Post the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson has done well to maintain United’s winning habits, without any significant additions to his squad. But despite having won the Premier League again for an unprecedented 19th time and making it to another Champions League final, the current squad of Manchester United doesn’t seem to be receiving the praise they are so used to. Much of that has to do with the United’s rather dismal away form last season in the Premier League and the emergence of Barcelona as the dominant force in European football.
The first point can be argued. The Premier League isn’t anything like the La Liga. The emergence of teams like Man City and Tottenham in recent years means that the “holy four” comprising of Chelsea, United, Arsenal and Liverpool no more have the birth right to the coveted Champions League spot. The likes of Aston Villa, Everton, Bolton and Fulham, all managed by hugely respected managers like Alex McLeish, David Moyes, Owen Coyle and Martin Jol, means they are no pushovers either. The newly promoted clubs from the Championship, who have tasted the winning habit, never make it easy for the Premier League clubs who are sometimes tired and battle weary. Stoke City, Newcastle United, West Brom and Wolves have been prime examples.
La Liga, on the other hand, is a different ball game. The quality of the league beyond the top 6 is questionable. The gap between Barcelona and Villareal (who finished 4th) is an astonishing is 32 points! For United, the same gap was 12 points. The gap between Real Madrid (2nd) and Valencia (3rd) was a staggering 21 points! The same in the Premier League is zero. The top 4 teams in La Liga scored a total of 321 points, while the top 4 in the Premier League scored just 289. These numbers clearly prove the competitiveness of the leagues.
The second point raised by critics is undeniable. Barcelona has taken the sheen away from the current United squad, who despite having won 4 of the last 5 domestic leagues and making it to 3 out of 4 Champions League finals, haven’t won the critics over. A monumental achievement for any team, no doubt. But Sir Alex, by his own admission, limits his admiration for the team by saying that ‘they never give up’. Not once has he associated the word ‘great’ with the current squad.
So, what’s Ferguson strategy for the coming season given his very public admission of not resting until solving the Barcelona puzzle?
Clues to that were clearly at display during the finals of the Champions League. It’s open knowledge that Ferguson had consulted Mourinho before the final, to gain an insight into dismantling Barcelona. Mourinho’s strategy for the semi-final was simple. Keep a fixed back four, with Pepe as the holding midfielder in the centre, to fill the gaps that Lionel Messi so likes to exploit. Keep another two central midfielder, to stifle the passing rhythm of Iniesta and Xavi. Look out for quick counter attacks with Di Maria and the speed of Ronaldo. He did it successfully during his time in Inter Milan and also during the Copa del Rey final with Madrid a few weeks before the semi-final.
But Ferguson clearly didn’t buy any of that. He rather chose to play to United’s strengths. He fielded his traditional 4-4-2 formation, rather than the 4-5-1 he has now begun to use successfully in European games. He also had a no man-marking strategy, giving his players the freedom to play their natural game.It didn’t work out in the end but everyone will admit that it was a far better performance compared to the forgettable 2009 final at Rome.
After a quiet couple of years in the transfer market, Ferguson is back with a bang. With the unused money earned from Ronaldo’s transfer and the savings from the last couple of years, Sir Alex has an envious war-chest at his disposable.
His new signings have given another indication of what he has in mind. Get pace on the flanks. Give quick and consistent service to the center forwards, both of whom can smartly foil the off-side trap. Have a strong physical defense with a calm and composed goalkeeper, and finally, a player who can link up, spray the ball around and dictate play in the central midfield. All very much in-line with the attacking philosophy that we’ve come to associate with the club.
Ashley Young is a great signing in all respects. He is a permanent fixture in the England squad now, and his pace and consistency in supplying perfect aerial balls down the centre means Hernandez and Rooney can safely bag 20 goals each. Nani need not worry as both he and Ashley can play on either flank. Gabriel Obertan and Frederico Macheda have also been getting good game time during the pre-season, and one can suspect that their time to break into the first team has come. Both are very exciting prospects for United and Ferguson’s persistence with them, when many others like Zoran Tosic have been shown the door, shows their worth.
Phil Jones arrival for 20 million pounds and Chris Smalling’s contract extension means Rio and Vidic cannot take their starting places for granted. This makes a case for one of the strongest central defenses United have possessed in recent times. One can expect United to continue their habit of maintaining clean sheets in Europe, which are so vital in the away goal scenario.
After Manuel Neuer’s error-prone display in the second leg of the United vs Schalke semi-final, Ferguson seems to have got it right with David De Gea. He maybe still young but then look at Peter Cech at Chelsea. He hasn’t missed a game, when available, since he arrived at Chelsea at a tender age of 22, arguably very young for a first team goalkeeper. Ben Amos and Lindegaard will ensure that De Gea never takes his place for granted, either, after seeing how Ben Foster’s fate panned out.
The missing piece clearly has been the central midfield spot, which has been aggravated by the departure of Paul Scholes. With Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs and Gibson he seems a little short of options. The arrival of Ashley Young also means that Giggs will no longer play as a winger but will now share the burden in the central midfield, which he has ably done in the last season as well. Assuming no one arrives, Anderson will have to step up his game a few notches, before Fergie loses his patience with him. The same goes for Gibson, who was almost on his way out to Sunderland alongside O’Shea and Brown. Stretford fans also have high hopes from Tom Cleverly who is now back after two successful season loan spells at Watford and then Wigan.
Fergie’s pursuit of Wesley Sneijder is no secret. Even though he has recently denied it by saying that ‘there is no interest’ in him, David Gill has confirmed that business in the transfer window will resume when they get back to Carrington after their American pre-season tour. It seems to be game of each party trying to get the most out of the deal before the window closes in August end. There has also been news of interest in Brazilian midfielder Ganso lately. However, we can only speculate.
So, looking forward to Fergie’s puzzle, this is how it pans out.
A robust 4-4-2 line up to start and defend with, which quickly changes to a 2-4-4 when in possession and on the counter-attack. Barcelona has a similar set-up which means that the full backs are vulnerable on the quick counter-attack. But this rarely happens as Xavi and Iniesta rarely give the ball away anywhere in the park, or are quick to get it back when broken. That is why a central mid-fielder who can hold his own and has the vision to pass, while Barcelona hunt like a pack of wolves to get the ball back, is vital to solve the puzzle.
Ferguson is also grooming Hernandez to do what Ruud Van Nistelrooy did. Be there at the right time at the right place, without falling for the off-side trap. With quick service from both Young and Nani, and Rooney to support him, Hernandez needs to be clinical with his chances.
In many ways, Barcelona is like Arsenal with Messi in their team. Without Messi’s wizardry in the final third, Xavi and Iniesta could well end up making circles like the Arsenal midfield, which is obsessed with dribbling the entire team including the goalkeeper before finishing the ball behind the net. The theatrics in the controversial semi-final against Real Madrid means that like Arsenal, Barcelona are one of the physically weaker side and prone to get muscled out; resorting to unfair ways, at times. A physical presence in the midfield is critical for United. People who fondly remember Roy Keane will vouch for that.
The surprising omission in Ferguson’s transfer window strategy has been the search for a wing back. With Wes Brown, Gary Neville and O’Shea all gone; we have only Evra, Fabio and Rafael fighting for 2 places. Neither of Evans, Phil or Smalling are natural wing backs. Though Evra is the last person to ever get injured, Ferguson may need reinforcements if something were to happen. But then again, these are hypothetical discussions.
While only time will tell if Ferguson got it right with his new players, it is evident that he is trying to build a new team here. The likes of Phil Jones, Smalling, De Gea, the Da Silva brothers, Welbeck, Gibson, Macheda, Cleverly, Obertan among others, could well be set for another generation of Manchester United greats. The loss of Paul Scholes is monumental, but he played only a bit part in the final. Anyone who comes in his place will only further add to the strength of the squad.
If that strength is enough to solve Fergie’s puzzle, remains to be seen..
~ Written by Ateesh Kropha