Sir Alex turns adversity into tactical masterstroke
Despite countless trophies and expert handling of big name players, there is one part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management that has some people open to question – his tactical acumen. Perhaps the Scotsman has been lucky in that regard; he’s always had the players with the talent, psychology and experience to adjust and react to situations. David Beckham switched to the centre of midfield following Roy Keane’s suspension in the ’99 Champions League Final and although Bayern dominated, he helped play a big part in not conceding a goal from open play.
Therefore entering the game with Wolfsburg with all of the Manchester United’s first and second choice back four, bar Patrice Evra, out with injury, it was always going to be a case of filling round holes with square pegs. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson tried to ensure he made the best out of his players’ abilities but still fitting his troops into an organised system.
His answer? A 3-5-2 formation with Michael Carrick in the centre, in a “half-sweeper” role, looking to take advantage of his tactical awareness and intercepting skills. The right and left centre-backs were Fletcher and Evra and this worked because whereas in a 4-4-2 it would have required them to perform as proper centre backs; here they had the luxury of third man to compensate for their lack of positioning. Instead they were more required to mark inside their zones rather than a mixture a typical centre back deals with. Park and Nani’s industry saw them deployed as wing backs meaning a system which was all about graft; its inevitable importance made more apparent before the match due to the injuries. They were supreme on the break and took advantage of the gaps left behind down the channels while the three man defence was effective in dealing with the diamond movement of Wolfsburg’s midfield.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest tactical success has been its subtleties beneath. His ’91 Cup-Winners’ Cup winners had a 4-4-2 of Ince and Robson in the middle, Sharpe and Phelan out wide while McClair played slightly behind Hugher creating a de facto 4-2-3-1. The 2007/08 Premier League and European Cup winning side played a dynamic and interchanging 4-2-4-0 formation, it’s greatest weapon the opportunity to get Cristiano Ronaldo into goal scoring positions by playing as an auxiliary left forward, where the manager feels such players are more dangerous.
“It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal,” says Sir Alex. “Strikers going inside are far more dangerous, I think. When [Thierry] Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.” Some attribute this tactical thinking to his former No.2, Carlos Queiroz, but while the Portuguese manager clearly had his input, judging by his recent managerial record, putting theory into practice has proven more difficult.
Coming into the match in the Volkswagen Arena, few would have imagined, let alone dared thinking, Manchester United were to play a 3-5-2 (which later became a 3-4-3). But then again, it would have meant underestimating the genius of Sir Alex Ferguson.