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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
It's not often that a manager can switch to good, old-fashioned 4-4-2 and be thought of as a tactical genius, but when Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his troops in a formation that many believed he had turned his back on forever, it was another demonstration of why he's still at the top of his game after 22 years at Old Trafford. He knew that Avram Grant would try to accommodate Michael Essien at right-back and he had a nasty surprise waiting for him in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo. The scheme worked so well that, with better finishing, the game would have been over by half-time. But, even though you'd be hard-pushed to think of any other manager who would shuffle his pack so dramatically before such a big game, we shouldn't be too surprised. Sir Alex's longevity is borne out of his willingness to evolve.

When he arrived at Manchester United from Aberdeen in 1986, the club was festering near the bottom of the old First Division with a group of under-achieving, over-indulging players churning out the kind of lethargic performances that put the club's future in the balance. Football was a very different game in the 1980s. Liverpool players of the era boast of having won the title 'on egg and chips' and if Arsene Wenger had turned up with his vitamin supplements and regulated diets, he'd have been laughed out of town. Players routinely sank half their body weight in lager straight after training and a surprisingly large amount smoked cigarettes.

Sir Alex acted quickly, booting out the trouble-makers and slowly setting down the foundations of his empire. The formation was still 4-4-2, but the ethos was different. Manchester United gradually became more disciplined than their competitors. They still drank, some of them in prodigious quantities, but they did it at the right time and they worked as hard as they played. Their rivals desperately tried to catch up, notably at Anfield where Graeme Souness attempted a similarly draconian revolution with markedly less success, but it was too late. By 1993, Manchester United were streets ahead.

Then the game changed again in the middle of the decade, when it was swamped by new money. The Bosman Ruling, the astronomical wages on offer and the endless line of clubs willing to pay them, meant that players had more power than ever before. It wasn't enough to simply shout at them, they had to be cajoled. Sir Alex evolved again, softening slightly, breeding a generation of young stars and keeping them settled, while all the time adding the right kind of senior professionals to the mix. Around him, a generation of old school managers, Gerry Francis, Howard Kendall, Alan Ball, fell away into obscurity.

The most dangerous time came in the summer of 2003 when Roman Abramovich arrived and Chelsea became a super-power. Wise enough to realise that they could no longer dominate through such rigid tactics, Sir Alex and Carlos Queiroz began to devise a new formation, capable of smoothly adapting to the ebb and flow of the modern game. The back four remained unchanged, but the attacking midfielders were given more freedom, provided they could be trusted to drop back and form a narrow barrier when required. The results were mixed and United drifted out of contention, finishing third two seasons in a row. Undaunted, he stuck to the plan, and in 2006 it all clicked into place.

A second European Cup cements Sir Alex's reputation across the globe as one of the finest managers of all time, but his success hasn't come just because he has an eye for a player, or because he is tactically adept. It has come because he is wise enough to see the way the game is developing, bold enough to make the changes and yet still cunning enough to know that sometimes, just sometimes, you can still surprise everybody by going back to that tried and trusted 4-4-2.


Life President
May 29, 2005
For me, SAF is the single best manager to grace the game. The way he meticiulously builds and rebuilds his teams is genius and the football they play is admirable... So much so that he's turned the team everybody hated in the 90's into the team that is adored and respected across the globe.

More than deserving winners of both the Premiership and Champions League this season and deserves to be knighted a second time round for sticking two fingers up at Roman and his money.

Still... he hasn't beaten Southend yet has he...