In a recent interview Sir Alex Ferguson lamented that he still doubted his tactical acumen (although he later added that these doubts were part of his strength as a manager) yet ironically he is not the only one who doubts his ability as a great thinker about the game.
When he sent out seven defenders in the recent cup tie against Arsenal eyebrows were raised. For many people this seemed to fit nicely into the meme that says that the Manchester United manager may be a great motivator of men but he is not a great tactician of teams.
His detractors are quick to point out that although has won two European titles in his time at Old Trafford they have been rather fortunate affairs; one that required two freakishly late goals and another that relied on a penalty shootout.
Add to this the equally pervasive theory that he only really prospers when he has an effective assistant in tow and the case is considered made.
All nonsense of course. Ferguson would never have lasted so long at such a big club as United if he knew so little about the intricacies of the game but, in a way, it is easy to see where this line of thought comes from. For, almost uniquely amongst great managers it is virtually impossible to pin down a “Ferguson style of play”.
His early teams at United relied on the pace of Sharpe, Giggs and Kanchelskis, which gave way to a team built around the mercurial talent of Eric Cantona up front, which was superseded by a side built around Roy Keane’s dynamism in midfield.
Throw in the recent three up front formation of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo and the current incarnation that seems to switch styles from match to match and you would be hard pressed to say that any of these played like a “typical Ferguson team”. So what is it about Ferguson that causes so much variation?
I want to argue that his great strength as a manager is that he is prepared to trust his players more than any of his contemporaries. Of course he will get rid of people that he feels are detrimental to the squad, but if a player performs on the field then Ferguson will support him 100%.
Even more than that though is the remarkable fact that, for one perceived as being intransigent in his dealings with people, he is fully prepared to mould the team around a player (or players) if he believes in them enough.
Cantona is the classic example. In theory the two men are polar opposites who should have fallen out within weeks, but Ferguson was willing to forgive Eric his “eccentricities” because of what he brought to the team out on the field, but once Cantona had gone he didn’t try to find a replacement as many would have done, he simply took a look at his playing staff and changed the system again giving Dwight Yorks and Andy Cole free rein up front.
After achieving success with the three up front system he didn’t try to keep the style by replacing Ronaldo and Tevez with similar players he just allowed Rooney to play as a lone striker and got the best season of his career out of him.
This season with Rooney out form he has allowed first Berbatov and latterly Hernandez to lead the line. Two completely different type of players that would probably cause confusion if they were interchanged at other clubs.
Maybe the victory in that cup game against Arsenal wasn’t down to tactical genius, maybe it was solely down to his faith in his players. He trusted the Da Silva twins to play out wide in a way that I doubt any other manager would. If they had failed he would have shrugged and put it down to experience, but it didn’t fail and he now has yet another option to fall back on.
Maybe the stubborn Scot is actually the most open-minded manager in the business and maybe his biggest motivational factor isn’t his “hairdryer treatment” or throwing shoes across the changing room; maybe the biggest motivation is that the players want to repay the faith that he so undoubtedly has in them.
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