Sir Alex Ferguson loves horses. He’s also a metaphors man. (Probably.) So it’s no surprise that he’d mentioned Devon Loch, both horse and metaphor, a few times in managerial career. Devon Loch is, for those that stumble upon something interesting and think “yeah, here’s something I could use to introduce a piece of writing one day”, the horse that crumbled under pressure. It fell just yards away from the finish line in the 1956 Grand National, an event that is apparently still talked about today. Anyway, all of this is a long-winded way to say that Ferguson’s counterpart David Moyes has had no reason to bring this as-of-now astonishing incident up, because Manchester United have had nothing good to throw away cheaply. They are essentially, to maintain the racing theme, the guy who still has three laps to go in the 10,000 metres after the lights are out. Instead of messing things up in April, they opted for September. It has, to be fair, spared us the anxiety that comes with mixing it up with the best, and the anguish that invariably follows it. Maybe we should be thankful, then?
1. David Moyes has always relished being the underdog, at least when it hasn’t meant people shouting at his face, or writing mean newspaper columns, or hiring a small plane. It’s not that he necessarily thrives in this role, but he probably believes he can, no matter how often people mention his record at Everton away from home or indeed his performances against the big clubs as United manager. Okay, perhaps he doesn’t relish it that much. But the game against Bayern Munich played to his strengths, as weird and actually sad as it sounds. After the teams had been drawn together, he was confident: “We have got a really tough game … but we’ll try to exploit little bits of weaknesses they have got.” Similarly, on their high defensive line, he “believed a different type of player causes them problems.” (He thought Theo Walcott’s absence particularly hurt Arsenal in the previous round.) He had some ideas!
The 1-1 draw in the first leg saw Moyes leave with a lot of credit, the man shown shaking his head ruefully (and hilariously) at the full-time whistle as if he’d expected more. He left a lot of attacking talent out, such as Shinji Kagawa for 45 minutes and Ash- Adnan Januzaj, and made do with a depleted defence to stifle the best team in Europe. He just about succeeded – and had the resourceful Danny Welbeck scored his one-on-one in the first half, perhaps the “different type of player” he envisaged, he might have got more. Still, it was a night for Moyes’ buzzwords: ‘organised’ and ‘resolute’ they were.
There was much of the same at the Allianz Arena the following week. United were extremely defensive in the first half, but not really in a bad way – David de Gea had little to do, after all. And then they immediately went at Bayern in the second, though remaining calculated, such that Patrice Evra’s glorious strike hardly seemed undeserved. Just like at Old Trafford, United made what they had tell; only a minute separated Evra’s goal from Nemanja Vidic’s. The similarities, unfortunately, didn’t stop there. Moyes, in what appeared his very own take on Jose Mourinho, urged calm and gave advice to a jubilant Evra and his team-mates, only to see them concede right away. They’d also done that in the first leg. United kept at it even as Bayern improved alarmingly each second, ultimately left to curse Wayne Rooney’s failure to do his job. It could have been better, but, as most had expected, it really could have been worse.
This is probably where the Moyes back-slapping ends. United can’t be good at one thing, especially if that thing is frustrating the opposition like a fourth tier team trying to prove to Adrian Chiles that there is a point to it all. As will be explored in slightly more detail very soon, there was absolutely nothing wrong with how United approached it, but, in the context of the season, it’ll possibly go down as another failure. Fans want to gain a sense of the gameplan against Liverpool and Manchester City, too. In all four league defeats – god – United looked a side neither able to attack nor defend. So while it’s good the players did not just collapse at Bayern’s inodorous feet, it’s almost sort of bad that they left with nothing. ‘Organised’ and ‘resolute’ are certainly qualities that Moyes can bring – the sorry bit is when you have to ask: what others?
You have to feel for Moyes on a human level. He does seem a nice man. But, once in a while, nice men have to sign Toni Kroos. Or something. But he doesn’t just need positive summer signings to appease fans, but a signal that he is willing to be bold and flexible on the field. Perhaps the addition of new and reputable coaches. Maybe admired ones last employed by Fulham that the club already know all about (though it’s not clear whether Alan Curbishley is available). Nobody ever really knows what’s going on inside – so some coaches will always be cone collectors by default – but you can at least give the impression there’s a willingness to evolve. It doesn’t have to be a different voice in Moyes’ ear. Any other kind of signal that’s appropriate will do. Or else the other option, if we’re talking about moving forward, is to find a new manager.
(As an aside, is it true that a Ferguson team, let’s say no different to last season’s title winners, would have set up differently against Bayern? Has the recent quarter-final shown how far they’ve fallen? Uncertain; it was a Pep Guardiola team, after all. United played Barcelona four times from 2008-2011, camped mostly in their half in each. The first two were against Frank Rijkaard in 07/08, who remarked after his side’s second leg defeat that United were intent on getting behind the ball and playing on the counter. Granted, that was a side a lot more confident about what they’d do on the break, but also one, Ferguson’s best since 1999, that did pride itself on attacking play. But there was nothing wrong with it, then; you simply have to do what’s necessary.)
2. All sorts of questions are emerging now. “Would any other top club in Europe hire David Moyes?” “What about Moyes showed that he was prepared to take on a club that wasn’t midtable?” “Why was a man not known for playing good football given the job?” “Why did Ferguson think Moyes would give stability?” “What’s your favourite theme tune? For me it’s definitely M*A*S*H.” Most of these cover similar ground, except for the last one (it’s Arthur, right?). They’re all good questions. Believe it or not, there were quite a few who had big hopes for Moyes. (Maybe there’s time for their initial feelings to be right, but many of those have now turned. Count the tedious long balls. Look at the aimless crossing. Bemoan the inconsistent selection. Sigh at the eternally unaddressed central midfield.) In two different places early-season, I used a quote from Jim Fleeting, Scotland’s Director of Football Development, who mentioned that Moyesnoticed “everything was going through the middle area of the park.” He would emphasise good play, it was then thought, through this “middle area.” It took until February, if not later, for that to really happen.
Manchester United have been heavily reliant on wide play this season. No big deal, that’s always sort of been the case. Not one of Europe’s best neglect their men out wide. They cover too big an area on the football field to ignore. But these teams manage to get by because they have an idea of what their centre looks like, too. That’s obvious. United have mostly been too scared to do anything in the middle of the park. The centre back, whether once one of the best or one for the future, punts the ball long. The central midfielder, head down, hits it to his left or right. Waiting for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to swing in a ball can be part of the gameplan, but not the gameplan.
It’s understandable that Moyes persevered with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney so often. Many would not break up a title-wining partnership. You want to get the ball to them, but is there just one way? Knock it to them quickly and pressed for time, they lose the ball. No wonder Van Persie complained about others (i.e. Rooney) being in his “zone” after the 0-2 defeat at Olympiacos. Many do, as it is, play two up front. Here are a few: Atletico, Liverpool and PSG. Debate Manchester City and you still could have three teams who win their domestic leagues. They all use the centre well; they might have two proper central midfielders, for example, and a third tucked somewhere else. United have tried, too: Rooney’s told to run up and down in his balancing act and Shinji Kagawa or Adnan Januzaj, before the new year, might have come off the left. But nothing really connects. It’s no surprise that you can have someone like Januzaj having a great game as a winger (as he does) and still see United struggle. Only individuals have really shone. Rooney, though his overall impact has been overstated by his PR team ‘Manchester United’, has walked off the field as the sole performer quite a lot. Maybe it can only about individuals in an incoherent system.
It’s been suggested that Moyes doesn’t have what he wants to play the way he wants. “To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players,” said the Scot back in September. “We’ve not got that yet.” Juan Mata arrived a few months later, so he might feel he’s closer to that now. Or not. The Januzaj-Mata-Kagawa trio (i.e. ‘THE FUTURE’) that impressed against Newcastle came to be in depressing circumstances; it took a Young injury to go with all the others to get them together on the field, their combined presence also helped by the insignificance of the run in. But they were there, and they played well. Though it wasn’t the strongest opposition, something coherent started to form in the middle. There were good individual performances because of the team, not in spite of it. Mata also led from the front in comfortable victories over Aston Villa and West Brom in March. If the ball was flying around in these games, it mostly made sense why. If anywhere, this is where David Moyes can salvage his job – and respond to those asking questions.
3. Marouane Fellaini is a Manchester United midfielder and is therefore cursed. Here are some of his great, good or acceptable games in a red shirt so far: Crystal Palace (2-0), West Brom (3-0), West Ham (2-0) and Aston Villa (4-1). Here are some of his recent bad games: Bayern Munich (1-1), Manchester City (0-3), Liverpool (0-3). It looks easy to draw a conclusion from this. Fellaini is a flat-track bully. So he gets shown up in the contests that matter. Right? Because he definitely was poor in those games against top opposition. But is it fair to single him out, even if we were to exclude that one game against Bayern on the basis that it’s just one game (where everyone else made an account of themselves)? If we look to the tragic defeats at the hands of City and Liverpool, isn’t it true that just about everyone that played were also below-par? They perform against inferior teams, and they lose to the strong ones. Perhaps United are a team full of flat-track bullies.
Anyway, the Belgian might have had as many bad games on average as, say, Michael Carrick and (definitely) Tom Cleverley have this season, but failure with Fellaini is different. He fails in such a way that it’s immediately obvious to everyone that he’s failing. He hasn’t learned the right way to fail. Here’s a man so often described as “tall” and “gangly” that it must be baffling to watch him fail to pick the ball out of the air. He is someone who fans remember completely tormenting their team at a different club and, now, right in front of them, he’s losing crucial 50/50s to Bayern Munich players who barely reach his shoulders. More failure! Carrick has failed in a more subtle way – his biggest and most frustrated critics will argue he always has. He might not be able to raise tempo adequately or the game simply passes him by. Hey, as long as it’s not inexplicably giving the ball away from ten yards. (Carrick, by the way, was voted Player of the Season by his teammates last May, and it didn’t feel undeserved. Van Persie was undoubtedly the star, but the midfielder was a solid second best. He has fallen considerably since.)
Who hasn’t been enraged by Fellaini? It happens for a legitimate footballing reason, but also because his flaws are more like zits than they are verrucas. As it is, his first season has had few highlights, but it’s not entered ‘flop’ territory yet. What hasn’t helped is that when he has been really, really dire, it’s tempting to perceive him as the embodiment of David Moyes: a reminder of a bad summer who stinks of something not ‘United’, who has been overhyped and, as a result, is in too good a place for what his actual abilities merit. Juan Mata is to Marouane Fellaini what, and this is surely stretching, Jose Mourinho is to David Moyes.
4. Isn’t it great that, despite everything, Manchester United have Adnan Januzaj?
5. Why do Manchester United have the best away record in the league? And why have they been better in Europe than some expected? Regarding the latter, Moyes believes “there has been more strategy” to games on the continent which “has suited us”. Once you get past wondering where that ‘strategy’ is when they’re losing, it does make sense. And it surely applies to away form, too. At Old Trafford, it’s pretty much attack vs. defence, a responsibility that could now be too much for some. That might not be a problem for a better manager, as it’s shown in seasons gone, but that’s a damning argument for another day. As visitors, United appear measured, adjusting to their opposition and, in turn, being a lot less predictable. The reduced pressure must help. United still attack, but it’s more of the conservative kind commonly seen in Europe. Moyes notes that Champions League football is “maybe notquite as fast.” Perhaps when he says it’s “suited us”, then, what he really means is it’s “suited me.” This is not entirely critical.
6. Adnan Januzaj is not Manchester United’s Player of the Season, but, incredibly, the teenager is comfortably a candidate. He has frequently starred when others have come across to be disinterested, or at least played like it, doing his best to jolt his beleaguered team into life. Though comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo are premature, the manner in which he constantly embarrasses defenders evokes the Portuguese. A minimum eight league players have been booked for fouling the youngster (see this link + Maynor Figueroa), not one a result of diving, a figure that will grow as he gets better. Ronaldo was always the target.
You could get Antonio Valencia’s and Ashley Young’s top three performances and not one would make Januzaj’s top five. He’s fared better than most 18/19-year-olds do at this level. It might not be long until the awards start to roll in.
Wayne Rooney is another contender. He would be favourite but, in truth, he has had quite a few ineffectual spells, sometimes shrugged off because of the goals and assists he provides. That sounds good, but you always feel it could be better, because it has been better before. That means it’s a victory for David de Gea. It’s never a good sign when a goalkeeper is made Man of the Match, let alone Player of the Season, but that’s how it is. It’s not De Gea’s fault, having expertly dealt with all that’s come his way, saving a few points in the process. His one blemish is, however, rather huge, the spill that ultimately denied United a place in the League Cup final. Many are willing to forgive.
7. Who goes? Nemanja Vidic has already left in a way that’s allowed him to sign a contract with a different club and pose for a picture, but then come back and wear the captain’s armband for a little while longer. It’s okay, though. Vidic has had a great career at United, but it’s a good thing he isn’t leaving a season too late or anything. Now is the right time: there have been some atypically woeful performances amongst the really good ones. When it’s time for reflection, it’ll be the 2008 version that’s sorely missed. It’ll be something similar with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, too.
United desperately need two central midfielders to come in right away, so Fellaini, Carrick and Fletcher will have to settle for being squad players. Fletcher’s future has come into question but, with a point to prove, he did his job admirably at the Allianz Arena. He’ll be useful to have around. There might be some pressure to keep Tom Cleverley the academy graduate, but, like Anderson – especially Anderson – it ought not to be a loss even remotely felt. United can also do better than Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, but both have been decent in patches that it wouldn’t be a great tragedy if one of them remained at the club. Include Nani here, who’s expected to leave, and you might lose a little sympathy for the other two. Or not. It’s amazing just how dispensable some of these players are.
Shinji Kagawa has demonstrated why he should not be let go, even with a superior player in his favoured central position. As we’ve recently gathered, there is more than one place on the pitch to put players like Kagawa, providing you’ve got a mind to use him correctly. Though the Japanese international hasn’t exactly been treated harshly – having failed to take his chances at Tottenham (2-2) followed by Everton (0-1) – it would be smart to give him as many minutes as possible now, preferably with the players he shares an understanding with. Building a team around Kagawa and Mata means that it will be understandable if Javier Hernandez moves on, but it’s not absolutely necessary. And, though it’s difficult to see, selling Wayne Rooney would not be such a crime. His wretched showing in the defeat to Bayern could not simply have come down to an injection, especially as he regularly hit his usual hard passes up field. His lack of composure and negligence on the ball can be as frequent as some of his thrilling contributions. This does seem unfair: he should stay, but United must not be afraid to drop him now and then. Ferguson wasn’t.
Robin van Persie, finally, might thrive with a few of the technically-brilliant midfield players that have popped up of late. Who wouldn’t want to see that? With everything considered, here are players who definitely should be here next year: David de Gea, Rafael, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Danny Welbeck and both Van Persie and Rooney if the club aren’t held hostage to either.
8. This has been pretty critical of Carrick, but, to his credit, he did (inadvertently) identify where it started to go wrong for Moyes. Turns out pretty early: “He did not try to change it all at once because at that point there was not an awful lot wrong, we had won the league and looked strong.” Moyes has repeatedly spoken about how he could never have envisaged such a sharp fall for the club. His inaction in the summer window has served him badly. Signing players would not have had Moyes’ flaws magically disappear, but, with those he so evidently needed, United would be in a better position than whatever ‘seventh’ is (is that like a number?). The overuse of certain players, meanwhile, could be explained by the fact he thought they’d perform a bit better. If Moyes stays, he would need to add the word ‘but’ and some others to the sentence: “You’re a nice man, Ashley …”
A hail of bullets (they’re actually blanks):
- If United were to invest in, say, three new central midfielders (which they won’t) in the summer, that would probably sound too many. But what if they invested in just one? What would be preferable? Two! Certainly, yes, two. But if you had to choose between one and three? Three, no? The state of things.
- This was a lot more critical of Moyes than expected. Tentative fans of the Scot should reconsider, especially, once you really think about it, ‘he seems nice and I kinda feel sorry for him’ seems, I dunno, absolutely irrelevant.
- Apart from De Gea, who else has shown an improvement from last season (‘improvement’ here doesn’t imply he was anything but great)? There can’t be many, other than Danny Welbeck, who has improved considerably in front of goal but not neglected the qualities that make him so difficult to defend against. Ashley Young? Probably. This is not a fun game.
- Rafael has struggled a bit, but there has been enough to suggest a run of games like he had in Fergie’s last season would see him back to old ways. Let’s not even attempt to imagine Rafael any other way.
- That thing about Fergie’s presence being a distraction for Moyes was forgotten pretty quickly, huh? That was ridiculous. He oversaw United’s best performance of the season, the 5-0 at Leverkusen, though he must have been obscured from Moyes’ view, or something?
- Wilfried Zaha’s exclusion bemused for a while, but now he doesn’t even start at Cardiff City. Perhaps Moyes Knows … one or two things.
- There were a few offers for this very site during its unplanned hiatus. Probably should have taken the money.
- How about that Januzaj?
- Check out 2013’s notes here, when we were playing really well. Anyone remember those days?
- The guy who’s running the 10,000m for Manchester United as mentioned in the introduction now has just one lap left. All we can ask is that he tries.
- Oh God, I definitely should have taken the money.
“The first time I played with them,” said Bryan Robson of Manchester United’s Class of ’92. “You’re thinking ‘right, I’m gonna have to look after a couple of them.’ Well, I think it was in the first five minutes, Scholesy smashes one of their centre-halves, then you’ve got Gary Neville belting their winger all over the place [and] we get a free-kick from about 20 yards out and Becks goes ‘er, Robbo, I take these.’”
This was truly a special bunch, as United’s then captain had quickly found out. Indeed, so special were they that Robson’s recollection of these players some two decades later featured in a video tribute, shown on the night they, and those that helped mould them, were handed a PFA merit award. Just in case this accolade, to go along with several career trophies, doesn’t do the six famous academy graduates justice – they are, if you’ve somehow forgotten, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Phil and Gary Neville – there is also a film.
Apprehension is to be expected when telling a story that’s been told plenty, but it’s not so much a problem for something like The Class of ’92, because, quite simply, people like to hear about it no matter how often they’ve actually heard about it. And yet, even without the pressure of having to find a fresh angle, they do anyway, achieving full access with the players – and those that didn’t quite cut it at United – that goes well beyond talking heads. This is where the documentary’s lasting appeal is found: they use these personalities remarkably well. The action is secondary, not supported but used to support. It’s the story of six working-class lads united by their having of the same things and their wanting of the same things. And it’s pretty great to watch.
Having failed to get past the group stages of 1994′s Champions League, there was much for United to lament. But there was also a lot to look forward to: a 4-0 win to round off a mixed campaign over bogey-team Galatasaray was impressive on its own, but more so because United had turned to youth. “We have to develop or buy more English players,” Eric Cantona cooed post-match, addressing the restriction on foreign players that existed then. “But we have a good school of young players and they may be the answer.” Cantona had clearly seen something in a game where 19-year-olds Beckham, Butt and Gary Neville had started, the former making his début and scoring. The following morning, Rob Hughes of the Times was still unsure, posing a legitimate question: “We have enjoyed a glimpse of United’s future. It is full of promise of youth, but when will we see it reach manhood?”
That maturity process is key to the film, to their story. The 1992 Youth Cup triumph represented a lot – especially to Nicky Butt, who puts it “on par” with everything else he’s won – but there was still much to do, Beckham asserting that one trophy is “never enough”. Raphael Burke, supposedly as good as anyone else in that set but failing to make it any further, remarked of the “sacrifice” the six players had made. Gary Neville left his friends behind completely, a career at United more important. It clearly did something, since Neville, at one point, “was nowhere near as talented – technically – as all the other boys”, according to Eric Harrison. It is perhaps the most extreme example, but recognised that before a Treble could be won, or an appearance in Europe could be made, only putting in more than enough was enough.
Gary Neville, it should be said, didn’t exactly have little go his way: he was still the “leader” of the group, a future Manchester United captain for all to see. Phil, with slightly more natural ability, shared his older brother’s dedication (and his tendency to keep talking – and was why Jaap Stam affectionately referred to them as “busy c-nts” in his autobiography). David Beckham, the one from London, didn’t have to worry about adjusting because his obvious talent had seen him through; Ryan Giggs was a “down-to-earth superstar”, Phil Neville thought, and Scholes was just Scholes. Introducing him to Harrison, as noted in Ian Marshall’s book, Brian Kidd told him: “He’s only tiny; he’s got ginger hair – you’ll probably have a bit of a laugh. But he can’t half play.” Scholes emerges as the star of the feature: there is the impression that he’d rather be elsewhere, but he’s still got a lot to say. Having to collect his Champions League winners’ medal in a suit, he spoke of the embarrassment he felt, admitting he’d “rather just gone in the dressing room and waited, really.”
While logic dictates most praise should go to Giggs, Beckham or Scholes, it’s distributed as evenly as can serve the story. The audience can rank for themselves: in the end, the most important thing is the Class. “Everyone looked after each other,” Butt points out. The midfielder is given his dues, and it’s one of the things the film doesn’t necessarily have to do, but does it so well. Butt’s contribution cannot be forgotten, especially in ’98/99, where he was something of a Big Game Player, Alex Ferguson often preferring him to Scholes. His exit in 2004 was notable for the way it was handled compared to those other high-profile footballers: “Nicky has given Manchester United great service,” was the manager’s response to a transfer request. On that note, it’s a shame Ferguson didn’t make an appearance beyond archived footage.
The appreciation of the other’s achievements is best shown when the players get together and simply reminisce. They provide commentary on the pivotal moments in 1999: the “turning point” that was the turnaround at home to Liverpool in the FA Cup, the final league game against Spurs and then Bayern Munich. It’s the bouncing off of each other, the quiet reflection, the laughter that meets the anecdotes about Ferguson that makes this particularly pleasant. They were teammates, but also, and still are, just friends.
These friends didn’t just prosper by themselves, and it’s great that the film doesn’t build to something false. Fergie was the person who put it all into place, United’s scouting system three times bigger within a month at his command. Once the players arrived, coaches Kidd and Harrison helped guide them. “The standard of coaching we’d receive was out of this world for fourteen-year-old kids,” wrote Gary Neville in Red. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Giggs gives Harrison much credit: “It was built in us from Eric Harrison that you practise, practise, practise. My crossing was crap when I was younger. I wanted to improve my crossing.” And when United won the Double in the 1995/96 season, it was, says Scholes, mostly down to the senior players. “We had all these top players who got the young lads through it.” Zinedine Zidane, who makes an appearance, praised this potent mix of youth and experience, seeing it first hand in Turin, April ’99.
If there is one misstep, it’s in the eagerness to create social and cultural parallels. It’s done well, mainly; Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and Mani from the Stone Roses are useful in providing context, the former noting how Manchester took government disinterest to reinvent itself, and how United were a “symbol” of that. Mani, meanwhile, is good comic relief. The problem exists with the third non-footballing person to chime in. For something that’s focus is the years 1992-1999, it’s difficult to ignore Tony Blair, but they should have done anyway. New Labour, essentially repackaged Thatcherism, was hardly an example of a change taking place: and, in the end, represented very little for a lot of people. Blair is given a halo only briefly, however, and, that being about the only blemish, the film gets back to fulfilling its purpose.
That purpose is to show the great camaraderie which gave birth to a timeless modern football story: something to tell and retell. Eric Cantona glows in his praise of the “perfect script” – with a cast just as perfect to boot.
5/5 - It’s amazing how merely the sight of the word ‘Aeroflot’ in a shot of the Holy Trinity statue could lead to such longing.
PROLOGUE: As Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson can boast a shedload of Premier League titles, a bucketload of FA Cups, and far too many League Cups, Champions Leagues, Charity Shields and individual awards to just store away somewhere sensible. How do you, then, write about a man who has accomplished so much? The task sounds daunting, but some were about to do it justice (recommended, though it’s been a while: this one, this one and this one).
In one of the many great tribute pieces, the Guardian‘s Daniel Harris had written the following:
We’re obsessed by stories, and we’re obsessed by happiness, and Alex Ferguson has provided indecent amounts of both, such that listing the bare facts of his achievements, however impressive they are, would be completely to miss his measure. The numbers are simply an aspect of the attributes that make him such a compelling and extraordinary character.
Harris says that Ferguson’s departure would be such a significant loss to the sport that even United’s “greatest rivals will feel differently in his absence.” It is by being an imperfect and complex character that Ferguson has been able to either earn the full respect of many, primarily fans of United and Aberdeen, or the begrudging respect of the rest. Success accounts for a lot of that, but there is more to say about the Scot than just how many trophies he has won. This is important, and if we were to take Harris’ idea further, that to simply list his achievements would be to “miss his measure”, Ferguson’s success — which translates to ‘titles’ — has also created shortcuts when discussing on-the-pitch matters. It’s acknowledged that he has won titles, but the whys and hows should also be considered because it helps to distinguish this individual from football’s other winners.
The shock of a benched Wayne Rooney in what would later turn out to be Ferguson’s last chance to win another European Cup — only his third — was understandable: who wasn’t just a little surprised? After all, here was a man so desperate to win the most coveted trophy in club football that he cared little about who knew; the frequency and depth to his expressions of regret was almost uncharacteristic of someone who would, at the same time, speak proudly of all his players and all he has achieved with them. Had Ferguson not been so close in 2009 and 2011, the dramatic shootout victory of 2008 might have seemed recent enough for him to be content. Alas, no; he acknowledged the popular retort to any Ferguson praise — “he’s only won it twice in 26 years” — and, regardless of whether it was fair or not, regardless of whether it took into account just how difficult a thing winning in Europe is, he seemed to agree with it. By dropping Rooney, some got the impression he wanted to extend it to 27 years. And yet, despite all this, it was a classic Ferguson move. He wanted his third.
A Champions League final at Wembley — that being the scene of his very first triumph — would have been a perfect way for Ferguson to bow out, with the manager’s first and last pieces of silverware creating a sort of bookend. The significance of that FA Cup win in 1990 should not be downplayed. Ferguson wrote in his very first programme notes four years previous that “success has a snowball effect.” Little did he know it would lead to a start of a dynasty.
Even though Ferguson maintains that he would have kept his job even had his side lost to Crystal Palace in the final, it felt as if time had been running out. If not now, then soon. However, as if unaware, Ferguson made the biggest decision of his career yet. He dropped goalkeeper Jim Leighton after United drew 3-3 with Palace and opted instead to select Les Sealey for the replay. It was the first real example of Ferguson’s notorious ruthlessness, a decision made more amazing when you consider that Sealey was only at the club on loan and making his third appearance of the season. Leighton was punished for a poor performance and Sealey, of course, would go on to be the star, making a series of outstanding saves fitting for any ‘keeper of Manchester United. (Leighton, meanwhile, the Rooney in goal, was later offered the medal by the fans’ new, sympathetic favourite.) Sealey would help Alex Ferguson win his first trophy … and an equally-heroic display against Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later allowed him to win a second.
But goalkeepers, ambiguous as they are, are better suited to the background. Eric Cantona is often credited with United’s upward movement but perhaps not even Ferguson could have envisaged the impact he would have had. He underestimated him and later told Philippe Auclair that he was one of those players “who do what can’t be taught, who, in fact, teach you something you didn’t know about football, and can’t be learnt, because you had no idea it existed before they did it.” With Cantona, United went from tenth to eighth in November and then higher than they’d ever been with Ferguson: to first place. There were other signings designed to do exactly the same thing: namely Andy Cole, who with Dwight Yorke created the most satisfying strike partnership on these and any shores, and, most recently, Robin van Persie.
A masterful Roy Keane display in 1994′s cup final might have been another occasion when Ferguson felt most vindicated, a record-signing who looked a bargain within his first season. But Keane’s talent was obvious; there have been others that Ferguson has been able to turn into winners where it has been less clear. The Scot’s faith in Danny Welbeck this season was not misplaced, but not widely understood, either. Welbeck was United’s best player over two legs against Real Madrid and had largely done his job — to “choke” Xabi Alonso — and was hailed by the Spanish press in the first at Bernabeu as “the star, involved in all Manchester’s best plays.” Ferguson would come out the loser, but it didn’t feel that way. Phil Jones looked like a natural midfielder and David de Gea’s display was a testament to all the good work United have done with the player in little time.
With Darren Fletcher — not unlike the appointment of David Moyes — a cynic would often say that Ferguson’s admiration came first from the fact that they were both Scottish. But ‘Fergie’s son’ — as his critics, Roy Keane and practically everyone else, would later find out — was a good player anyway, and if there was any favouritism shown to him by the manager, it did not do the club much harm. The midfielder was a true product of Ferguson’s latter-day Manchester United (this is a good thing): an important player without any special or distinctive features, but capable of many things. John O’Shea was another.
There was also the transformation of Park ji-Sung into a player that would play in the biggest of games and the brief revival of Wes Brown in 2007/08 where he looked like the defender Ferguson always wanted him to be. In 2001, he believed that Brown was the best natural defender in the country, “better than Sol Campbell … [and] Rio Ferdinand,” and, in 2009, maintained that he indeed still was, if injury-free. That double-winning season saw Ferguson get the very best out of his players; he successfully managed to serve the interests of all of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and, in the Champions League final, Owen Hargreaves had one of his finer performances on the right in a move designed to give United a third midfield option and allow Ronaldo the freedom he desired. (Another small victory: Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia were not replacements for Ronaldo and Tevez when they’d left, and yet a change of style — or lack of it — to something more pragmatic, still saw United to their 18th.)
When United put four past Schalke at Old Trafford in the same competition in 2010/11, a watching Pep Guardiola, envious of perhaps the one thing his all-conquering Barcelona team did not have — depth — said afterwards that they “played a Champions League semi-final with a team full of reserves and won 4-1 – that says everything you need to know about the quality they have.” A lot of things have happened since then, but Fergie’s emphasis on a big squad remains the same, as obvious a thing as that sounds. He believes his 1999 squad was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today,” and that has shown; other teams could provide an eleven that look better on paper, but United, who have had 20 different goalscorers, have been able to churn out points at a rate where their challengers couldn’t, even throwing a few away for fun for the sake of a 5-5.
What else? Federico Macheda recalls Ferguson’s promise of a place on the first-team bench if he could get a goal against Newcastle for the reserves. “Can you imagine the excitement?” Macheda said. “Then I went and scored a hat-trick.” Then he went and scored the title-winning goals against Aston Villa and Sunderland in the following weeks. While it’d be reaching too far to give Ferguson credit for goals he could never have expected, it fits with his great management of youth. The Class of ’92 and their subsequent rise must be Ferguson’s biggest source of pride, and, according to Phil Neville in 1997, “the boss paved the way” for his generation to become everything they wanted to be: league and FA Cup winners, England internationals and whatever they were after the treble success. This great believer in youth, however, in his last game, shunned the chance to officially promote another youngster, Adnan Januzaj, preferring Rio Ferdinand to put a lid on United’s own defensive implosion. He wanted to win above all.
Someone, naming no names, wrote this about Antonio Valencia in April 2012:
They tell you that football is a game played by eleven, not one, but what is this sport, like the chocolate selection box you feel guilty for constantly treating yourself to, if you haven’t got your favourites? Valencia is the caramel hazelnut.
Things have changed. The caramel hazelnut that tasted so good has mysteriously disappeared; the wrapper*, of some sort of green-y, blue colour, is the same, but the contents are different. Some factory negligence or something.
When you look past the silverware and the guard of honours (i.e the important stuff (also: topical)), your favourites alone can make football worthwhile. It’s soppy, but true. It’s what makes a live game a little more enjoyable and your own sense of nostalgia feel unique and personal. Valencia could have confidently called himself a favourite of many not long ago, but, like life, extended chocolate metaphors and ’90s boybands, things invariably turn ugly. Fine, except it’s happened too soon. Valencia was better when he was one of the favourites. The Rafaels, De Geas and the Welbecks remain the milk ganaches, praline truffles and tangy oranges, but Valencia, this champagne-coffee-coconut-strawberry treat, is no longer among them.
Anything can be made to look better — or worse — when you have something to compare it to. Antonio Valencia has not had a good season. Put it next to the one before that and it’s been close to terrible. And, when you consider the expectation a player of his/at this level carries, ‘close to terrible’ still stands even if you were to completely isolate this season.
What’s more worrying is that it’s difficult to pin down why. For a player to become worse is expected; heck, Valencia is like any other winger, cursed from birth, but from one season to another and by this much? At 27? For such a superior United side? Is Garth Crooks more entertaining than he is thick? To simply put it down to confidence seems lazy, regardless if true, because it’s not really known how much confidence affects a player and then, if so, why it has such an impact. Does it suddenly erase natural ability? It could all just be a coincidence; that instead of having five or six forgettable games like he had last season, he’s had 25 or 26 out of his 30-odd this time around. What about the change of shirt numb- no.
In reality, it might be that United have set up differently in a way that hasn’t favoured the Ecuadorian. Sir Alex Ferguson has been bold with selection and constant with his changes: happy times for the wide-men in this joyful season where, at times, the manager has played just one or none at all (Valencia, though, has made as many league appearances as he had in his award-winning year). But it still doesn’t completely explain Valencia’s profligacy throughout, where, with the ball, he’s stumbled and stuttered (and not in the Valencia way of ’11, where his Garrincha stutter was his chief weapon), been matched by defenders he would usually get the better of and produced balls so unworthy of its homonym in the shadow cabinet. His struggles and the lack of answers for it suggests that football is a game better left alone, where all attempts at analysis are futile. Perhaps he was never that good at footb- no.
It’s hard being hard on Valencia, but ultimately justified. Singling him out makes sense because, one, he’s played the most games of all the wingers, and, two, because his descent is the most surprising.
All of this is less a criticism of the player than it is an expression of disappointment in a season largely lacking in these. It’s what makes you say ‘close to terrible’ instead of just ‘terrible’.
How sad. And, anyway, his best performance? The title-winning game against Aston Villa, perhaps, and in those around it up to the 1-1 draw at Arsenal on Sunday, but there’s little about a slight improvement to be enthusiastic about. There was also Chelsea in a cup replay — where he played at right-back, of course.
*Well, the non-bourgeois chocolate selection boxes contain wrapped chocolates.
Ashley Young had one of his finest games in a red shirt — opposition and definition of finest considered — in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Manchester City earlier this season. Good things barely repeat themselves, however, and so Monday’s reverse fixture was slightly different. Indeed, it was exactly that: a reversal of all the good we saw in December, where United — again, opposition considered — had looked like a team worthy of all of football’s best silver. Months later, reverse! Young played badly; the forwards frustrated; on this occasion, the midfield battle was lost and Phil Jones’ gurns officially went from amusing to disturbing.
United’s great lead, the one positive that would always have been regardless of the result, means they should get that silver, but what happened at Old Trafford yesterday cannot possibly be ignored. At least, it could, if it was a one-off. It wasn’t. Since the second leg defeat to Real Madrid last month, United have been unconvincing for five straight games.
This is a really strong United team. Not Sir Alex Ferguson’s best, but a capable team nevertheless. And what’s better than a strong, capable team? A strong, capable squad, which United have. The one of 1999, according to Ferguson, was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today.” It remains clear which is the better team but he feels this one has a greater number of options.
Which meant it was a shame that it wasn’t utilised as well as we might expect from Ferguson.
We saw it against Madrid; to respond well to Nani’s red card was always going to be difficult, but United had options on the bench they (a) either didn’t use or (b) or used too late (Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney). This was just a one-off, so excusable. And, in the manager’s defence, United had both matched Madrid for sixty minutes and then found their options limited with a man short. But none of those can be used as defence here. It took 80 minutes for a substitute, and that was when the amnesiac Antonio Valencia had replaced Danny Welbeck. There was a second in the 85th minute, Javier Hernandez, and a third two minutes into stoppage time. That was Shinji Kagawa, a man whose velvet boots can find life where there isn’t any and change a game. Except he didn’t have any time to touch the ball.
What was also jarring was seeing an exhausted Ryan Giggs play 90 minutes in central midfield. The decision to start him was fine, but whatever you do with him, he’s still a 39-year-old. Back in December, United were able to keep Yaya Toure quiet at the Etihad with a two man midfield of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley. It didn’t matter so much that the opposition players were (arguably) better as individuals, or had outnumbered them. The visitors were set up to attack and the partnership worked with that in mind. They gave that impression again with a few early, sweeping moves but Giggs and Carrick do not complement each other as well and that was soon realised, with Gareth Barry (exclamations!) performing well for City. Giggs has been wonderful to watch this season, but mainly because he’s been rationed and used properly. He played 30 minutes too many.
Meanwhile, Patrice Evra, Rafael and Young were not much better, Welbeck was a lot of things and Robin van Persie only really looked like Robin van Persie with the assist for the equaliser. Jones in central defence was United’s best player, but, in truth, there were so few candidates anyway. Rooney showed promise in the first half, and was kept on despite a sharp decline in the second, perhaps for his unique ability to have an impact even when not playing well.
It is tempting to conclude on a positive note. Just “12 points” and leave it at that. Because it was that sort of game, a depressing one … opposition considered.
Creators of television series are pretentious enough to describe their shows as like a ‘book’; an episode is essentially a chapter. They mostly frown on critics for this very reason. The superb Boardwalk Empire‘s recent third season was its best despite the fact that the first half of the 13 episodes were average. (Not all relevant but) In the end, the plotlines in the average ‘chapters’ grew in importance and became more enjoyable as the season progressed – and so the pay-off was extremely satisfying. It’s a clunky metaphor for the football, in a way. The parts you’d rather forget do not have to be as troubling as they were in real time when you begin to consider the whole thing. If United go on and win the title in May, it may very well be like that. There’s this game and the last month or so, but then there’s everything before it.
“Good things barely repeat themselves”? Not true. It only feels like that in bad times.
Observers will point to an uninspiring 1-0 home win over Reading last Saturday as proof of the weakest Manchester United side since that other time they were just as dire. It’s almost an extension of last year’s criticisms: why watch, analyse and conclude when there’s a way to do none of that? Good point. Leave it at that.
15 (fifteen) points suggests something else entirely. But, then again, maybe not. United should have won the title last year and this new lead might just be like the other. There are no assurances. But how much does that matter right now? Sir Alex Ferguson did not want to dwell so much on the Reading game, saying “it wasn’t a great performance but where we are now is not down to today, but the last six months.”
And, for now, where United end up in May is less relevant. There’s no good predicting — though it should happen — when United’s present situation gives the best indication of where this team is. Do they deserve to have such a lead? Almost certainly.
A long time ago, a good side was exactly that and few would argue otherwise — partialities rarely ever clouded judgement, it was that easy to see. This season, public enemy or not, some have found it difficult to acknowledge just how good this team is, or can be. The truth is they’re harder than you think.
- To hell with some, though. On closer inspection, you’d be able to see why this team are at the top. In an interview with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs admitted that the 3-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid left him “disappointed”, and plainly said that he hadn’t felt that way for a “long, long time.” Disappointed because of a referee’s game-changing call? Perhaps, partly. Disappointed because United just didn’t match Madrid over 180 minutes, because they fell to defeat in much the same way they did to another Spanish side, a mid-table one, in Europe the year previous? Not close. “But … there are so many positives as well,” Giggs said. “Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. And it was a proper European performance.” It might have promised more than it actually did, but United’s very admirable 180 minutes told us what we needed to know.
- What of football’s fascination with The Paper? Teams that look stronger ‘on paper’ are among the best ones, but don’t necessarily have to be the best one. The Paper states that there are countless sides United’s superior — but top-tier football is not Top Trumps. It might have been enough for Manchester City last year, it might even be this year (just because, you know) but it isn’t fair on players that have the misfortune to remain unappreciated, or on managers that value team chemistry as much as anything else. Those such as Rafael da Silva or Jonny Evans would not have to worry so much about what’s being said if a round piece of silver for the summer was promised, but it’d still be nice if they could have it their way. (As an aside, those two may just be examples, but very fine ones at that. It almost feels like an extension of last year’s crit-oh, see how that works.)
- It is possible for a good United side and a weaker league to co-exist. Even – even – if the Premier League is no longer in line with the very best in Europe, 15 points between last year’s runners-up and champions remains an incredible lead, and 29 games is an appropriate enough scope to say such a thing. If you weigh these two arguments up against each other, the lead surely says more — being a fact — than a theory about the state of the league, no matter how obvious it may be. It’s also worth noting the leads Barcelona and Bayern Munich boast at this moment; if these two teams are so far ahead in their leagues, does that give anyone justification to dismiss the rest? Not when the rest include Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. That’s not equating them, but there are clear parallels to be had that might say more than a typically Anglo-centric view about the best-suddenly-not-so-great league. Agree for agreement’s sake that the quality has waned, and 15 points is still very good.
(As a further aside, it could be argued that the nature of knockout football means this year’s Champions League doesn’t actually say anything about where English football is right now; certainly, all eight of those teams, of course, are not the best eight in Europe.)
- The Real Madrid game is worth going back to. Here’s a rough list of players whose performances in either leg were well-received: Danny Welbeck, Rio Ferdinand, David de Gea, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Evans. Throw in Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Giggs, Welbeck again, Ferdinand again and even Rafael for a much-improved 2nd leg. Some of these players don’t play every game. Where United have been particularly successful, above everyone else, is their level of depth. Ferguson went as far to say that the treble-winning squad of ’99 was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today.” The 1999 squad was complete: but complete in terms of the level of its core players, and where they had gone and where they could go. Literally, not so much. “When we went to the Champions League final in 1999, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury,” Ferguson said. “I had to pull in a player, Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice in the first team. He got a medal for being on the bench. That gives you an idea of the strength of the squad. Now I could change a whole team.”
Depth is a tricky one. Having depth is what some mistook Arsenal for having when they fielded a weakened side against Blackburn Rovers in an FA Cup game. A bench featuring Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere is pretty useful, except it’s simply not an indication of anything. Leaving your first-team players on the bench is not a sign of good depth, regardless of whether Arsenal have it or not. A better example, conveniently, would be United’s 18 against Madrid. The big games are the best sign of depth. On the bench, even if you discount Rooney from the second leg as he’s a proper starter, they had Evans, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez. That’s depth.
- The team’s one big problem, central midfield, has not even been that this season. While Paul Pogba continues to be the subject of envy over at Juventus, the truth is that United are not missing him so much (in the same way they don’t have to miss someone like Gerard Pique). Michael Carrick continues to be magnificent and the side look most comfortable with his presence, Tom Cleverley has had a good season while Phil Jones could feature more regularly in that position in the future. But even when it hasn’t worked so well, which it has a few times (especially with Anderson), United have managed. Lately, less goals are being conceded while goals are still being scored. Whether the theory that improvements at the back since the turn of the year have hindered Van Persie lately hold up or not, the team still remain a threat. Again, United have so far been able to manage with the squad they have.
- March saw United’s first defeat of the year, but that was to Madrid, where United, as cheesy as it sounds, lost with pride intact. There was also the near-collapse at Chelsea, where the hosts squandered a 2-0 lead in the FA Cup, but a dismal 45 might not prove anything at all, especially when Manchester United could relate to their renascent opposition It was almost inevitable that Chelsea would lead a second half charge, as most good teams in that position do. United’s biggest regrets was their failure to keep possession or to kill off the game, but those “six months” that Ferguson spoke of means it is dangerous to dwell on, and then to make conclusions from, just from that (though, at the same time, it is worth remembering). As Sean Ingle wrote, “we forget that the 1998-99 treble-winners, arguably Ferguson’s greatest side, had their struggles.” Nostalgia certainly obscures things — United won that title by just a single point (though, amusingly, the next one by 18). Hindsight, if all goes to plan by May, would inevitably alter perceptions on this team somewhat.
- The 2-0 win over Everton in early February is a good example of when United get it absolutely right. Even with the biggest game of the season to date not far away, the Reds managed to assert their dominance, and, in the process, prevented Everton from getting a goal, with a satisfying and efficient performance. United’s control of the game meant they could have scored more, but what was impressive was that when they eased off, with Madrid in mind, they still didn’t look like conceding. Above luck and refereeing decisions, they have won games through their own hard graft.
- The remaining nine games could possibly see that 15 point lead cut with City, Arsenal and Chelsea to come. At the start of the season, United would have been second favourites against City; but an away win in the winter perhaps hints at yet another shift in power. Indeed, one great indication of a much-improved United is how they have played against the biggest teams. So far this season, they’ve beaten Arsenal once, Chelsea (and City, as mentioned) as visitors and Liverpool, so often a difficult game, twice. No prediction for what’ll come, but it’s not false that United are better placed to win those games now than they were in 2011/12 or even at the start of this campaign.
If you’re one of the two to have noticed, apologies for the lack of posts. If you think about it, this is like three pieces in one.