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Moyes the man to evolve Ferguson’s legacy

May 13, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 51 comments
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José Mourinho was never a smart choice to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scot who departed Old Trafford as Manchester United manager for the final time on Sunday. Mourinho may be the biggest managerial name in world football, Sir Alex aside, but contrary to popular opinion would never have been a good fit in Manchester – the Portuguese would have significantly clashed with the system set in place by Ferguson over two decades.

Built and moulded in the outgoing manager’s image,  United’s top-down structure would have inhibited Mourinho. One needs only to look at examples from two of Mourinho’s old flames – Chelsea and Inter – for examples of how the system can limit a coach’s success. Mourinho achieved great things in west London and Milan by creating a coaching set up to his exacting specifications. Those managers who followed the 50-year-old to Inter anad Chelsea crashed and burned, haunted by Mourinho’s spectre.

There will be a presence at Old Trafford too of course. Mourinho has proven to be an outstanding manager over the past decade, but Ferguson is simply greater. Ferguson’s legacy, especially with the former Aberdeen manager remaining at the club in an ambassadorial role, would have doomed Mourinho to the same fate as his successors.

This may not be true of David Moyes, whose lack of ego means that he is more willing to work with the system in place. If anything the Scot may deal with Ferguson’s heritage better than Mourinho. Arriving from a smaller, less sophisticated club, Moyes is already familiar with working within the confines set by others, financial or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Moyes’ limitations should be no barrier to future success. True, the 50-year-old’s European experience is limited, but that is not as concerning as it may first appear. After all, United should be too good and experienced not to qualify from Champions League group stages next season, whomever the coach.

United’s 2011/12 European campaign was a disaster, and Manchester City, with arguably a better squad, failed to qualify beyond the group stage two years in the row. Yet, United’s players are well seasoned in Europe, unlike the Blues.

Beyond the group stage matches fall victim to the vagaries of chance more than most, which has haunted Ferguson over the years. Paul Scholes’ goal against Porto in 2004 springs to mind, incongruously ruled offside in the game against Porto that made Mourinho’s career.

Certainly, a tactician of Mourinho’s quality can prove the edge in key matches, but it may behoove United supporters not to write off Moyes too quickly. After all, caution is key in European matches – a trait in which the Scot is well-versed.

Moreover, it is highly advantageous that Moyes has been managing in the Premier League for more than a decade. Europe holds the glamour, but domestic superiority is always United’s priority. Not least because the financial rewards are now greater than in the Champions League. Moyes knows how to navigate difficult domestic ties; one of his main rivals for the top job, Jürgen Klopp, doesn’t.

And if Moyes’ tactical approach is cautious, so too is United’s executive branch. In 1986 United’s board could afford to gamble on Sir Alex taking to life in England. This is no longer the case. With millions of fans worldwide, and more than £300 million in debt, the club must continue to be successful to maintain its current station in world football. The club could not have appointed a coach with limited Premier League experience.

Ferguson, whether by design or disposition – his diligence and desire for control are well documented – is a manager in its truest sense. The 71-year-old secured a hand in everything from the first team to the Megastore. Over the years Fergie has delegated some of responsibilities, but has always remained United’s ‘manager.’

This system is a British tradition. Meanwhile, continental clubs have long abandoned the practice of an omnipotent head, stripping managers of all duties bar first team training and matches. It would have been foolish at this stage to bring in a new coach from continental Europe with a retinue and little understanding of the United way. Moyes probably won’t fulfil all of Ferguson’s extensive responsibilities, but he’ll be receptive to doing most.

In this sense Ferguson’s retirement is an opportunity for the club too. There may never again be a true manager running United in Sir Alex’ mould, partly because  the club has become more complex, but mostly because managers are simply being trained to be ‘head coaches.’

But the club also needs prepare for the future. United will have to adapt by gently introducing more people into the back room. This may inevitably culminate in the club hiring a director of football down the line. After all, the benefits of specialisation and division of labour had long been obvious before Adam Smith’s pin factory.

Part of Ferguson’s genius lies in his adaptability – the Scot survived 26 years in his job because he continued to adjust. Moyes will not last that long, because he is already 50. But as football evolves there is no guarantee that Moyes will keep up as well as Ferguson has previously done.

Conceivably United will have to hire Moyes’ replacement within the next decade. Without a continental style system place, the club will find very limited room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis hiring the new man.

For now though, United has appointed a manager very much in Ferguson’s hue.

Ferguson’s new Euro challenge

May 2, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 28 comments
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The United States naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team Six, became famous for killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011. SEAL Team Six, along with its brother unit DELTA, is responsible for eliminating some 3000 alleged terrorists and capturing 9000 more during its deployment in Iraq.

During the war, the elite counter-terrorism unit operated under the mantra of “surprise, speed and violence of action” and it is staggering to think just how violent they must have been – 3000 killed by a few scores of soldiers. Despite the ‘success’, SEAL Team Six has since adopted a new code as its modus operandi – “silence, stealth and decisiveness of action.”

It is beyond the scope of this post, nor is United Rant a proper place, to discuss exactly why, but the SEALs’ change of direction should be rather familiar to Manchester United fans.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s stewardship, United has won two European Cups. Yet, the change in tactical approach between successes has been stark.

Take, for example, the 1998/99 season in which the Reds scored 29 and conceded 16 over the Champions League campaign. By contrast, Ferguson’s 2007/08 side scored 20 and conceded six. The reigning English champions scored nine more, despite playing two games less in ’99, and conceded 10 more in the treble-winning season compared to nearly a decade later.

The explanation for the switch from profligacy to parsimony comes in Ferguson’s change of approach.

The tactics deployed by Ferguson in ‘99 were fairly basic – a classic 4-4-2, although some, including Sky pundit Gary Neville, argue that with Dwight Yorke deployed in the hole Ferguson’s formation was closer to 4-4-1-1.

Whatever the formation, it was also a phenomenally tough side. The second leg of the semi-final against Juventus encapsulates the spirit of the side perfectly. While the game is, of course, remembered for Roy Keane’s heroics, to “modern” eyes it is also absolutely astounding just how violent the game was.

Watching the game one again it is noticeable how basic the vertical ‘box-to-box’ runs of Ferguson’s players were. There are no fancy false nines, nor an inverted winger. And while there was little choice with the Scot’s team two goals down, United’s sheer attacking verve is breathtaking – the ball just keeps going forward.

Contrast United’s performance at Stadio Della Alpi to the away game against AS Roma in ‘07/08. Right off the bat the side was infinitely more complex. Cristiano Ronaldo featured upfront as a false nine. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park were deployed as defensive wingers. And the midfield three of Anderson, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes did not include an old-fashioned defensive midfielder in Keane’s considerable mould at all.

The game was far more measured. Players didn’t just run in straight lines – instead, they covered each other and tried to progress carefully, with advanced players offering much subtler runs than Yorke or Andy Cole ever did. The game, notwithstanding Ronaldo’s great header, was won mainly on the chalkboard. In fact, Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox declares that “[the game against Roma] will go down as one of the great away performances in Europe by an English club.”

Correctly or otherwise, Ferguson considered the gung-ho style of football United played in Europe as a hindrance to further success in the continent’s premier competition. Or in other words, “surprise, speed and violence of action” could no longer be the order of the day when the manager wanted far more “decisiveness.”

Ferguson was proven right in his conviction when United defeated Chelsea in 2008. Had it not been for the emergence of Lionel Messi-led Barcelona – possibly the greatest team ever assembled – the Scot might have even added one or two more Champions League wins in the past five years.

United’s stark evolution in that decade owes much to the modern media era. Television brings almost any match on the planet to the viewer. Indeed, television has taken geography out of scouting and analysis.

And with so many eyes and brains, with so much money on the line, football is evolving quicker than ever. For example, the blistering pressing game buttressed by careful possession of the ball, championed by Barcelona and used so effectively by Spain, is already in decline.

The modern way has evolved again. Instead, “hip” teams now press hard when the opposition goalkeeper has the ball. The concept is to stop opposition from building from the back, forcing the ‘keeper to launch the ball long, with defenders dropping back and picking up opposition players. After all, why waste energy chasing the ball when one can prevent the ball from ever reaching an opposition player?

Bayern Munich showed how effective the idea is by hammering Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semi-final last week and repeating the trick at Camp Nou.

While Ferguson evolved his side in the decade from the ’99 victory, the game as a whole has changed from being “violent” to being “decisive.” It seems that in his final years as United manager, Ferguson, now 71, has another challenge to meet.

Kagawa may be permanently consigned to the left

April 18, 2013 Tags: Opinion 75 comments
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There should be no doubting Shinji Kagawa’s class. During the 2011/2012 season he was a genuine contender for the best player in the Bundesliga – a title that went to Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marco Reus, the player who would replace Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund. The campaign marked the pinnacle of the Japanese player’s career to date.

Kagawa, who started his career as a defensive midfielder in the second tier of Japanese football, was initially deployed as a goal-scoring attacking midfielder at Dortmund. That changed with the absence of Nuri Sahin and Mario Gotze in Kagawa’s second season at the German club, which forced the Japanese to share the playmaking duty as well.

​Kagawa excelled in the role.

The Japan international is quick, agile, technically sound and intelligent. Combined with his excellent work ethic, these traits made him a highly effective playmaker. In fact, towards the end of Kagawa’s two year tenure at Dortmund, BVB manager Jürgen Klopp relieved him of all defensive duties and had him just prowl the field.

The former Cerezo Osaka player took up good positions, waited for the ball to find him and launched devastating counterattacks with the sort of quick, incisive passing Manchester United fans have seen just glimpses of to date.

​Sir Alex Ferguson clearly intended to use Kagawa as a number 10. The midfielder was deployed in the position throughout United’s pre-season programme. The trend continued when the Premier League started, Kagawa impressing many in United’s defeat at Everton on the opening day.

But he was soon back on the bench even as Wayne Rooney, the incumbent number 10, struggled to regain fitness. As it turns out, the Japanese failed to make impact and ended up injured himself.

​Since returning from injury Kagawa has been primarily used on the left. The form, or rather lack of it, of United’s wide players might have prompted Ferguson’s thinking, but given the Japanese has been used in such a specific way by the United manager there might actually be a genuine, tactical aim behind the move.

​Kagawa nominally starts on the left flank, but rarely hits the byline as a traditional winger might. Nor does he attack the box as ‘inverted’ wingers are wont to do. Instead, Kagawa almost invariably quickly drifts infield, offering a passing option in the middle. In United’s recent game against Stoke City, for example, the former Dortmund player often dropped back into United’s half in search of space and the ball.

​Deploying a nominal winger to retain the ball in the middle is not new. Andreas Iniesta performs the same role for both Barcelona and Spain. David Silva and Samir Nasri play the same role at Manchester City. Sir Alex has used Ryan Giggs in the role many times in the recent era. In fact, a modern history of ‘ball retaining wingers’ at United goes all the way back to the early noughties when Paul Scholes occasionally found himself on the left flank.

​Kagawa hasn’t yet convinced the fans that he can do a good job on the left. More enlightened United supporters argue that he can’t show his true worth as a left winger, citing Kagawa’s indifferent form on the left for Japan.

The key to this argument is that playmakers do their best work when the play is directed through them – the more time on the ball, the better the playmaker’s influence on the game. In fact, it is an argument that Kagawa made himself, shortly after joining the club.

“We seem to pass the ball sideways a lot,” said the 24-year-old. “I want team-mates to start giving me the ball from all areas and angles. I need to speak to them about this, because I want them to have the trust in me to play the ball forward. ”

Adding more recently: “I have the most experience from my time at Dortmund in playing behind the striker. However, I just want to be part of the team, I will play wherever the manager wants to me to play”

​The argument is true, but United’s players are more accustomed to channeling attacks through the flanks than through a central playmaker. Kagawa might even see more of the ball on the left than in the middle.

After all, while ​Kagawa starts on the left his movement into the middle can allow United a moment of dominance in central midfield. And there are few players in the world better than Robin Van Persie at making something of the inevitable through pass or quick one-two that takes the ball into the box.

​If Kagawa’s deployment on the left is indeed purposeful rather than temporary, the United manager must look at options during the summer to better take advantage of it.

​Key is a central midfielder who can break through the lines, adding further dominance in the attacking midfield area. Tom Cleverley certainly makes clever runs, but he is physically unimposing and lacks finishing skills. A midfielder who can strongly challenge for 50-50 balls and shoot from distance might also be welcome.

​Priority, however, lies on the other flank. If United play through Kagawa, and only Kagawa, it will be easy for opponents to stop. On the opposite flank, United’s right-winger must do his share of attacking to provide variety and unpredictability. The classic winger vis-à-vis Antonio Valencia at his peak would certainly do.

With Rafael da Silva more than capable of attacking the byline and providing crosses, a right-winger who looks to cut in and attack the box would also fit in well. It remains to be seen whether Wilfried Zaha, who primarily plays on the right, but cuts inside, can be groomed into a United quality winger of this variety.

Declining Rooney an asset to realise

March 16, 2013 Tags: Opinion 50 comments
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It is difficult to accept but the current Manchester United side is simply not good enough to impose its style on other teams. No shame in that though – only one team in the world, Barcelona, is capable of doing that. So broadly speaking, Sir Alex Ferguson faces two options: maximising the team’s attacking potential to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses or setting out to defend and minimise opponents’ chances of scoring.

Complexity of the modern game is such that those two ‘ideals’ often actualise to the same time. In the recent tie against Real Madrid, for example, the Scot pitted Nani, United’s best dribbler, against Alvaro Arbeloa, the weak link in any Real Madrid line-up. At the same time, the manager deployed Danny Welbeck to take Xabi Alonso, the metronome of Real Madrid’s attacking play, out of the game. This is a job that would normally have been given to Wayne Rooney, who was surprisingly found on the bench.

Rooney has since started, and scored against, both Chelsea and Reading to quell media stories of a summer departure, but questions about his worth remain.

Time flies. Wayne “remember the name” Rooney is now 27. The two-time winner of the English player of the year, Rooney has enjoyed a storied career, but there is no denying that more was expected of him. The striker is one of the best, but he should have been among the very best – up there with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the game’s élite. Instead, at least in the big games, the Englishman is more often charged with doing the defensive work.

Jonathan Wilson of Inverting the Pyramid fame once described Rooney as an “advanced box-to-box player.” Rooney has become something of a jack of all trades. His all-roundedness has been a great asset though. When playing as a number ten, Rooney harnesses his goal-scoring instincts to great effects. As a striker, he helps out in midfield.

In fact, it is this versatility that enables Ferguson to use Rooney to nullify opposition threat. Ji-Sung Park, and to lesser extent Antonio Valencia, have also been used in the same role, but offer less attacking prowess than the United number 10. The Scot can deploy Rooney to babysit the opposition left-back, for example, and count on the player to be an active and devastating participant in counter-attack.

Lately though, Rooney has been dropping the ball defensively. In the 2010/11 Champions League final against Barcelona he left Sergio Busquets free, which allowed Barcelona to completely dominate midfield. Against Italy in Euro 2012, Rooney’s nonchalant marking of Andrea Pirlo instigated Joe Hart to publicly chastise the England striker.

Just a few weeks ago, Rooney’s failure to stick to Fabio Coentrao resulted, among others, in a shot that forced an exceptional save from David De Gea.

One major problem, perhaps the major problem, is the decline in Rooney’s physical assets. The former Evertonian has lost a yard of pace and can no longer cover the occasional lapse in defensive positioning. Rooney, wanting perhaps to be more of a fulcrum, could very well be fed up with being a defensive player shunted out to the flanks, although this theory is directly at odds with his chasing of ‘lost causes’ during games. Ferguson is too canny a man manager to deploy someone of that mindset to do the dirty work anyway.

This deterioration of physical attributes carries worrying repercussions. Rooney has never been the greatest technically; never a trickster in the Messi mould. Instead, he used his pace and agility to get past players. With this blistering pace under question, it is becoming rarer that Rooney beats his man.

The Champions League is – pardon the Americanism – a whole other ball game than the Premier League. For one, teams at the business end of the tournament are of better quality. In turn, the competition causes teams, wary of the opposition threat, to be more defensive and patient. More sides have come to adopt a counter-attacking mindset and, in turn, it causes a vicious cycle of ever deeper play.

Additionally, some managers have begun deploying players to limit the influences of deep-lying midfielders and fullbacks, whose influence grows as the play is stretched.

In this context it has become harder to trust Rooney with the defensive job – Sir Alex’ decision to use Danny Welbeck over the former Everton player to mark Alonso in the recent tie against Madrid at Old Trafford is proof.

In fact Rooney’s primacy in any position is under threat. He no longer has the pace to trouble other teams in the counterattack. Welbeck, however, does. Javier Hernández and Robin Van Persie are better finishers, while in Shinji Kagawa United has a number ten who is faster, smarter and more technically gifted than Rooney.

The Englishman edges each in physical strength, but European referees are happier than Premier League counterparts to blow the whistle.

There is no denying that Rooney is still a fine all-round player and one exceptionally suited for the Premier League. Few are ready to discard the 28-year-old from United’s squad, but there are equally plenty of questions to answer.

Slowly but surely Rooney’s physical decline will accelerate – not aided by the fact that he does not take good care of his body. This is more than troubling.

By contrast Ryan Giggs’ physical decline is more than made up by excellent technical skills and better understanding of the game. Rooney has shown no sign of improvement in these fields.

United is big enough that the Reds can afford to keep Rooney around – even at the reported £250,000 per week – but Rooney’s is an asset that is also at its peak. Which begs the question: should United sell?

Despite United’s huge Premier League lead, Ferguson may still spend in the summer. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are limited at best, while Luis Nani is erratic and could very well be gone by the start of next season anyway. Given the importance of width in the modern game, United desperately needs some new stardust in the area considering Wilfred Zaha is still raw.

In midfield, Michael Carrick’s successor will be required sooner or later. Despite letting his colleagues do the harrying, Carrick often tops the ‘ground covered’ charts because he is constantly on the move, closing down angles and taking up good positions. In fact, deep-lying playmakers are so important that Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox considers Carrick’s absence as one of key reasons why United was knocked out of the Champions League last season. Replacing the Geordie will be undoubtedly expensive.

Moreover, in Rooney United has an asset that has every possibility of depreciating sharply. With additions needed in the squad, and relatively little money to spend, there is a solid argument to letting Rooney go – after all there are already players within the squad who can more or less replicate his contribution.