Why Sir Alex Ferguson is still the best Manager in the world
While the footballing world laments a shocker of a decision from a poor referee in a very good game, I thought I would look at United’s exit from the Champions League (beaten 2-1 (3-2 on agg.) by Real Madrid on Tuesday night) from a managerial point of view.
Sir Alex Ferguson needs no introduction to the footballing world. 12 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League titles and a treble – that’s about as impressive as it can get. Yet on Tuesday night, Sir Alex was on the money with an asset of his that is not talked about much – his tactical genius.
Before the game had started, the world was in for a typical Fergie shocker – he had kept Wayne Rooney out of the Manchester United lineup, and 39-year-old Ryan Giggs was to start a match against the fastest team in the world. Carlton Palmer said that Ferguson got his tactics wrong, and that United would be mauled by a slick Real team. But then again, that is why he’s saying stuff on TV and Ferguson has been the manager of the world’s biggest football club for 27 years.
When fifteen minutes of the match had passed, you could sense that United were comfortable – none of Madrid’s passes looked extremely penetrating and Ozil and Xabi Alonso were having little to no impact on the game. On the other hand, United’s counter attacks were far better than Real’s, with Welbeck sprinting up and down the pitch to no end, and Nani and van Persie providing excellent support to him. Ferguson’s plan had begun to take shape – he had played a 4-3-3 for the first time in quite a while, and it was paying off.
Firstly, the Carrick-Cleverley-Giggs midfield was a very wise choice. Carrick sat in front of the back four and single-handedly worked off the ball to deny Ozil and Alonso any room to maneuver the ball into. Cleverly helped Carrick out occasionally, but was charged with a more attacking role than defensive, and distributed the ball well to Welbeck and Nani up front. Giggs was the standout player, though – the experience of a 39-year old combined with the enthusiasm of a 17 -year-old – he was easily United’s best player in the first half. He made runs down the wings, played through-balls, won corners, won sliding tackles and provided much-needed support to Rafael from Coentrao and Ronaldo. United’s midfield was thus Ferguson’s masterstroke.
The attacking trio of Nani-Welbeck-van Persie was also excellent since the three of them were willing runners, and could track back if needed. This was where Fergie out-thought Mourinho – he did not park the bus and gave three of his most creative players the license to run forward and try and score goals. The attacking intent that United showed did not allow Madrid to keep the ball in United’s half, and forced them to check their own runs – they could not overly attack because they had to watch their own backs. Madrid’s midfield was largely subdued due to this attacking mentality of United – they were defending more than they were attacking.
At the back, Ferguson voted for experience over youth as he picked the tried and tested center-back pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic, along with Evra and Rafael as fullbacks. Ferdinand was extremely intelligent in his plays, and made up for his lack of speed by his understanding of the game – Madrid never caught him out of position. Vidic did what he did best – he defended like a warrior, and his inclusion in the side lifted the face of United’s defence considerably. It is no coincidence that United have been keeping clean sheets in the League since Vidic has returned – he has that effect on defences.
A further masterstroke from Ferguson was how he did not went gung-ho on attack – rarely did we see Evra making runs alongside Nani. Although Rafael did make a lot of good runs, he had Ferdinand rotate to protect against Ronaldo’s threat. If United had emphasised too much on attack, Real’s counter-attack would have been good enough to score – it was this mix of defence and attack that was working so well in United’s favour. At the start of the season, United had a frail defence and it was popular opinion that any good European side would have ripped them apart – the players and the manager certainly answered that yesterday.
On the whole, it was a tactical masterclass from Sir Alex. The teacher outwitted the pupil. Mourinho’s men could not break Ferguson’s warriors. Everything was set for the treble to become more than a dream in the United’s fan’s mind. United had taken the lead, and could not have been better placed to outplay Real over 90 minutes. This was further confirmed after the match, when Mourinho himself made the comment, “The best team lost”. It could not get clearer than that.
It was reported that after the match that Sir Alex was too disappointed to talk to the media. You would be too if you had been in his shoes. Imagine that you had laid out a brilliant plan to beat the one of the world’s best teams and had seen it executed for two-thirds of the game – and then had it cruelly taken away from you by a referee. Of course he was disappointed.
All people will remember from this game will be the abomination of a decision that was made by the referee, but what should be remembered is this – the tactical genius of Sir Alex and the perfect performance of United’s players.