Ferguson’s new Euro challenge
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.