Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Alex Ferguson

During my stay in Mexico, there have been two great football stories. First there was the way Man City won the league in 2012. Then there was the way that Chelsea won the champion’s league. Since 1999, when Manchester United won the Champion’s League (Why do they call it a Champion’s League when it’s actually a cup?) with two stoppage time goals, English clubs have won four trophies, including 1999. And all of these victories have been narrow victories. Actually, English clubs have a good but not great record in the UCL – Since 2005, there have only been two finals where English clubs did not participate, and that was 2010 and 2013. Although it does look like English clubs are really on the decline.

There is, potentially, a third story, and that is of Real Madrid and Barcelona failing to make the finals of the UCL for the second year in the row, this time through decisive defeats to German sides. This could signal a changing of the guard and a power shift. It is still too early to tell, and Spain might still win the World Cup next year. But this has the potential to be a great story in hindsight.

The other great story is that of Alex Ferguson’s departure as coach of Man U. It was always destined to be a great story. We knew it was going to happen, it had been a long time coming. There haven't been so many plaudits for Alex Ferguson since he won the treble in an extremely dramatic fashion in 1999 - think about the tussles with Arsenal in the league, about that last minute goal against Liverpool in the FA cup, about cup semi-finals against Arsenal and Juventus, and that final against Bayern Munich.

There were at least five great achievements of Alex Ferguson. First was winning the first league for Man U since 1967 and then building his great 1994 side. Second was rebuilding his Fergie’s fledglings side in 1996 and wresting the title away from Newcastle. Third was his treble of 1999. Fourth was seeing off the challenge of Chelsea and Arsenal when he gained back the premier league in 2007. And his last great achievement – we’ll only call it an achievement in hindsight, because we don’t really know yet. He gained the title back from Man City this year, and built a young side, in spite of the Glazers bilking the club of cash. It is probably Roberto Mancini’s fault that Man U won the league title this year so easily.

It was quite likely that Alex Ferguson might have quit last year if he had won the league. But thanks to one Sergio Aguero goal, he didn’t. And that probably delayed his departure by one year. In this one year, he started the rebuilding of a new side. He showed that a Man U side, post Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, would be able to compete for the title. He has brought in Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, and showed that in spite of all the criticism about his side not having a great midfield, they would be OK. He got Michael Carrick to be one of the great performers of the season. He blooded youngsters like Chicharito, David De Gea, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones, and showed a lot of young potential in the side. Anderson and Nani have not fulfilled their early promise, but they are totally adequate squad players.

But this side is clearly not the vintage side of 2008, 1999 or 1994. It is full of very good but not excellent players. There is the chance that other clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea could sneak into top dog position. The landscape will be like the fallow years of 2001-2006, when Man U only one the league once. They wrested the title back from Man City, but this could be like Liverpool wresting the title back from Arsenal in 1990, only to fade into the long sunset. Manchester United is an inspiration: since 2004, when Chelsea was bought over by Roman Abramovic, the Premier League was supposed to have been dominated by two clubs which were bankrolled by big spending billionaires. But in those nine years, Man U still managed to win the league five times. I don’t know if David Moyes has the ability to do the same.

There are potential problems, one of which is the way that the Glazers managed to turn the club into their own private money printing machine. They loaded lots of debt onto the Man U side, and the title successes in the last three years have taken place in spite of, and not because of their ownership of Man U. There is the big problem of Wayne Rooney who is feeling not completely appreciated at the club. Wayne Rooney has a checkered past with Moyes, since he made remarks in his autobiography that David Moyes successfully sued him over. Some football problems have been glossed over, like the lack of a midfield enforcer. Great Man U sides have had great defences, like the Bruce / Pallister pair, Jaap Stam in 1999, and Keane and Schmeichel together with these guys. The 2008 defensive formation had the Ferdinand / Vidic / Van der Sar trinity. While De Gea is a good goalkeeper, Ferdinand and Vidic are on their way out, and it is not clear that Jonny Evans / Smalling / Phil Jones are adequate replacements. Darren Fletcher may still come back as a midfield enforcer, but questions remain over that position, especially with Anderson not stepping up. Carrick is doing a fine job but one Carrick does not a great midfield make, unless they're planning to put Rooney in that position. Assuming that Rooney will still play for Man U. And it is far from apparent that Giggs and Scholes have been adequately replaced. The only part of the team which seems find is the forward line of Rooney, Van Persie, Kagawa and Welbeck.

In the short term, Alex Ferguson’s departure has wreaked havoc on the scene. It has set off another managerial merry go-round. Everton were reportedly blind-sided by Alex Ferguson leaving Man U. They thought that David Moyes was going to sign another contract at Everton. Ironically the one person who could plausibly step into his shoes at Everton would not be able to. Rafael Benitez would be a good fit, because he’s another person who can get good results on a limited budget, but he’s a former Liverpool manager who will be as welcome at Everton as he had been at Chelsea, since he previously talked about Everton being a “small club”. It’s probably a mischievous timing that because of Alex Ferguson’s departure, nobody is actually talking about the FA cup final. Nobody is giving a shit that if Man City wins it, it will be the third year in a row they have won a trophy. Nobody is giving a shit that Roberto Martinez and Wigan have a potential fairy tale on their hands, even as they strive to avoid relegation. People will instead be speculating if Roberto Martinez is going to take the seat at Everton. And people are wondering if Pelligrini is going to take the seat at Man City. Everton could go for Mancini if he gets sacked, but my hunch is that Mancini would have to go through one more season of not winning the league before he gets booted out.

Still, the decline of a great football dynasty has accompanied the departure of a great figure, and it remains to be seen whether Man U can continue the same level of success that they have had with Ferguson at the helm. One thinks about Kenny Dalglish leaving Liverpool and their subsequent downfall. Or Brian Clough’s departure from Nottingham Forest (his career did end in alcoholism and relegation). David Moyes is a very good manager but not proven at the top level. There have been very good managers who have gone to clubs where they hadn’t really succeeded. Like Trappatoni, or Sacchi, or Fabio Capello, or Sven Goran Eriksson, or Carlos Ancelotti, or Felix Magath and even Jose Mourinho’s legacy at Real Madrid is mixed.

Well maybe the EPL will become more interesting without Man U winning everything - unless we are talking about Chelsea and Man City winning everything.


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