventus in particular, and even the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have outshone the English champions Manchester City in successive group stages.
The success of previous years has been misleading. The Spanish giants will always be at the top of the European tree whilst the other leagues fight it out to be the best of the rest. During the last decade the Premiership has taken advantage of the turbulence in Serie A and a relatively weak Bundesliga. But as Wenger rightly points out, Europe has caught us up and we will have to say adios the days of English clubs punching above their weight.
[caption id="attachment_37320" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Is the Premier League the ultimate for superstars like Ronaldo?[/caption]
By Alex Tyndall
Hang on a second. Didn’t Chelsea win the Champions League just last season? It seems a bit premature to be panicking about English football’s place in Europe when just twelve months ago a club that finished sixth in the league was crowned European champion. The English have been enjoying a glut of success in European football in recent times, with finalists (and winners) seven years out of the last eight. The fact is that English football is undergoing a sizeable domestic shake-up at the moment, though. It’s not the same as a decline to suggest that the powers-that-be in English football are changing.
The first signs of this shake-up came in the topple of Liverpool – Champions League finalists as recently as 2007 – from their regular spot in top four places and the big-money rise to success of Manchester City. The clubs that we’d have called “top”, ten years ago are being usurped one at a time by clubs who were previously knocking on the door of Europa League places. Arsenal, Champions League finalists in 2006, have been haemorrhaging top players to other clubs with high aspirations, and this year they look like dropping out of the top four for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, Manchester City have blasted their way into the Champions League spots and Tottenham have announced loudly their own claim to a top-four finish. So, with new blood coming into the top four, the Premier League big dogs such as Manchester United can’t afford to slip even for one weekend, so tense is the competition for Champions League qualification. As I write, there are eleven points separating the team in third from the team in eighth. This time four years ago, the gap was double that. With such a fierce domestic competition, key players are going to be working harder than ever at weekends which will naturally affect their midweek performances.
[caption id="attachment_37321" align="alignright" width="300"] The rise of clubs like City has put the Premier League in transition[/caption]
European football isn’t the same as Premiership football; it requires a different managerial approach and more careful man-management to keep top players fit to play both at the weekend and Wednesday night. That’s the sort of expertise that can only come with experience. Roberto Mancini hasn’t got it right yet but frankly he can afford to buy a whole separate world-class squad to play midweek. It’s probably only a matter of time before he does so. The point is that success in a new tournament can’t be taken for granted. Once things settle down again in the Premier League and the new top clubs get used to their status, we’ll see English names back on the big trophy again.
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Miles Dilworth believes oligarchs are saviours of sport
It would not be ludicrous to suggest that the 2011/2012 season was the most dramatic we’ve ever seen. Two moments surely stand out – Sergio Aguero’s last gasp winner against QPR and Didier Drogba’s winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
Drogba was signed with Roman Abramovich’s millions back in 2004, whilst Aguero was bought for £35million as part of Manchester City’s Sheikh-Up in 2011. Foreign money has changed the English game, for better or for worse, and it is here to stay. There is nothing we can do about it so maybe we should just cherish the glorious moments it has provided us in recent years.
Agreed, you don’t need to have money to have drama, but without Mansour’s millions, Manchester United would have run away with the title last season, with Arsenal finishing a distant second. I don’t think anybody could argue that City’s emergence as serious title contenders hasn’t added spice to the Premier League and has taken the Manchester Derby to new levels of quality, atmosphere and entertainment.
In view of last week’s debate piece, that is surely one justification for some of the extortionate ticket prices burning a hole in fan’s pockets. Even if you are not a City or a Chelsea fan, your ticket begins to seem value for money when you are treated to David Silva’s guile or Eden Hazard’s trickery. Even the flops give us a laugh. We all grant ourselves a sarcastic jeer every time Torres fluffs his lines in front of goal, which just wouldn’t be as funny if Chelsea hadn’t paid £50million for him.
Admittedly foreign owners have not been all good news for clubs. Southampton are currently in the midst of a rage against crazy Cortese after he dispensed with their well-loved manager Nigel Adkins, whilst United are still less than happy with the Glazer family and just don’t mention chicken to Blackburn fans.
Unfortunately you can just never tell what you’re going to get. New foreign owners could mean silverware and glory or it could mean ridicule and relegation. But the crux of the matter is that it cannot be regulated. Who was to know that the Venky’s would prove so incompetent? Besides there was a period when Newcastle fans were apoplectic with anger against Mike Ashley, a life-long Magpies supporter who sat, drank and sung with the fans. Little did they know he planned to change the name of their stadium to the Sports Direct Arena.
It is increasingly difficult to predict the suitability of new owners and it is for that reason that you can’t properly regulate it with any kind of ‘fit and proper owners’ test. So enjoy the ups and downs and keep your fingers crossed; the Russian roulette of football might just land your club with the next Premier League trophy.
However, Oliver Park just wants chairmen to care more
A club gaining a multi-millionaire owner can of course have great benefits. However what fans have increasingly found to their cost is that it can also carry with it enormous risks. Portsmouth are one club which have been taken over by several wealthy individuals only to be left deep in the mire when they have either lost interest, tried to exploit the club for their own ends or the funds have run out.
A further problem is the propensity of clubs who acquire a wealthy owner to spend in a manner that is often ill thought out and, even with the rich owner’s backing, unsustainable. In addition to the huge financial burdens this places on the club, the new owner’s desire to see a quick return for their investment often leads to panic buying. When Fenway Sports (backed by two wealthy American businessmen) bought Liverpool in October 2010 they made no secret of their hopes of revitalizing the club’s fortunes. As a result they then spent big in the transfer market, paying way over the odds for players in a desire to mould a new, successful team. Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson may all be decent players but in no way were they worth a combined total of nearly £70 million. There can be little doubt the money could have been better spent upgrading the club’s infrastructure or on some properly thought out transfers.
Even the stereotypical rich owner success story is perhaps more complicated than it might have appeared. Roman Abramovich when he purchased Chelsea in 2003, was able to dramatically revive the club’s fortunes, a turnaround which has produced Premier League titles and of the course the Champions League last year. However Abramovich’s role has not been without criticism from some Chelsea fans who view him as dictatorial and unaccountable. This came to the surface with the sacking of two very popular managers, Mourinho and Di Matteo which have led to Abramovich’s ownership and leadership style being questioned.
Therefore while acquiring a multi-millionaire owner can provide a vital injection of cash to boost a club it also has the potential to led to financial ruin. Furthermore, some owners driven by their desire to produce immediate results neglect the club’s longer term future safe in the knowledge they can simply cut and run. In such cases it is the fans, buoyed briefly by the hope of an upturn in fortunes of their club, which are left to disconsolately pick up the pieces.
The Barclays Premier League season doesn’t end for another three months, yet there’s a growing suspicion that the teams are all just playing for the sake of ceremony.
Manchester United are now a hefty twelve points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table, with both teams having played twenty-six matches. That’s a huge deficit for the champions to make up if they’re to have a hope of stopping the trophy making an embarrassing trip across town in May. It’s still very much in the realms of mathematical possibility, but looking at the form and fixtures of the two Manchester clubs shows clearly that City are going to need to play almost flawlessly and receive a sizeable amount of goodwill from the footballing gods.
The run-in for United is made up largely of bottom-half opposition, with the exception of Chelsea, Arsenal and City themselves on the 8th of April. A possibly tricky game for them comes in the form of a visit to Stoke a week after their match with City, but Stoke’s form has been faltering of late with four losses in the last six. They may well be in a full-on decline by the time the Red Devils meet them at the Britannia.
Although Chelsea will fight at Old Trafford, and visiting the Emirates is never an easy task, Manchester United’s results against the “big” clubs have been exemplary this season, taking seventeen points from the meetings they’ve had so far with Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, City and Chelsea. High-profile fixtures for City in their last twelve matches include away games against United and Spurs and a visit to the Etihad from Chelsea.
City, meanwhile, have been far more sketchy in their form against bigger sides than United, with just ten points from an equivalent number of matches played. Regardless of City’s last few matches, however, United’s fixture list simply does not look threatening enough for them to drop twelve points between now and May. Perhaps the only hope for City is that United’s continuing European involvement tires them out sufficiently to force a slip.
If City should end up capitalising on a dip in form for United and have their name on the Premier League trophy come the end of the season, it will be a fairly searing injustice against the Premiership’s most successful club. United have played this season in brilliant league-winning form, not because they’ve dominated every match – they haven’t. What they have done is display a remarkable ability to win games even when playing below their best. They’ve won several matches through goals scored in the last ten minutes, including Robin Van Persie’s double against Southampton in September that secured a remarkable comeback victory for the Red Devils.
Such mental resilience and confidence that the team can score even as the minutes begin to die has been the difference this season. Or perhaps the difference has been Robin Van Persie, who could have gone to either club this summer and whose imperious goalscoring has made the difference to United on occasion after occasion, not least in United’s 3-2 victory over City in December.
The demonstration of a champion isn’t how they cope when playing well; it’s how they respond when playing badly, and United have provided the right response time and again.
At my primary school there were two groups: the Arsenal fans and the Manchester United fans. There were a few more exotic teams; West Ham weren’t even in the Premiership for a while. Being a hipster I went for an obscure team called, erm, Liverpool. But when Arsenal played Manchester United everyone cared, there was an acceptance that this would decide the title or, if the game was in the cup, would decide who would go on to defeat Newcastle/Liverpool/Chelsea in the final. This season is different though – the match today will not be the most important played this weekend. Ironically it’s the two teams’ local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, who will have a bigger impact on the title race when they meet at Eastlands. However when Wenger and Ferguson have met over the last decade or so the games have tended to define English football in some way.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal – FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999
Back in 1999 Sir Alex Ferguson still cared about the FA Cup. A year later he would choose to compete in the World Club Championships instead of the tournament, and a little bit of the ‘magic of the cup’ that pundits still obsess over was gone forever. As a last hurrah for the cup’s respectability though this was a fitting game. In hindsight this games seems like a microcosm of an era in English football; David Beckham scored with a curling effort from outside the box, Dennis Bergkamp equalised with a perfectly placed shot, Roy Keane got sent off and Phil Neville gave away a penalty. Oh and Ryan Giggs took his shirt off.
After this Manchester United went on to win the treble, still the pinnacle in Fergie’s career (the world club championships didn’t go too well) and in many ways the football landscape changed after this. Although it would be another six years until Roman Ambramovich funded Chelsea to the title they began pushing up the table before this, whilst Liverpool and Newcastle both found themselves challenging for trophies and European qualification; this game was the highlight of the monopoly these clubs had for a few years.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Arsenal, Premier League, 21st September 2003
‘Goals are overrated’ is the motto of the Blizzard, and this game definitely supports that theory. Unfortunately it’s not brilliant defensive tactics or two passing teams constantly outmanoeuvring each other that made this game stand out. Both sides did line up defensively, with Arsene Wenger dropping Pires and Wiltord for the less glamorous Parlour and Ljunberg whilst Manchester United played a 4-3-2-1, with Roy Keane taking command in a defensively minded midfield. Even with the likes of Cristano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistlerooy in attack United only managed five shots on target in the game. Arsenal, with Henry and Bergkamp leading the line managed none. Viera, rather predictably, received a red card but it was a last minute penalty that made this game infamous as Van Nistlerooy blasted against the crossbar. Arsenal’s players, dignified as ever, shouted, screamed and generally lost all human control right in front of the Dutch striker, cue the inevitable fight at the final whistle; both clubs had players charged by the FA whilst Arsenal were also charged with failing to control their players.
Once again it defined what was happening in English football. The actual match was in truth dull, with neither side creating enough chances to make it a classic in the way the 1999 game was. Arsenal were about to go on their ‘invincible’ streak of 49 league games without a loss, and you could see the nucleus of this determined team in the way Keown and Toure led the backline. Had Sol Campbell not been out for this game then perhaps Arsenal would have been even stronger. At the same time Manchester United was in one of their rebuilding phases – life in a post-Beckham world was not looking so great and Ronaldo was still finding his feet. There was also something to be said for the kind of player emerging; one of the fines issued to Ashley Cole was for ‘involvement in a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo after the final whistle’, a phrase that makes the skin crawl. The players were becoming more than media stars, they were objects of entertainment for our pleasure. More and more every aspect of their lives was ours and the likes of Ronaldo and Cole could propel themselves into the public eye through more than good performances. The way this game was called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’ highlights more than just the laziness of the media; it revealed that what the audience wanted was, more often than not, this kind of off the pitch event, rather than a great on the pitch performance.
Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal, Premier League, 28th August 2011
The moment Arsenal fans were dreading. After years of floating around meaninglessly, living only with the vague memories of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp and that invicible campaign that was so nearly bettered by Huddersfield, Arsenal finally had to live up to a decline. At the same time though, so does English football. Wenger’s continued insistence on a particular style of football was revolutionary when it first came. In fact I admire any team that sticks to its game plan, be they Barcelona with tikka takka or Jose Mourinho’s Inter with their calico style defending. However when that style doesn’t work something needs to be done. Since Wenger’s arrival nearly every club has adopted similar ideas, introducing nutrition programmes and different styles of training. Arsenal are no longer unique and, whilst they are undoubtedly a good team, Wenger’s insistence on his way and his methods will continue to hold them back.
The same is true of English football in general. Whilst we have rested on the laurels of our club teams’ Champions League performances for the last few years uncomfortable questions about the national team and the general state of football in England have gone unnoticed. Now, with Manchester United and Manchester City out of the Champions League, these questions are becoming less ignorable. The likes of Germany and Spain have already moved out of reach for the next few years at least, and the calls for Harry Redknapp to take over from Capello only make me despair even more. We seem unable to recognise the tactical side of the game, the side that requires a good manager and good teamwork instead of individual talent. Whilst we fail to understand this English football will remain in stagnation, like an Arsenal team who have been so content with ‘doing okay’ these past five years.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Chelsea gaffer AVB’s first few months at the Bridge have been a walk in the park but the Portuguese has defiantly fought back this week by attacking critics of defender David Luiz. He told Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, “You cannot approach a top Brazil central defender saying he’s commanded by a kid with a PlayStation. That’s ridiculous.” With AVB appearing more Mourinho than Scolari, the OxStu Sport team have searched through the depths of YouTube to pick out some of the best managerial outbursts.
(Disclaimer: some of the clips contain explicit language)
5) Only Fools and Curses
Harry Redknapp is well known for his wheeling and dealing in the transfer market – the likes of Jermaine Defoe, Paulo Di Canio and Rafael Van Der Vaart have all been cracking signings for his clubs (let’s forget about the brilliantly-named Marco Boogers). He’s also been able to offload some talented individuals for serious money – most notably Rio Ferdinand from West Ham to Leeds for a then-British record of £18m. According to BackPageFootball, throughout his managerial career Harry Redknapp ‘has spent £226.93 million and recouped £230.37 million.’ But, apparently, he’s not very fond of this reputation…
Harry refutes claims that he’ll be starring as Del Boy in a remake of Only Fools and Horses by reminding us that he is, in fact, a football manager.
4) I’ve had a word with FIFA, and they’re gonna move Christmas
The English footballing community was a tad miffed when it didn’t win the bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Despite FIFA President Sepp Blatter describing England’s star-studded presentation as “excellent and remarkable”, the nation only received two votes with Russia winning. There was even more controversy when Qatar won the 2022 bid, only for UEFA boss Michel Platini to suggest that the summer tournament be moved to winter when, temperatures are cooler. Just as its world was about to be turned upside down, up stepped football’s very own knight in shining armour: Ian Holloway…
Olly’s theatrical press conferences and interviews were one of the highlights of the 2010-11 Premier League season, and the Blackpool gaffer didn’t disappoint when he turned his attention to FIFA!
3) Rafa wants to talk about about ‘Facts’
Rafa’s Liverpool are 4 points clear at the top of the Premiership. Winning the Champions League and the FA Cup cleared a space in the Anfield trophy cabinet for the Reds’ first league title in 20 years. Manchester United, the holders for the past two seasons, are languishing in 4th, 8 points behind their rivals. With the footballing world waiting for Fergie to play his infamous mind-games with his latest challenger, a seemingly-unprovoked Rafa makes the first move…
Like an overly-keen history undergrad squirreled away in the library for weeks on end, Rafa turns up to his tute armed with ‘facts’ – a series of incidents where Alex Ferguson complained about the hectic Premier League schedule. Unfortunately, instead of a tutor, Rafa was up against Britain’s top sports writers. They watched on as the Liverpool gaffer appeared to crack under the pressure of the title race – pretty much handing a third successive title to United. “I do not want to play mind games too early,” said Benitez, before doing exactly that.
2) “I will love it we beat them”
It’s the 95-6 season. With 15 games to go, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle have opened up a 12-point lead on Man U. But Alex Ferguson’s young side, title winners in 1993 and 1994, don’t want to finish second after missing out to Blackburn the previous season. Sensationally, United overhaul the deficit and go into the last game of the season just two points ahead of the Toon. With Keegan under pressure, Fergie suggests that teams try harder against United than they do against Newcastle…
Consistently named as one of football’s most famous moments, Keegan cracked live on telly and declared, “I will love it we beat them – love it!” Unfortunately for Kev, United won 3-0 at Middlesbrough and secured a third title in four years – Newcastle are yet to be crowned champions.
1) Bring yer dinner
Leyton Orient manager John Sitton is under pressure with his side in the relegation zone. The club itself is in dire financial crisis as chairman Tony Wood loses his coffee business in the Rwandan Civil War. At the time Channel 4 are making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the club and the cameras are rolling inside the dressing room when the O’s are 1-0 down at home to Blackpool…
After an appalling first half some gaffers make three subs at half-time while others send their players straight back out. When at Hull, Phil Brown even conducted his half-time team-talk on the pitch. John Sitton responded to the performance which was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ by sensationally sacking fan favourite Terry Howard in his half-time rant and threatening two more players. New chairman Barry Hearn swiftly removed Sitton who hasn’t managed since.
It’s fair to suggest that Manchester United’s start to the season has given everyone cause to be wary. To say it’s been a hot start for Ferguson’s side would appear to be an understatement. The seamless assimilation of new blood, whether transferred or promoted, has produced some exceptionally fluid, eye-catching football.
Amongst many other positives, the flexibility of the front four has been notable. Ashley Young has been a revelation. His menacing delivery from the left has brought its expected benefits, but it’s his contribution to the sharpness of United’s attacking moves that has really impressed. The relationship between him and Rooney is a strong example of his value in this department. Rooney himself has been extraordinary. His goal-scoring feats, mighty impressive as they have been, have barely been the half of it. His ability to find space and link-up the play has been crucial, but more important has been the tempo he sets at the heart of United’s attack – something that was conspicuous in its absence last Saturday in the 1-1 draw with Stoke.
Indeed, the tempo of the entire side appears to have gone up several gears. The midfield now hinges on the dynamism of Anderson rather than the artful precision of Paul Scholes, and, with Chris Smalling regularly bursting down the right and Tom Cleverley frequently weaving his way forward, the contrast looks even starker. Such is the change in direction for United that it is their style of football, rather than Arsenal’s, that is now drawing comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
United have indeed given cause for everyone to be wary – and that includes fans of the Red Devils themselves.
The various comparisons that have made with Barcelona are both wide of the mark and lazy. The key to the success of the ‘blaugrana’ isn’t so much in pretty passing patterns as in their ability to control games and choke opponents into submission. And for all their brilliance thus far, United have failed to control a game in the manner of Barcelona. Possession statistics can be misleading in this respect, because despite being the dominant passing side in all of their five Premier League encounters thus far – and achieving an average possession percentage of 57% – such dominance has not had the suffocating effects that it might have done.
True, United have conceded only five goals in seven games, but the openness of each fixture led to the concession of over twenty shots in four of their first five games. To offer an apt comparison, when United lost to Arsenal in May they allowed a mere ten shots; and in the one victory from last season that comes close to mirroring the goal-heavy scorelines characterising this season’s start, the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn, only four goal attempts were registered by the visiting side. The reputation David de Gea has as a poor long-shot stopper means teams are shooting from positions they otherwise would not have done.
United are winning games, perceptibly quite comfortably, but they are not controlling games. Barcelona manage this so totally because of their ability to press intensely from the front as a unit, so it is only natural that it should take this side longer to gel as a defensive entity than an attacking one. But part of the problem lies with the fluid 4-4-2 formation Ferguson employs, which naturally leaves the centre of midfield more exposed, especially as Rooney – so willing to drop into midfield to receive the ball and start attacks – seems to have been given license not to drop back and defend. Another issue is Tom Cleverley, who, for all his talents as a retainer and carrier of the ball, does not appear to read the game as well from a defensive point of view as he does from a more attacking perspective.
Moreover, Ferguson’s previous emphasis on tactical variety seems to have been thrown out the window.Last season, following the arrival of Hernandez on the goalscoring scene, Ferguson pretty much started with the same shape and the same emphasis – to go for it. In games towards the back-end of last season against Chelsea, Arsenal and, most unwisely of the lot, Barcelona, United set out with two strikers and tried to fight fire with fire. This year it appears to be the same, although it may be too early to predict what will happen as the Champions League progresses.
So far this season, Ferguson’s side has escaped relatively unblemished. This is certainly the most entertaining side that Ferguson has produced, and they clearly have the potential to be a great side. But the openness he appears to be encouraging has already resulted in some pretty sticky encounters. The Chelsea fixture highlighted just how narrow the margins can be when high-risk strategies are pursued against quality outfits. Andre Villas-Boas’ side are clearly going through a transition, and one might question whether Manchester City with all their attacking talent and defensive capability would let United off the hook so freely.
This year like no other, the final of the Champions League could hardly do more to reflect the pattern of dominance present in the domestic game. Where the early 2000s saw Bayern, Madrid, and the Italian sides regularly define seasons with their success, the last six or seven years have unquestionably been the era of Barcelona and Manchester United. Serial winners of their respective domestic leagues, these two European giants have also started sprawling themselves over the latter stages of the Champions League year in year out.
It seems more than two years ago that this fixture last drew the domestic season to a close. So much has changed within that space of time. The omnipresence of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona’s core should not obscure the subtle changes to the Catalans’ 2011 mould. Messi himself has risen meteorically in stature. His rebirth as a false #9, the spearhead of Barcelona’s attack, and his subsequently remarkable goal-scoring achievements, has surely seen him complete his previously inevitable procession to the pantheon of inter-generational greats. Elsewhere, Sergio Busquets has matured in his defensive-midfield/centre-back hybrid; Pedro has cemented his reputation as one of the best forwards in the game; David Villa has added a certain sharpness to the striking trio which, although hardly lacking before, has been valuable; and Guardiola himself has gone a long way to proving himself as one of the greatest innovators of the modern era. They are also a much, much better side, and a side that’s full to the brim on confidence.
Clearly though, the changes are far more obvious within the United set-up. The team itself has been very hard to predict; Ferguson rarely elects to play the same XI in consecutive games. The obvious catalyst was Ronaldo’s departure, making the talents and temperament of Wayne Rooney far more central to the side’s functioning. But if ever a team was struggling for an identity it would surely be this side. Over the last two seasons it’s been near-impossible to identify what’s been consistent about United, let alone what’s been so consistently good about them. This season, the breathtakingly mercurial performances (7-1 at home to Blackburn and the two Schalke ties) have juxtaposed awkwardly with some atrociously lacklustre efforts, but most surprising has been the uncharacteristic defensive frailty and mental fragility that’s occasionally crept onto the scene (think back to the leads thrown away against Fulham and Everton last autumn). The one constant factor, and probably United’s biggest asset of late, has been Ferguson, who above all else seems to get his players to perform when the situation requires.
What to expect
Whereas the 2009 affair was billed as an advert for the beautiful game with attacking starlets lining up on
either side, this time around we can expect a far less exotic display. Barcelona are probably one of the most consistent teams of all time in terms of their approach to the game; the following passage isn’t just lazy journalism. They will hold a high line, dictate the tempo and shift the ball around until an opening arises. It will be all Barcelona from the off, and their self- imposed quest to better their possession statistics in each game will undoubtedly be on show. They will couple this strategy on the ball with possibly the most intense off-the-ball pressing game football’s ever witnessed (just ask Michael Carrick).
More interesting will be the approach Ferguson elects to pursue. In 2009 United were the favourites. They had Ronaldo, they had Vidic and Ferdinand, they had the experience of beating Barcelona the previous season and, of course, were returning Champions. Barcelona were unproven. Guardiola was still in his first season, and the glaring deficiencies of Madrid and every other Spanish Primera side made it hard to gauge the extent of their successes in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Ferguson got arrogant; he departed from the tactics inherited from his deputy Carlos Quieroz (employed against Rijkaard’s 2008 outfit) thinking he could better Xavi and Iniesta at their own game with Carrick, Giggs, and Anderson. Since then, Barcelona have been widely recognised as one of the greats, the core of the Catalan club effectively won Spain the World Cup last summer, and one man has persistently illuminated the way to beat them. Real Madrid may not have defeated Barcelona in the semi-finals, but if the recent succession of riveting clasicos has taught us anything it’s that Mourinho’s strategy is as good as gold when it comes to halting Guardiola’s men. In style, Mourinho hasn’t really done anything that Ferguson didn’t do in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, nor has he improved much on Guus Hiddink’s tactical approach utilised by Chelsea in their semi with Barca back in 2009. Mourinho has, however, done it consistently (barring the monumental blunder back in November after Ferguson-levels of tactical arrogance were unwisely pursued) and he’s done it against a much better Barcelona outfit. Last season’s showcase of defensive majesty in charge of Inter was something to behold, even if it provided a fairly dull neutral spectacle. Sitting deep, allowing Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi time and space on the ball only in unthreatening areas, pressing full-backs Alves and (probably) Abidal fiercely from the front, and relying on the central midfielders to intercept and track runs from midfield while preparing to hit them like a bullet on the counter seems to be the modus operandi when it comes to toppling Barcelona.
But will Ferguson’s arrogance get the better of him again? The signs are unclear: Sir Alex recently departed from the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation so regularly employed against Arsenal so as to accommodate the talents of Javier Hernandez. As expected, Arsenal’s superior manipulation of the newly-afforded space left United losers for the first time in 5 games against the Gunners. Such a move against Barcelona would surely condemn the Reds to another obliteration at the hands of Messi and Guardiola. But it is a genuine selection dilemma. Hernandez has been one of the top performers of this year’s campaign, scoring goals against opposition of all quality. Leaving him on the bench along with (as appears to be the trend in “big” games) Nani will leave United slightly shy in the goal-scoring department.
Ferguson won’t risk starting Hernandez, and will set out in sensible fashion with the following side to counter the predictable Barcelona XI:
Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher/Anderson (pending on Fletcher’s fitness issues), Giggs; Park, Valencia; Rooney