The Curious Case of Alex Ferguson’s Tactics

Manchester United’s recent failings in the Champions League have been a blot on Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy illustrated managing career and have prompted critics to term this as the “beginning of the end” of his reign as British football’s most successful manager. The fire still burns as brightly as it did when he took over 25 years ago, but the iron grip he had, the sheer audacity he showed in the face of adversity seems to have deserted the wily Scotsman. Or so the critics say.

Many have dismissed Alex Ferguson before and had to retract their words as he consistently delivered unprecedented trophy success. Remember Alan Hansen’s jibe “You’ll never win anything with kids” when Ferguson introduced the likes of Beckham, Scholes and the Neville brothers into the first-team? Those words still haunt Hansen wherever he goes.

Critics and fans point to the unceremonious departure of Roy Keane in 2005 as the point when the downward spiral started for Ferguson and culminated in despair when Wayne Rooney shocked the world when he handed in a transfer request in 2010 citing the club’s “lack of ambition” as the sole reason for his dilemma.

What happened then? United were crowned English champions 3 years in a row (2006-07,2007-08,2008-09) and European Champions once (2008) following Keane’s exit, and were lifted the crown again in 2010-11, the season when Rooney decided he’d had enough. So let’s just put the theory that Ferguson’s legacy has run its course and his willingness and passion for winning have dimmed – they have not.

But there has been a worrying pattern developing in his tactics – the lack of a midfield enforcer, someone in the Roy Keane mould, if you will. Owen Hargreaves was Ferguson’s last attempt at filling the hole left by Keane, but apart from a scintillating campaign in United’s double-winning season in 2007-08, Hargreaves never really settled due to his chronic knee injury. Darren Fletcher has staked a claim for the role – he was branded ‘anti-football’ by Arsene Wenger – but his current situation does not bode well for him, there is a real possibility we may never see him in a United shirt again.

United’s midfield deficiencies were well and ruthlessly exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2009 and again in 2011. Michael Carrick, usually one of the most consistent and dependable players in the team, was found out by the utterly brilliant Barcelona midfield. Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets ran the United midfield ragged as Pedro, David Villa and Lionel Messi found acres of space between the United defence and midfield, the space which should ideally have been filled by a defensive midfielder. Ryan Giggs set up Rooney’s equaliser in the 2011 final at Wembley but that was a brief spark of hope in a performance devoid of creativity. United were too busy chasing the ball all over the pitch and their lack of pace in midfield was exposed in spectacular fashion.

Paul Scholes can still deliver the goods (after all, class is permanent) but, like Ryan Giggs, he has lost that yard of pace which proved to be United’s undoing in Europe. Pressurise that midfield and they’ll surrender possession, a flaw which has prompted Ferguson to look to Tottenham’s Luka Modric as a potential solution. The likes of Cheik Tiote and Daniele De Rossi have been linked but this is where I think critics and fans don’t understand Ferguson’s thinking – he isn’t looking for a defensive midfielder -he has long given up on that – he’s looking at a Barcelona-esque system where possession is 9/10ths of the law.

Michael Carrick is his Sergio Busquets and Paul Scholes (and if his replacement is found) his Xavi, and Kagawa his Iniesta. Sounds far-fetched? Think again. Why would Ferguson buy an attacking midfielder who prefers to play in the “hole” when the need was for a holding midfielder/playmaker?

Most of the big clubs in Europe are leaning towards this system of playing two holding midfielders, especially in the bigger games. But for this system to work, Ferguson does need a quick-footed holding player to replace Scholes and eventually Carrick. If Luka Modric does go through with his move to Real Madrid, it will leave a lot of questions hanging over Ferguson’s system. But as he has proved time and time again, he is already ahead of the curve, already plotting his next move as he attempts to usurp bitter rivals Manchester City from their throne.


This article was taken from Final Whistle.

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