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Caution marks a new United way

October 3, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 9 comments
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“We didn’t play for a draw, we played to win,” insisted Manchester United manager David Moyes as the Donass Arena emptied on Wednesday night. It’s the way he tells them, with not a flicker in the straightest face.

It was the second conference in succession that the Scot had drawn mirth from the gathered fourth estate. Little more than 24 hours previously Moyes had spoken of his time at Preston North End as if five years in charge of the Lancashire outfit was ample preparation for a difficult start Old Trafford.

Justification in the conceit came with a point claimed – the first Champions League draw any Premier League side has taken at the Donbass in the decade since Shaktar Donetsk dispatched Arsenal to emerge onto the European scene.

It was a point earned as Moyes’ side returned to the Scot’s coaching roots. Defensively, United’s back-to-basics approach, disciplined shape, and much improved performances were far superior to recent matches against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City. The Reds rarely looked under pressure even as a decent Shaktar outfit hogged possession in a tense second half.

But defending has only ever been one half of the game. The ying to a creative yang that is seemingly missing from United’s game under the new manager.

United stepped a point closer to the Champions League knock-out stages, but this was a side that managed just a single shot on target in eastern Ukraine, with just 42 per cent possession gained.

Moyes recounts a contradictory tale, but this was a United side content to wholly concede the impetus against Europe’s 15th-ranked team. And contrary to popular myth Shaktar has won just two home games in the past two years in this competition.

It was as if Moyes didn’t truly believe United could win. On Monday Moyes argued that United is “five or six players” short of winning the tournament. Wednesday served to underline the Scot’s point.

Still, time may prove the draw valuable in Group A, although the attitude said as much about United’s form and ambition in this year’s Champions League as the hosts’ quality.

“There’s a bit of disappointment that we didn’t see the game out,” the United manager said.

“But Shakhtar had a lot of pressure in the second half. I don’t think they really worried us but unfortunately in the end we gave away a goal. We had to be harder to play against than we have in recent games, and overall we were.”

United was certainly that.

Compact and disciplined, United rarely looked over-run in midfield – an area where Moyes’ side had suffered in successive Premier League defeats. Michael Carrick, sat at the base of United’s diamond, with Marouanne Fellaini and Tom Cleverley providing energy in midfield, to ensure United remained competitive throughout. It was an thoroughly conservative approach.

Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia remained vigilant on the wings, although the Ecuadorian failed to track his man as Shaktar equalised with 15 to go.

Fellaini, meanwhile, created an opportunist goal, spinning away from his marker to deliver a low cross that Welbeck stabbed home, although it was the Belgian’s sole contribution of note in a sloppy performance that lasted just over an hour.

Indeed, now a little over a month into his United career, the Belgian’s acquisition has created more questions than solutions provided. While the 25-year-old rarely tackles, and is far from a natural defender, he has contributed little in the attacking third either.

More concerning still, the midfielder’s lack of pace is such that Reds recalling the marauding forward, who caused United’s back four so much trouble at Goodison Park last season, might have caused to reconsider the memory.

The approach also left Robin van Persie desperately isolated – a lone striker too often half a  pitch away from his colleagues. Little wonder United was reduced to feeding off semi chances and set-pieces.

Still, there were positives, not least a far more commanding performance from captain Nemanja Vidić than has been delivered of late. Vidić has suffered three serious knee injuries in recent seasons, blunting the Serbian’s pace, and forcing United’s back-four to defend ever deeper – a factor that for once suited Moyes’ tactics in Donetsk.

“We were hard to beat in all positions, not just at the back, but in midfield and wide, and that’s the way we have to play,” said the 31-year-old.

“We have to accept it has not been a great start. We have not been getting the performances we would have liked and we also have to be realistic enough to accept we have made some mistakes.

“Sometimes the results don’t come. Sometimes the performances don’t come. The most important thing is to defend right. If we defend well, I think we have a really good chance to win trophies.”

It is a sentiment with which his manager will concur. Moyes in a microcosm; a defender’s perspective on coaching, from a man who preached shape first in a decade at Everton. Function over form and substance often in lieu of style.

Expect not a return to United’s swashbuckling displays of the late 1990s, nor the panche of the 2008 trophy winning side. But then Moyes does not possess the same wealth of creative talent as Sir Alex Ferguson, nor hold a bank of credit that would enable the 50-year-old to take greater risks in his first European season.

This United side may have to come out of its shell if the Reds are to progress to the tournament’s latter stages, but for now supporters can expect a more pragmatic style than ever. This is an observation underlined by Moyes’ 90th minute substitution: defender Phil Jones for goalscorer Welbeck.

Yet, pragmatism and United remain uneasy bedfellows. While Sir Alex evolved United’s style to match the most circumspect on the continent it is one thing to park the bus at Camp Nou, as United successfully achieved in 2008, quite another to match the feat at Shaktar.

Preview: Shaktar Donetsk v United

October 1, 2013 Tags: , Matches 6 comments
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He is a man under pressure, criticised for a lacklustre performance in the summer transfer market, and suffering a disappointing start to the new season on the pitch. But enough talk of veteran Shaktar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu, it is David Moyes that desperately needs a result in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday night.

Lucescu lost the not inconsiderable talents of Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the the summer, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund spending more than £50 million on the pair. Meanwhile two defeats in the opening 11 matches of the Ukrainian league leave Shaktar behind rivals Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Yet, it is Moyes, following successive and hugely damaging Premier League defeats, that desperately seeks not only the respite of European football, but a morale boosting victory at the 50,000-seat Donbass Arena.

There is, of course, a match amid the lurid headlines and loom-laden predictions enveloping United since the 4-1 defeat at Manchester City, with the Reds seeking another step towards qualification from Group A.

United put four past Bayer Levekusen on Champions League matchday one, but with Real Sociedad also in the group there are unlikely to be too many free points in this year’s group stage. Not least with United struggling for form so early in the season.

Still, Moyes seemingly remains calm; confident that his methods will eventually secure the results United’s sub-par performances have rarely merited to date this season.

“I have been in situations very similar to this at my old clubs Everton and also at Preston. You get on and you do the right things,” said the 50-year-old, who is in his first Champions League campaign.

“I haven’t changed what I have done. I will continue to do that. The results will come. I have no doubt about that. We are getting to know [the players], we are understanding them much more. I am beginning to get a better feel for them all. I know one thing about them. They are really good players, top players they are. That will never change.”

Moyes struck a more assertive tone on Tuesday, following the Scot’s earlier assertion that his side was “five or six world-class players” short of winning the Champions League. Indeed, the defeatist attitude had rung loud all week, with Moyes previously claiming that United’s 20th league title victory last season was largely due to the “poor” quality of opponent.

Indeed, the new United manager is seemingly learning the ropes daily, not least when it comes to media interest in the club. From Moyes’ anointment by Sir Alex Ferguson, to a baffling summer transfer market circus, Moyes is yet to find his own voice as the key man at Old Trafford.

“It is always the thing at Manchester United – everyone is interested in them. It is talking point for everybody throughout the world,” admits the Scot.

“That is why it is, for me, the greatest club. It is a great honour to be the manager. Even our arrival here in Donetsk has been greeted with a lot of supporters at the airport. It is a great thing.”

Shaktar Donetsk v Manchester United - Champions League, Donbass Arena - 7.45pm, 2 October 2013On the pitch Moyes has a largely complete squad to select from, although defender Rio Ferdinand was the major absentee from United’s Tuesday morning flight east. The 34-year-old defender has a minor groin strain, although it is unlikely the veteran would have featured in any case. Ferdinand has missed similarly lengthy European trips in recent season.

Meanwhile, Robin van Persie could start after the Dutchman returned from injury as a substitute at the weekend. Patrice Evra and captain Nemanja Vidic should also feature after sitting out United’s horror-show at home to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

Marouane Fellaini is set to start alongside Michael Carrick, while Moyes will choose between Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young for a spot on the flanks. Teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj, fresh from scoring a stunning left-footed drive for the reserves on Tuesday, does not qualify for the Champions League ‘B list’ until mid-October.

“Yes, Robin is fit, but we will make a decision tomorrow whether we start him or not,” confirmed Moyes. “We have left one or two players behind. Anderson, Fabio, Wilf Zaha and Rio Ferdinand are not with us. Rio has a slight groin problem but it’s nothing serious.”

Meanwhile, the hosts are without summer signing Wellington Nem, who suffered a knee injury shortly after joining from Fluminense for £8 million. However, Lucescu can select Fred, Fernando and Bernard who all joined in the summer, making it a round 10 Brazilians in the Shaktar squad.

The Ukrainians helped eliminate Chelsea in last season’s group stage, with Lucescu’s men beating the then holders 2-1 in Donetsk with goals from Alex Teixeira and Fernandinho. Indeed, Shakhtar have won all three previous Champions League fixtures against English visitors to the Donbass, beating Arsenal in 2001 and 2011.

Veteran coach Lucescu become the club’s longest-serving coach this week having been in charge since May 2004 in what has been an unprecedented period of success. Seven Ukrainian league titles have followed together with a hat-trick of Cups between 2011 and 2013. The UEFA Cup was secured in 2009, while the club made the Champions League quarter-final in 2011.

Now 68, Lucescu played for his country 70 times and made over 400 appearances for Romanian clubs before retirement in 1990. He has managed a dozen clubs in a managerial career now drawing to a close, including Internazionale when the Italian club was beaten by United on the way to Champions League victory in 1999.

Still, with Moyes’ United struggling for form, Lucescu senses a genuine opportunity to take a major European scalp, especially with Shaktar’s record proving so durable against English opponents.

“David Moyes hasn’t found his best lineup yet, as he is changing four or five players from game to game,” said Lucescu pointedly.

“The link-up play between their players is not as good as it used to be so the team suffers, which is happening with us too because Shakhtar have a lot of new players.

“He is clearly one of the best coaches in the Premier League, but he needs time to organise his new team properly. I am sure that sooner or later he will resolve all his present problems, but I hope it will happen after the game in Donetsk.”

Moyes hopes much the opposite. Indeed, the Scot can barely afford a result beyond a rare away victory at the Donbass.


Shaktar Donetsk v Manchester United, Champions League, Donbass Arena, 7.45pm, 2 October 2013

Shaktar (4-5-1): Pyatov; Srna, Kucher, Shevchuk, Rakitskiy; Hubschman, Teixeira, Costa, Bernard, Luiz Adriano; Taison. Subs from: Kanibolotskiy, Volovyk, Chygrynskiy, Kryvtsov, Stepanenko, Fred, Kobin, Eduardo, Fernando, Grechyshkin, Ilsinho, Ferreyra

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Giggs, Kagawa, Nani, Hernández

Shaktar 0 Draw 0 United 0

Referee: Pavel Královec (CZE)
Assistant referees: Roman Slyško (SVK) , Martin Wilczek (CZE)
Additional assistant referees:Radek Příhoda (CZE), Michal Paták (CZE)

0 – 0

Matchday Forum thread

Moyes’ gaffe-prone Euro trash

September 30, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 17 comments
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David Moyes has a problem; one that stems, it seems, not from the raft of changes in Manchester United’s coaching staff this summer. Nor the painfully embarrassing approach to the transfer market. And certainly not one born of the Scot’s tactics, no matter how jumbled the defensive mess fans have witnessed in recent weeks. No, Moyes has a problem with speaking. Particularly words. In English. And especially the kind that draw not the quizzical eyebrow to which the Scot is becoming depressingly familiar.

Indeed, it is a problem that Moyes has brought to light in the past week, twice raising the real challenge that the former Everton manager believes he faces in his first season as United manager: the quality of his team. Or lack thereof.

From the assertion that his side is six players short of winning the Champions League, to the contention that United won the Premier League by fault of others’ weakness, to an oft repeated belief that United must buy to compete; it’s the Scot’s penchant for motivational speaking, Rant suspects, that won Moyes the United gig in the first place.

“To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players,” Moyes said ahead of United’s trip to Shaktar Donetsk this week.

”Look at Bayern Munich, they have it. Look at Barcelona, who had it in the past and Real Madrid, who have maybe got it now. That’s the level you have to be at to win it. We’ve not got that yet.”

This week has delivered a double-dose of foot in mouth disease from the Scot. It was not, said Moyes last Wednesday, United’s quality that won the Old Trafford club a 20th league title last season, but “other teams that were poor.”

Way to throw cold water on supporters’ ongoing celebrations. Still, it must come as little surprise to the Scot that his players have looked so listless in recent weeks. He seems keen to let the world know just how bad they are.

Successive Premier League defeats have come. First to Manchester City at the Etihad, followed in abject style by Saturday’s loss to West Bromwich Albion at home. Moyes is yet to comment on which caused more humiliation.

That double-header made it three league defeats in the past four, with no goals scored from open-play since United’s victory at Swansea City on the opening day of the season. And if United’s attacking play has been dysfunctional, then the back four, as one, is seemingly one pint short of the full pub team.

The campaign for change on the pitch, if not the managerial hotseat, cannot be far away.

Still, the surprise is not in Moyes’ analysis, but that it has been made public at all. After all, City’s degeneration under Roberto Mancini put-paid to the former champions’ hopes last season. Meanwhile, Roman Abramovich’s rapid-fire dismissal of nine coaches in as many years ensures instability reigns in west London.

Neither do many, but the most one-eyed supporters, believe United will take the Champions League this season – not given the disparity in quality between the Reds and the best. Especially in midfield. It is, after all, debatable whether any of United’s central midfield would make Bayern Munich’s bench, let alone the first team

But this is a debate for the terraces and a post-match pint, rather than the manager and the fourth estate. Not least because it ensures Moyes sounds just a little too Benitez-esque for comfort.

Still, if a change in personnel is to come – and how could it not after three defeats in seven Premier League games – those players on the fringes of Moyes’ team, who brought respite against Liverpool in the Capital One Cup last Wednesday, need fear not. For the manager’s guns are squarely aimed at those who more frequently adorn the starting XI.

“We’ve got work to do,” said the 50-year-old. Work to acquire players that “will go right into the team.”

“The job when I took over was always going to be that we’d have to make changes and improve as we go along. I wasn’t going to come in here and say ‘such and such isn’t good’, not at all. But, in time, obviously I’ll have to make some changes.”

Cynics might wonder whether it is 25 years of unprecedented success that Moyes changed first. Rant couldn’t possibly comment, although it is hard not to take a cynical view after back-to-back league defeats of such calamity.

Four goals conceded at the Etihad on Sunday last proved humiliating in both execution and meaning, but it is the weekend’s defeat to West Brom that will cause most concern at Old Trafford. After all it wasn’t complacency, or a rare off-day that caused United’s downfall, but a tactical and technical mess all of Moyes’ own making.

The Scot can do little but issue the now frequented mea culpa.

“I don’t think it was only one department where you’d say we were lacking,” the Scot admitted post Saturday’s match.

“I think it would be unfair to single any out – it was the whole thing. We were lacklustre in nearly all the areas. There were lots of things that disappointed me. We should be scoring more from open play. And we should be defending better. We couldn’t do it at either end.”

How how the tables have turned. It’s not four weeks since the former Everton manager declared that he was “really impressed” with how his team played in the utterly miserable 1-0 defeat at Anfield. A performance so good that Moyes could now “see why they’re champions.”

United managed just four shots on target at Anfield. Reality, it seems, has now struck home hard.

“I may have to take a few more blows, definitely,” admitted the Scot. “Maybe even more than that. Maybe all season I have to take a few blows.”

Respite comes in the form of European competition, with United jetting out to Ukraine on Tuesday morning. It is, of course, the competition in which the Reds scored four against Bayer Leverkusen last time out.

Shaktar, you have been warned. Just don’t be disappointed when United fail to turn up with a raft of world-class players. Dave wouldn’t simply have it.

Preview: United v Bayer Leverkusen

September 17, 2013 Tags: , Matches 7 comments
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More than a decade on from Champions League semi-final defeat to Bayer Leverkusen and the memory of a chance lost still lingers. Real Madrid won the tournament, beating the German side in the final through Zinedine Zidane’s outrageous volley. But as close calls go there was much to regret in the manner of Manchester United’s away goals defeat through Oliver Neuville’s late equaliser at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex Ferguson blamed defeat on nerves; that his player froze under the pressure of a first semi-final since triumphing in 1999. It is an emotional response unlikely to be repeated on Tuesday as United meet Bayer in Manchester, although David Moyes’ first European fixture as the Reds’ manager adds intrigue at least.

Among the current United only Ryan Giggs survives that semi-final – a match that also featured future Red Dimitar Berbatov. The Welshman is likely to be involved a some point on Tuesday, if only from the bench, after sitting out United’s weekend fixture with Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, Phil Neville, now United’s first-team coach, was an 18th-minute substitute for his brother Gary in the first leg.

United’s first outing in Europe under Moyes comes after similar crushing disappointment. Defeat to Real Madrid  in last season’s Round of 16 hurt, although the Reds were far from the best team in the tournament.

Moyes’ appointment also represents a passing of the European mantle. Europe became Ferguson’s raison d’être – the triumphs and defeats defining much of what the Scot acheived with the club over a quarter century. Indeed, it is United’s 19th UEFA Champions League campaign, one more than Barcelona, Real Madrid and FC Porto, although no manager but Sir Alex has led the Reds into continental competition since Ron Atkinson guided United to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1984-85.

It is a challenge that the new manager relishes, although he has little European experience to call on. Everton’s sole campaign in the Champions League ended in elimination at the preliminary stage.

And it is likely to be a testing campaign, with United drawn to face Real Sociedad and Shaktar Donetsk in addition to Bayer.

“I’ve been excited about it ever since I’ve joined Manchester United,” said Moyes this week.

“Every game has offered a new challenge and a tough one as well. I’ve been there before with Everton – we didn’t quite make the group stages but this is different. This is a club that’s used to getting to the latter stages.

“I think all groups are tough. It is more unpredictable than it was. We’ve got a leading team from Germany, one from Spain and we go to Donetsk to play Shakhtar. It’s a tough group.”

Manchester United v Bayer Leverkusen, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 17 September 2013Moyes is set to begin the campaign without some key men. England duo Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones are both doubtful with knee and ankle injuries, while Wayne Rooney will again wear protective head gear after a recent gash to the forehead.

Shinji Kagawa rejoins the squad after a bout of flu, but Nani serves a one-game ban on matchday one following his red card in last season’s second leg against Real Madrid. Youngster Jesse Lingard may come into the party, although the weekend’s star performer, Adnan Januzaj, is not available for selection until October when he qualifies for United’s ‘B’ list.

The game also serves as a first Champions League fixture as a coach for Leverkusen’s Sami Hyypiä, a winner as a player with Liverpool in 2005. It has been a summer of change at the BayArena, with 10 players joining the squad over the transfer window. Sevilla pair Andrés Palop and Emir Spahić join former Bayern Munich youth Emre Can and Fortuna Düsseldorf forward Robbie Kruse in the squad.

However, it is Stefan Kießling that the remains Bayer’s most potent threat. The German striker notched 17 in the Bundesliga last season and a double against Wolfsburg at the weekend.

Midfielder Lars Bender faces a late fitness test on a hip injury, which forced the German international out of Saturday’s fixture and Germany’s World Cup qualifiers last week.

Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand says that the manner of United’s defeat to Real last season adds no extra motivation ahead of the Champions League’s start. The Reds 2-1 loss at Old Trafford followed Nani’s controversial dismissal – a key refereeing decision that turned the fixture in Real’s favour.

It proved to be a devastating blow for Ferguson, who may attend Tuesday’s match in the director’s box. But as with the Scot’s difficult first few seasons in Europe  – 1991 Cup Winners Cup victory aside – the Reds have some ground to make up on Europe’s best.

Real, Barcelona and champions Bayern Munich start as favourites to win the competition next May, although Paris Saint Germain, Juventus, Manchester City, Chelsea and big-spending Monaco each have legitimate designs on the trophy as well.

“We were all disappointed with what happened last season and how we went out. But we won’t harp on about it,” said 34-year-old Ferdinand.

“We continue and start again afresh this season. New group, new season, new games. Last season is out of our minds and not something we need to use as motivation.”

“If you don’t win the competition you’ve got catching up to do. It’s that simple. If that happens then you have work to do to catch up. Last year we went out in dubious circumstances. Hopefully we can improve this season. Last year we improved on the season before that and hopefully we can improve again.”

United has suffered two disappointing campaigns in succession – a slide in fortunes that has coincided with Bayern Munich’s secession to the head of Europe’s elite. The southern German outfit was the competition’s outstanding team over the period, supplanting Barcelona as the continent’s best.

While Leverkusen is unlikely to threaten Europe’s best the opening match of this season’s campaign should test Moyes’ men.

“The Germans did well last year, the Spanish sides before that. It goes in cycles and hopefully we can start the cycle this season,” adds Ferdinand.

“It probably focuses you a bit more when you have a tough group. You don’t get the chance to rest people, for example. The competition is so competitive and the players are so good and the desire to get into the next stage is so high. Each year you want to qualify for the knockout stage.”

That goal is achievable, especially with United’s ability to compete in central midfield now augmented  by Marouanne Fellaini’s acquisition. The Belgian is sure to start alongside Michael Carrick in midfield.

However, few argue that this United squad falls short of the champion’s wealth of talent. Still, with a new manager in place the fresh campaign comes with renewed incentives and hope. United may not start the campaign as favourites to capture a trophy last secured more than five years ago, but it is a group from which the Reds should emerge.

“I have always wanted to get to the Champions League,” concludes Moyes. “I did everything I possibly could at Everton to reach it and I couldn’t quite make that happen. Now, at Manchester United I am going to do everything I possibly can to win it.”

Manchester United v Bayer Leverkusen, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 17 September 2013

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Young; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Evans, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Kagawa, Lingard, Hernández

Leverkusen (4-3-3): Leno; Donati, Toprak, Spahić, Boenisch; Bender, Reinartz, Rolfes; Heung-Min, Kießling, Sam. Subs from: Palop, Yelldell, Stafylidis, Hilbert, Wollscheid, Derdiyok, Castro, Can, Hegeler, Öztunalı, Kohr

United 2 Draw 2 Leverkusen 0

Officials (all Slovenia)
Referee: Damir Skomina
Assistant referees: Matej Žunič, Bojan Ul
Additional assistant referees: Slavko Vinčić, Roberto Ponis


Ferguson’s new Euro challenge

May 2, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 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.

The price of success

March 25, 2013 Tags: , , , Reads 13 comments

What is success? It was an interesting question posed by Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeneß recently as the Bavarian side sneaked through to the Champions League quarter-finals by defeating Arsenal. Money, the determinant on many supporters’ lips, is only part of the solution says the former German international. After all, while finance is a means to a football end, it is explicitly not the definitive goal at Bayern.

Hoeneß’ assertion poses an interesting challenge at a time when Europe’s football landscape is evolving from one dominated by English clubs to potentially a more fragmented picture. While English clubs competed in seven finals in eight seasons from 2005, the Premier League is absent from the final eight of the continent’s leading competition this year.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City each crashed out of the Champions League prematurely leaving England without a quarter-finalist for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, three sides from Spain, two from Germany and one each from Turkey, France and Italy made it though from the round of 16.

Ownership structure, or indeed financial motivation, may have only a passing correlation to progress in the competition, but Hoeneß and executives at the other German quarter-finalist, Borussia Dortmund, point to more than 50 per cent fan control as a guiding principle. Similarly, Barcelona and Real Madrid is each entirely owned by the ‘socios’ – club members – as is Turkish champions Galatasary.

In each case league regulations have either reinforced or explicitly mandated the policy. In Germany the 50+1 rule states that members of a club must retain more than 50 per cent ownership, preventing any single private entity taking control. Meanwhile, in Spain both Barça and Real, together with Athletic Bilbao and CA Osasuna, are supporter-owned. In Turkey all clubs are fan-owned as no other form of ownership is permitted.

Of the remaining quarter-finalists Juventus is majority-owned by the Agnelli family, in charge of the Turin-based club since 1923, while both Malaga and Paris Saint Germain are in Middle Eastern hands.

And with fan ownership, says Hoeneß, comes a supporter-friendly policy. After all, cheap ticket prices at Bayern and Dortmund are the envy of many United fan now priced out of Old Trafford.

“I only want to have big sporting success on a sound economic basis,” said Hoeneß, who played 239 times for the club and 35 times for the national team.

“It’s no fun to win the championship or Champions League with a £50-£60 million loss. The cheap tickets are for young people and the people who cannot afford it otherwise. Football must always be affordable.

“When you only pay €15 (£12) you can’t say ‘I hate these millionaires’ because you cannot finance the millionaires with €15. The €15 tickets are standing seats behind the goals. Our most expensive season ticket is around €800.”

By comparison United’s cheapest ticket is £30 in the East and West Lower, while the most expensive non-executive season ticket in the South Stand is priced at £950 for 19 league matches – the result of cumulative ticket prices increases in the five years following the 2005 Glazer takeover.

Cheap pricing has created an imbalance in Bayern’s income – €368.4 million revenue in the last financial year was heavily skewed towards commercial activity, with matchday turnover just 23 per cent of total revenues.

Acceleration in United’s commercial strategy in recent years, together with rapidly increasing media rights, means that the club posts balanced revenue streams of approximately a third each from broadcast, commercial and matchday income.

The difference, says Hoeneß, is that Bayern’s strategy is based on a long-term vision, while United’s paymasters seek profit first.

“I do not compare ourselves to United for instance which is a very big club and famous and one I admire greatly,” adds Hoeneß.

“But Mr Glazer didn’t know where Manchester was 20 years ago. He doesn’t do it because he loves United. He wants to make money.

“At Bayern we don’t look always for short-term success. I’ve won about 20 titles. To win the 21st title I’ll not sell out the club. But if somebody comes in who’s won nothing, he wants to win quickly and under this pressure he makes decisions which can be very difficult.”

Bayern currently leads the Bundesliga by 20 points, with outgoing manager Jupp Heynckes set to hand Pep Guardiola an emphatic championship winning team next season.

Although in that there is also a contradiction, with Bayern having spent more than £60 million on Javi Martínez, Mario Mandzukic, and Xherdan Shaqiri last summer to wrestle the title back from Dortmund.

Not that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has regressed after last season’s disappointments. United boasts an impressive, if not equal, 15 point lead over City in the Premier League even if European disappointment will not easily be forgotten. Much of United’s success this season has been driven by Robin  van Persie’s £24 million acquisition.

Moreover, with media and commercial income media income racing ahead, and last summer’s IPO proceeds partially paying down debt, the club is on a healthier financial footing than at any time over the past seven years. The Glazers may never run the club debt free, but at £360 million gross debt is no longer the existential threat it once was.

Yet, Hoeneß’ point is one of principle rather than financial nuance; that a football club exists to be that – serving its principle stake-holders, the supporters. It is a philosophy ingrained into German, Spanish, and Turkish football, among others.

After all, while United’s profits may rise sharply in the coming years, driven by new sponsorship income and a huge new Premier League television deal, there is little sign of a change in ownership philosophy. Old Trafford’s supporters will forever remain a body without voice or power.

And for the moment it is Hoeneß side, and not United, that can look forward to a European quarter-final next month.

Euro disapointment at the heart of Fergie’s anguish

March 10, 2013 Tags: , Reads 22 comments

Defeat in the Champions League this week may have been acutely unfortunate, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s pain in the wake of Manchester United’s exit to Real Madrid says as much about the manager’s record in Europe’s premier competition, as it did about the club’s disappointment. It is the Scot’s desire to improve on his two Champions League victories in a quarter century at Old Trafford that lies at the centre of the manager’s heartbreak.

“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” said assistant Mike Phelan after Tuesday’s defeat.

“I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”

Yet, Ferguson’s anguish was not only about one defeat, influenced by an over-zealous referee, but the realisation that time is running out to improve on a European record that includes one Cup Winners’ Cup and two Champions League victories.

After all, there is an argument that Ferguson’s European adventure has underwhelmed given the resources at his disposal. In an era of United dominance domestically and a period of Anglo-Saxon success on the continent, Ferguson has often said “we should have won it more”.

Two trophies and a further brace of defeats in the final is perhaps scant return for just shy of 20 seasons in Europe’s premier competition.

Indeed, United’s elimination at the round of 16, as against Real, has come as often as Ferguson’s side has made the last four, while the Reds have been eliminated at the group stage more often than they have secured the trophy. Ferguson’s base elimination stage is the quarter-final. Or to put it another way, Europe’s leading eight is the sum of Sir Alex’ parts these past two decades.

Those in charge of United’s marketing department spin a different story of course.

It is a cruel analysis of a man whose trophy count stands against few peers, although one that might explain Ferguson’s frustrated response in the past week. In the wake of Real’s victory, the 71-year-old blamed not only Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for United’s defeat to Real, but officialdom for robbing the club of two further tournaments over the past decade.

“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” said Ferguson of Nani’s 58th minute red card at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions. We’d have won two of them. I have no doubt about that.”

In 2004 José Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out in the round of 16 after Paul Scholes’ goal was incorrectly ruled out offside in a game mired by controversy. Dmitri Alenichev’s professional foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was ignored, before Francisco Costinha’s scored a debatable last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford to take the Portuguese through 2-3 on aggregate over the two legs.

“The decision of the Russian referee when they brought down Ronaldo who was right through and didn’t even book him,” claimed Ferguson. “They got the free-kick right after that. We would have won the European Cup that year. They got Monaco in the final, didn’t they?”

Porto went on to beat Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo La Coruña in the knock-out rounds before dismissing Patrice Evra’s AS Monaco 3-0 in the Gelsenkirchen final.

The other injustice, said Ferguson, was Rafael da Silva’s red card against Bayern Munich in 2010 for two cautionable offences. Harsh on the player, perhaps, but terribly naïve of the Brazilian too. Munich beat Lyon in the last four, before losing to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the final.

Fortune, though, has two sides and United has benefited from a slice over the years. Mehmet Scholl’s shot against the bar moments before United’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Or, perhaps, John Terry’s slip in the 2008 final shoot-out.

Not that Ferguson’s beef is with anything other than officialdom of course. And his frustration at not having achieved personal ambitions in the competition.

Given the tournament’s competitive nature Ferguson may never add another European trophy to his vast haul. After all, a golden period between 2008 and 2011 brought three finals, but only one victory with Ferguson’s side twice succumbing to perhaps the finest Barcelona team of all time.

Nor is the analysis of Ferguson’s record entirely justified. Since Ferguson’s first Champions League campaign in 1993 only Barça, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the competition more frequently. None has retained the trophy during the Champions League era.

UEFA’s decision to open up the European Cup to non-champions, while merging the old UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups into a single tournament, now branded the Europa League, has a created a far more competitive environment.

In another era, one where teams dominated in époques, Ferguson’s record may have been more impressive. After all, in the decade between 1970 and 1980 Ajax secured three European Cups in a row, Bayern repeated the feat, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each secured a brace back-to-back.

Nor has any manager bettered the Scot’s record during the modern era, although Mourinho may change that fact this season should Real win at Wembley in late May. In mitigation, few managers can match Ferguson’s 202 Champions League games spread over nearly 20 years.

There have been plenty of near misses too; those seasons when Ferguson’s side was just a shade short of the best. Defeat to Real Madrid in both 2003 and 2000 hurt, as did the semi-final loss to Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Indeed, Ferguson’s team in the four years between 1998 and 2002 achieved far less than the sum of its considerable talents.

Which, perhaps, is why the injustice of the past week has hit Old Trafford so hard. Ferguson is building a team better than many had believed, evidenced by a healthy Premier League lead. But it is in Europe that the standard is set, and the Scot’s side has now been eliminated in the group stage and first knock-out round in the past two campaigns.

“I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time,” says veteran Ryan Giggs of defeat to Real.

“But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. It was a proper European performance.

“The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. It was shock. I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.”

The disappointment will wear off though, leaving Ferguson with perhaps two more campaigns to add a third Champions League victory to his roster.

There are no guarantees though. Ferguson is acutely aware.

Preview: United v Real Madrid

March 5, 2013 Tags: , Matches 302 comments

It could hardly be bigger. Two out of the top three leading clubs in the world set for a grand European battle on what could be another famous Old Trafford night. Three weeks may have passed since these old clubs last met, but none of the focus or intensity surrounding the tie has drifted away. As Real Madrid coach José Mourinho put it on Monday, “the world will stop to watch”.

Indeed, not only are both Manchester United and the visitors sporting some of the game’s finest, but each is in good form too. United, having not lost in any competition since 5 December, now sport a 12-point lead in the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side chasing silverware on three fronts. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s outfit arrives having beaten Barcelona twice in the space of eight days, home and away.

Each side has enough weaponry to seize victory on the night, although United has the edge having scored at the Bernabéu in the opening tie of this Round of 16 clash. But it is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, on whom most eyes will gaze – the 28-year-old forward returns to Old Trafford as a player for the first time since departing in summer 2009. A long-lost love.

The match also promises to be a fascinating tactical battle, with each one of Europe’s finest counter-attacking sides and both undeniably frail at the back over the course of the season. While United has secured four clean sheets in a row during Premier League matches, Real’s propensity to score on the break has remained the focus for Sir Alex’ side over the past week.

It leads to the very real possibility that United may concede territory and possession on the night, hoping to neutralise Real’s threat on the counter and benefit from broken play, just as Ferguson’s side did at the Bernabéu last time out.

“As we know, they are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe and that showed last Tuesday in the Nou Camp,” said Ferguson of Real, who beat Barcelona 3-1 in the Copa Del Rey semi-final at Camp Nou.

“They were stunning on the counter-attack. We have to find a way of coping with that but also having our own threat. There will be goals and I think both teams will score. We have to think we will score more,” he said. “Both teams are in form. As a European night I don’t think you get any bigger than this one – great clubs with great histories. It is set up to be a potentially marvellous game and I don’t think it will be a disappointment either.”

Manchester United v Real Madrid - Champions League, Old Trafford - 7.45pm, 5 March 2013Ferguson is likely to be without defender Phil Jones, who was asked to man-mark the space between defence and attack in the opening leg. Jones’ ability to limit, although not eliminate, Ronaldo’s attacking threat, along with creative fulcrum Mesut Özil, played a significant role in United’s 1-1 draw.

And the 20-year-old’s ankle injury means that Sir Alex is more likely to deploy a traditional formation at Old Trafford. Ferguson deployed two strikers in wide positions and Jones in a holding role three weeks ago. It leaves United vulnerable to Ronaldo’s considerable threat.

“My biggest concern is if he turns up,” said Sir Alex. “What do you expect if you play against him? You expect problems during the night and you try to prepare for it as best you can. It won’t be easy because he does it every week. The experience young Rafa had in Madrid will hold him in good stead because he will be doing the same again. I don’t think it is one we should fear. If we go out fearing the damage Cristiano can do us then we will forget what we can do.”

Jones aside Ferguson has few injury concerns ahead of Tuesday’s fixture. The 71-year-old will choose two from Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Jonny Evans in central defence, while three midfield slots remain open. Hat-trick hero Shinji Kagawa could be sacrificed if Ferguson opts for a more defensive-minded option, although the Japanese performed well tucking in from the left at the weekend.

Ryan Giggs will make his 1,000th senior appearance for club and country, although it is likely to be from the bench.

Meanwhile, Real arrive in Manchester with confidence high after twice beating rivals Barcelona in the past week, scoring five against the run-away La Liga leaders in the process. But Mourinho, who is likely to leave Real for the Premier League in the summer, insists that facing United at Old Trafford is just another game. One that the planet will be glued to.

“The world will stop to watch this tie,” said the Portuguese coach.

“I doubt expectations can be bigger than for this one. Nobody knows what will happen because the teams are well matched. United are on a fantastic run. They have reached the FA Cup quarter-final and they are winning the Premier League already in March. They don’t lose a match in months but we are also in good form in 2013.”

It is a fact that few at Old Trafford will have missed. United, holding an away goal, may be marginal favourites, but only just. After all, the last time Real visited Old Trafford, Ferguson’s side was strong favourites to progress. Ronaldo, the Brazilian variety, scored three to take Real through.

Most attending on Tuesday night will hope the 2013 namesake fails to repeat the trick.

Match details
Manchester United v Real Madrid – Champions League, Old Trafford – 7.45pm, 5 March 2013.

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, Hernández

Real (4-3-3): Lopex; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao; Alonso, Khederia; Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo; Benezema. Subs from: Casillas, Varane, Albiol, Carvalho, Marcelo, Nacho, Essien, Kaka, Modric, Callejon, Higuain.

Match officials (all TUR)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır
Assistant referees: Bahattin Duran, Tarik Ongun
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Mete Kalkavan

United: WWDWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4
Overall: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4


* United to win on penalties

Reds’ defence progresses from cavalcade to concentration

March 4, 2013 Tags: , Reads 1 comment

When Manchester United conceded three during a tragi-comic first half at Reading’s Madjesky Stadium in December it appeared to sum up a campaign. After all, while the Reds’ fragile defence was brutally exposed by limited opposition, United still won the game – netting four against the relegation threatened Berkshire side.

The game at Reading moved Sir Alex Ferguson to describe his side’s defending as a “cartoon cavalcade” – a near-suicidal fault that appeared to undermine all of United’s hopes and dreams for the season ahead.

The pattern was earlier in the season of course, as Ferguson’s side opened the campaign with just five clean sheets to the turn of the year – 28 matches in all competitions. In all United conceded 40 goals in the period to Christmas, 28 of them in the Premier League. That even Liverpool could boast a better defensive record said much.

United’s in ability to retain any consistency at the back, nor it seemed any composure, also brought an uncanny habit of conceding first during the opening months of the campaign, with Ferguson’s side falling behind 17 times in 40 games to date this season.

How, pondered many observers, could a side with ambitions to compete on all fronts at home and abroad, do so while conceding so liberally? Even if  Robin van Persie has added goals and penetration to United’s front line, few great sides have ever conceded freely.

Yet, the Scot has always maintained that his side’s focus and it’s execution improves in the spring – the prizes on offer seemingly keeping eyes firmly locked in place. It is the desire for looming success, together with returning players, says Ferguson, that has restored some solidity to the Reds’ defence.

He may have a point: United has now secured four Premier League clean sheets in a row and conceded just eight in 13 games since New Year’s Day.

“In the last few weeks there has been a definite change in terms of concentration and the awareness that these games are important,” said Ferguson over the weekend.

“In the early part of the season we were giving all these early goals away and that may have been a combination of the fact that we had defenders out. In the first game of the season we had to play Michael Carrick at centre-half because we had four centre-backs out. That had its impact.”

The turnaround has been remarkable; more so because United’s defensive problems earlier this season were not solely because of a lengthy injury list, but also genuine structural problems in the squad.

Indeed, Ferguson’s tactical thinking has played a significant part in both ensuring United is a vibrant attacking force and far too open at the back this season.

Pairing Michael Carrick, for example, with almost any combination appeared to leave the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder exposed and United’s back four under severe duress during the autumn months. When Spurs arrived at Old Trafford in late September, Carrick’s inability to deal with the visitors’ counter-attacking left Rio Ferdinand horribly exposed, leading to 3-2 defeat.

Increasingly Ferguson has sought to plug an obvious gap, sometimes dropping Wayne Rooney into deeper positions, experimenting with a diamond or latterly a 4-3-3 formation.

Recovery from the now annual defensive injury trauma has played it’s part too, of course. Ferguson’s defensive unit against Everton the opening day of the campaign read Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Vidić, Carrick, and Patrice Evra – five others remained on the sidelines, while Vidić played his first game in nine months following serious knee injury the previous December.

Greater consistency of selection has also been key, although Ferguson continues to rotate his central defensive roster between Ferdinand, Vidić, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Ferdinand’s participation is carefully managed, with the former West Ham United defender now 34, and Vidić can rarely play more than two games a week.

Yet, Rafael da Sila and Patrice Evra have remained near ever-present this season. Consistency that is surely a reflection of and causal factor in the Brazilian youngster’s outstanding form in the campaign to date.

Behind them young Spaniard David de Gea is growing in confidence, benefiting from an extended run in the first team following Anders Lindegaard’s calamitous performance against Reading in December.

De Gea has featured in all but one of United’s matches post-Reading, with Lindegaard’s sole contribution coming during the Reds’ 1-0 FA Cup replay victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford. And such are the stoppers’ performances that United supporters voted de Gea the club’s player of the month in February.

“It’s very good to have the support of the fans,” admitted De Gea. “I can hear the supporters during the games so I know they’re singing about me. I’m very grateful for that.”

The former Atlético Madrid player has become a supporters’ favourite in no small part due to the severity of media criticism aimed at the 22-year-old.

Meanwhile, Rafael continues to impress, scoring his third goal of a fruitful campaign against Queens Park Rangers recently – a stunning volley that flew past home ‘keeper Julio Cesar into the top corner. No wonder Ferguson has been moved to brand the youngster’s campaign as “magnificent” – it has been.

Alongside the youngsters Ferdinand has excelled too, prompting suggestions that the veteran will be offered a new deal at Old Trafford to take him past his 35th birthday.

“I think he has had a great season,” adds Ferguson, of the veteran who has been at Old Trafford for more than a decade.

“He has managed himself the right way and we have contributed to that in the preparation we give him. He doesn’t play every game. Two weeks ago, against Real Madrid, he was excellent. We need to get him ready for the big one on Tuesday.”

The turnaround in defence fortunes, much like Ferdinand’s own this season, leaves United in prime position to take not only the Premier League, where the Reds hold a commanding 12 points lead, but progress in Europe too.

Just as long as the cartoon cavalcade doesn’t return against Cristiano Ronaldo and company on Tuesday night.

Ferguson trusts in squad as fans dare to dream

February 18, 2013 Tags: , , , , Reads 8 comments

“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’,” argued Malcolm Gladwell in the peerless Outliers. “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of opportunities that lead to further success.”

It is a viewpoint with which Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson might agree. After 26 years in the job the Scot not only desires more, but has greater tools with which to achieve success – an incremental benefit that has been challenged only by the Glazer family’s £500 million ownership tariff.

Indeed, Ferguson could make 11 changes against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday night, safe in the knowledge that he can still field a team full of international players against the Berkshire side. And the 71-year-old manager just might make wholesale changes to his team even with United on course to face Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final.

It is the surprising strength-in-depth this season – given the paucity of high quality options in central midfield and ageing defenders – allied to a squad resilience that has manager and supporters wondering whether United might be able to achieve something truly special before the campaign is out.

No wonder, with the Reds still in three competitions, that 14 years after Ferguson’s team reached the promised land talk has once again turned to the treble. It has become one of football’s most hackneyed ideals.

It remains unlikely United will recreate 1999 at Wembley on 25 May; after all nothing is secured just yet. United’s return fixture with Real Madrid on 5 March must still be won, while Brian McDermott’s Reading pushed the Reds during the Premier League encounter at the Madjesky in December.  And despite a 12-point Premier League lead Sir Alex cannot count on a trophy regained.

United’s draw with Madrid came with plenty of credit, but also a warning. The home side’s dominance of possession, chances created and midfield reinforces the belief that Ferguson’s side is not without significant flaws.

Yet, says the Scot, his advantage gained since ’99 will come into play as United enters the final third of the campaign. More than a decade on from the treble, Ferguson is nostalgic for more.

“We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again,” said Sir Alex of the ’99 campaign.

“It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It’s nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now.

“When we went to the final, Keane and Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury and I had to pull in Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice, and he actually got a winner’s medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.

“I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It’s not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now.”

In fact Ferguson may well do so on Monday after the double-header with Real in the Spanish capital and Everton at Old Trafford last weekend. While the FA Cup remains a key target this season, nine years after the club last secured the 140-year-old trophy, the Royals also have more pressing priorities. Ferguson will surely gamble on a wholly different side from that which drew in Madrid.

In fact while United faces some challenging fixtures in the next month Ferguson can justifiably point to a trio of winnable matches against Reading, QPR, and Norwich before José Mourinho’s side arrives at Old Trafford in 16 day’s time.

United head into the period not only sporting good form, but with none of the internal politics running roughshod through Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City camp, that of Chelsea or indeed, Mourinho’s Real squad.

“I feel there’s a good spirit. That’s obvious,” adds Ferguson.

“When you’re successful you have to look at the overall squad – I know there were a lot of players disappointed not playing on Wednesday, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t disappointed, but the ones who weren’t playing were right behind the ones who were playing and that’s good.

“The way I’m looking at is to pick a team to win the next match and it will be a different team against Reading and again against QPR, Norwich and then Madrid.”

In that there is a concern of course, with Ferguson long dubbed “Tinkerbell” for the Scot’s penchant for repetitive change. But there is also a belief that the manager may just be striking the right balance between rotation and stability this season. Not least in Ferguson’s last-minute recognition that deploying a strong side against Everton last weekend’s went a very long way to sealing the Premier League title.

Still, United will be asked stern questions before the season is out, although few will come as tough as those faced at the Bernabéu last Wednesday. European and FA Cup competition aside, Ferguson’s side faces City at Old Trafford on 8 April, Arsenal at Emirates three weeks later and Chelsea on 4 May. Although each could dent the Reds’ ambitions, it is unlikely any will halt Ferguson’s train.

Those fixtures aside, Ferguson will be hugely disappointed if his side drops many more points domestically, while an FA Cup quarter-final draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford – should it come to pass – will disappoint few. Home against anyone ensures United remain in with a chance.

And none will seek success with Ferguson’s vigor. After all, while the details always matter in football, few will work as hard as Ferguson’s team between now and the season’s conclusion. The Scot will have it no other way.

Or as Gladwell put it “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

It is one reason, among many, why Ferguson will fully deploy his accumulated gain between now and the summer.