For years, it felt like Manchester United were a club bolted together by the sheer determination of one man. Like a poor DIY job, nothing quite fitted as it should. Everything felt slightly awkward, slightly forced.
Chris Smalling just wasn’t a right-back. Wayne Rooney just wasn’t a right-winger. But Manchester United were a winning football club. And even if Ferguson took liberties with the vagueness of positions in the post ‘4-4-2’ years, it still somehow always worked out for the Scot.
Rooney and Tevez were early victims of Ferguson’s botched tactical DIY. ‘4-3-3’ had come back into vogue via Mourinho’s Porto, and the United manager wasn’t going to be accused of being behind the times. With Ronaldo clearly on another level to his teammates, Tevez and Rooney often found themselves bolted onto the wings of an attacking three, both paying the price for their willingness to put a ‘shift’ in.
In later years, it was the turn of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to ‘do a job’. Ferguson confusingly appeared to buy the pair of defenders as a kind of managerial will for his successor and then proceeded to sacrifice their development by consistently playing them out of position.
Such were the often odd outcomes of Ferguson’s policy for bashing square pegs into round holes that Manchester United’s 2013 Premier League title win elicited frustration from many people. How could a team with Danny Welbeck on the left-wing, Ryan Giggs in central midfield and Chris Smalling at right-back win the league by 11 points?
It just didn’t make any sense.
But it seems that the answer was what many had suspected; it was all down to the manager. Ferguson had imbued a mental strength in his players that negated the lack of quality and balance in the squad. Chris Smalling may not be the best right back in the world, but if Sir Alex Ferguson picked him to play there, it gave the defender the confidence to believe that he was. The man just knew what he was doing.
However, under David Moyes, Manchester United started to play like the club of square pegs that they always threatened to be.
The will to win was gone and replaced by a will not to lose. With their new manager appearing not to fully be able to believe that he’d been given the job, it’s hardly surprising that the players never completely invested in Moyes.
Chris Smalling now looked like the average centre-back being playing at right-back that he really was. Danny Wellbeck now an average striker being deployed out wide. And Antonio Valencia didn’t even look average anymore.
While Moyes may have had little choice when it came to playing players out of position due to the unbalanced nature of Manchester United squad, what was odd was his apparent insistence to keep the policy going.
Juan Mata is a very good number ten but a pretty mediocre wide man. The same sentence is true of Wayne Rooney. And yet David Moyes, or someone at Manchester United at least, thought it wise to sign the Spaniard for £37m, and less than one month later, offer Rooney a new 300k a week contract.
Together, these two pieces of business also secured for Manchester United a five-year selection headache. You could move Rooney to No. 9, if it wasn’t for the presence of better striker in Robin van Persie. And you could move van Persie on, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Dutchman retains little sell-on value due to his age and injury history.
The results of whatever way Moyes saw fit to bash these three players into one 11-man team were predictably underwhelming. Juan Mata was frequently the one pushed out wide, but this was only really true on the dressing room whiteboard. What happened in reality was the former Chelsea man spent most of his time stepping on Wayne Rooney’s toes in the centre of the pitch. And this says nothing of the parallel problem that these toes have consistently failed to link up with those of Robin van Persie’s in front.
Ferguson’s team selections may have caused raised eyebrows when they were read out, but were often met with head scratching when they resulted victory regardless. In contrast, Moyes’ team selections only succeeded in vindicating what we thought we knew already.
Juan Mata isn’t a very good right winger, Chris Smalling isn’t a very good right back, but Alex Ferguson was a very good football manager.