Before we start let me assure you this isn’t some form of rant, aimed at trying to claim Fergie is past it or should retire. Nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to two successive defeats which have raised questions about United’s ability to cope with the injuries we’ve sustained. I’m fully aware that Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest manager of all time and am eternally grateful to the football and success his genius has allowed me to enjoy over the past three decades.
I feel it would be dishonest of me not to air some concerns I’ve had, not just this season but ever since 2008 as to whether the great man’s once chess master like tactical brilliance has deserted him somewhat.
It used to be that whenever United went behind in games, you’d feel confident that through a tactical change, be it substitutions or formation wise, the Reds would be able to prevail in even the most unlikely of games.
These past few seasons however, I’ve lost count of the amount of games, where United have finished the 90 minutes with three or four strikers running around with no sense of synchronisation.
I understand that when you’re losing its prudent to bring on more attackers- Solskjaer and Teddy in 99 are the prime example of that. Yet recently the tactic – or lack of it seems to be “throw on some strikers” rather than counter the problems the opposition are causing us or expose weaknesses they may have.
We’ve seen the likes of Welbeck and Macheda operating as wingers, Rooney so far deep he could be our goalkeeper and Owen and Berbatov seemingly oblivious to where they should be and who their strike partner is.
It’s not just substitutions or changes that have left me puzzled by Sir Alex of late. I’m often reminded by Reds of the Fulham game a few seasons ago as an example of how “unlucky” we’ve been with injuries.
Yet that game was a prime example of how baffling Fergie’s tactics can be at times. United had just three defenders in our entire squad, Richie De Laet, Fabio and Patrice Evra . Yet it was only the vastly inexperienced De Laet who started in a back three which also contained Darren Fletcher who was desperately needed in midfield. Patrice Evra meanwhile was deployed as wingback while Fabio didn’t even start. After 23 minutes Fulham were two nil up and rampant, yet Sir Alex waited until almost the hour mark before changing things, finally bringing on Fabio although it was too late and at the expense of one of the other two natural defenders on the pitch.
I know hindsight is a wonderful thing but I remember being astounded United had lined up that way at the time.
The previous season everyone had praised Fergie’s brilliance in bringing on the untried Kiko Macheda to save the day -and the league- against Aston Villa. Yet how did a title that seemed so assured come so close to being handed to Liverpool in the first place?
In the Champions League, United have been to two finals in three years, a fantastic achievement by any measure. Many Reds, myself included have lamented the fact we’ve come across one of the greatest club sides of all time. Yet why have we failed on both occasions to even give Barcelona anything resembling a real challenge? Let’s not forget in 2008 we were able to go to the Camp Nou and come away feeling disappointed with a draw, then subsequently beat them at Old Trafford, without the Catalans even looking like scoring. Internazionale were also able to defeat Barca over two legs in 2010, while Arsenal were a Niklas Bendtner fluffed shot away from dumping them out of last season’s CL. If only…
Barcelona are not unbeatable, we just made them look that way. Twice. The first time Darren Fletcher’s suspension was given as the reason we failed so miserably, despite it obvious he wouldn’t have been able to deal with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all on his own.
What disappoints me most about those two finals is that absolutely no lessons were learned from Rome going into Wembley. Rather than trying to combat the problems we faced in Barca’s midfield, we simply ignored them; receiving a hiding Sir Alex labelled the worst in his career.
To say Fergie’s tactics were naïve wouldn’t be too far from the truth.
Talking of hidings, many people blamed the 6-1 derby defeat on the sending off of Jonny Evans. While that obviously played a major part, there’s simply no denying that Fergie waited far too long to bring on Phil Jones. City were all over United following the sending off, yet it wasn’t until five minutes after they grabbed a second goal, that Sir Alex made changes and even then it was Nani making way for Chicharito which came first.
Anderson had been beyond useless for the entire game and with no real cover the already stretched defence was struggling badly, yet Sir Alex decided to wait and wait until it was too late.
Then there’s been Europe this season, a group that should have been a walk in the park has been too difficult to even finish second in, with Basle and Benfica both proving too strong to defeat. When Sir Alex was questioned about how United had struggled in Europe this season following the home draw with Benfica, what was his response? Walking out of the press conference in disgust. Yet the fact is United had struggled in Europe hence the reason we were duly knocked out.
The recent games against Blackburn and Newcastle have merely highlighted some concerns I’ve had over the past few seasons, playing players out of position and ignoring the threat the opposition pose.
This sounds like a bit of a Fergie bashing which isn’t my intention, what I’m asking is should the United manager ask for some tactical help by bringing in another assistant? This may sound highly unlikely and many of you may even feel it unnecessary but let me ask you another question: if United had finished second in our CL group, do you think if we’d have been drawn against Barcelona, Sir Alex would have made it third time lucky? I certainly don’t.
In his book Red Gary Neville speaks of the influence Carlos Quieroz had in tactics before a big European game, how he’d leave nothing to chance, even putting cones on the pitch and telling players where to stand on throw-ins. This may sound excessive but during Quieroz’s time United defeated Barcelona, won the Champions League and also enjoyed some fantastic European nights.
Steve McClaren was another assistant who seemed to be able to either bring out the best in Fergie tactically or maybe even help with his own ideas. Whatever it was there’s no denying that three titles and a treble in McClaren’s short time at Old Trafford proved that the former Derby man was superb at his job, although like almost all of Sir Alex’s assistants has struggled to make the step up in management .
Mickey Phelan may be a good coach, in fact I’m sure he is otherwise he wouldn’t have been given the job on United’s staff, but I’ve often wondered how much input he has into tactics or maybe even suggesting changes. Ultimately Sir Alex will no doubt make his own choices on signings, formations, subs etc, and rightly so after all he’s the manager and the most successful one in club history to boot. I cannot help feeling that in the past men like McClaren and Queiroz have had more input than Phelan offers as sometimes, and admittedly this is pure conjecture on my part as I’m not privy to the workings of the United management team, Phelan strikes me as a bit of a “yes man” simply employed to coach and enforce Fergie’s ideas rather than come up with any of his own.
My suggestion would have been that Sir Alex brought back Queiroz but with the perma-tanned Portuguese coach now in charge of Iran’s national team until 2014 that seems a non-starter. There are coaches out there that could help give Sir Alex some fresh ideas though, personally I wouldn’t mind seeing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought in at the end of the season in a coaching role. It all depends on whether he’d leave Molde, where he’s had early success. Ole knows the players at United already and may be able to inject some fresh ideas into the coaching set up, who knows it may be ideal for preparing him as a possible successor.
I know many reading this will be disgusted that I dared to criticise and question Sir Alex, I understand that even in the seasons I’ve mentioned United have still been successful and despite what you may think I’m eternally grateful to the United boss and hope he stays on for as many years as physically possible. All I’m asking is there room for a fresh set of ideas, or maybe some tactical input which could see United prevail?
Have I gone in off the deep-end? Is it a case of In Fergie We Trust? Or is it time for some help for the 70 year-old? Feel free to comment, suggest and abuse below:
Read more of Justin’s articles at the excellent Red Flag Flying High
FREE football app that pays you CASH