Tag treble

Tag treble

Ferguson trusts in squad as fans dare to dream

February 18, 2013 Tags: , , , , Opinion 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.

Time to think again about United

April 15, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 63 comments

Popular opinion has it that the current Manchester United side is one of the worst that Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled in the Premier League era; it’s a criticism repeated often throughout the season. Think back to the late goals conceded against Fulham and Everton early in the season, or the draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, or the much publicised inability – until recently at least – of United to win away from home. Each perceived failure has bolstered the belief that United’s current position owes more to poor quality competitors, than the Reds’ high quality performances. This team, it is said, is not a ‘great’ United side.

But is it that simple?

On 29 November 2010, Barcelona delivered one of the great performances in the modern era against their biggest rivals – Real Madrid. In a match containing 11 world champions, the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, and the last two managers to lift the Champions League, it was Barcelona who delivered a scintillating performance of skill, imagination, and five unanswered goals. It was genuinely imperious from a side that has won every major trophy entered in the last two years. Moreover, Barcelona is in a fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final and is on course for a third consecutive La Liga title.

Barcelona is the benchmark – not only the success that the club has achieved under Pep Guardiola, but the manner in which it has been achieved – by playing some of the consistently best attacking football seen in the last twenty years. Barça has an incredible 84 points from 31 league games this season, scoring 85 goals and conceding just 16. True greatness.

Ferguson’s latest incarnation, as Didier Deschamps recently pointed out, may lack the ‘stardust’ of previous United sides, and it also lacks the fantasy of a side containing Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta and David Villa. But can greatness be defined in other ways?

Certainly, a cursory look at the statistics makes for some interesting reading. United has scored 70 goals in 32 league games this season. The United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo scored 80 in 38 games in 2007/08; the treble winning side of 1998/99 also managed 80 goals. In statistical terms at least, United’s current attack is comparable to those famous teams.

United’s home record in the league this season reads 15 wins from 16 games, with 42 goals scored and just nine conceded. And while much has been made of United’s away form, only Arsenal has picked up more points on the road this season. In the Champions League, United has conceded just three goals in 10 games, and none in five away games. The side also remains unbeaten. In fact, United has only been beaten on four occasions this season in all competitions.

Of course, many of the performances this season, particularly away from home have been average at best. Think back to the games at Sunderland, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and worst of all, Liverpool. It is, of course, possible to recall equally dire performances from United every season. It is also true that on many occasions United has dug deep to secure draws or victories when it seemed unlikely – wins at West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham United spring to mind.

True, when compared to the artistry of Barcelona, the current United side looks humble but perhaps its qualities can be defined in other ways. There is something heroic about the way United has seemingly defied the odds this season. The late winner with ten men at home to Bolton Wanderers, or equally later victory secured against Wolves, the stunning goal to win the Manchester derby, and the victory at home to Chelsea on Tuesday.

On Tuesday Chelsea started well, and like many teams this season, made United look uncomfortable. However, United not only scored first but having conceded an away goal Park Ji-Sung scored within a minute to seal the victory. A perfect microcosm of United’s season.

And all this has been achieved despite a plethora of injuries, poor performances and off-the-field problems. Rio Ferdinand has been dogged by injuries, meaning he has only started 21 games in all competitions this season. Antonio Valencia has missed much of the season after a sickening ankle injury. And at various times United has managed without a dozen players, and recently only had four fit defenders to choose from against West Ham.

While some have excelled, others have suffered poor seasons, including Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and, until recently at least, Rooney. And with Rooney’s contract saga, bans for Ferguson and the former Evertonian, it has been a turbulent season off-the-pitch. The drama serves only to prove United’s character.

Herein lies the point about greatness – it comes in different forms. While there is greatness in defeating Real Madrid 5-0 in one of the most complete team performances in a living memory, there is also greatness in a team whose sum is more than its parts. There is greatness in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta but also in those less valued; Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, whose collective effort has elevated United’s performances. There is also greatness in longevity: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, who defy age each week.

But most of all, there is greatness in the manager. Ferguson has worked with better individuals but has moulded a unit as strong as any he previously created and a tactical system that highlights the team’s strengths and manages to overcome its weaknesses.

Of course, United hasn’t won a trophy yet and if the team ends the season without silverware nine months of endeavour will have been for nothing. But it is also true that this team stands on the verge of something we can truly call great.  While it would be a different kind of great to Barcelona, it would be equally special.