Monday, 25 February 2013

Alex Ferguson: the perfect blend of an idealist and a pragmatist

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled: 'idealists vs pragmatists: a look at manager styles', which explores the two main general types of managers at the elite level. The idealists are known for their ability to find the next hidden star, have a composed demeanour, they like to get the team playing entertaining football and look to leave long-term legacies at their club. However, with these traits come a certain stubborness to their philosophy, which occassionally prevents his team achieving ultimate glory- they're rarely prepared to sacrifice certain players they favour, and what they believe in, to do what is necessary to win trophies.

Then we have the pragmatists, who are the complete opposites. They will always play to the strengths of the squad available to them, and create systems designed to simply get the best out of their top players. They are efficient at keeping all of their players happy by rotating the squad, rewarding those who have played well with a starting place in the next match. They have excellent media-handling and dressing room skills, with an arsenal of devious motivation and mind-game techniques, made to provoke a certain reaction in his players or opposition team, to give his side an edge. They do tend to work best with a generous budget, but if the chairman is able and prepared to give him this, short-term success is almost guarenteed, before the pragmatist normally chooses to leave after a couple of years, in search of a new challenge.

Writing about these two different types, it has made me think about where Alex Ferguson fits in. He has been at Manchester United for 26 years, a team who have always been very exciting to watch, and that incurs the values of the idealist. However, to say he is too stubborn and hasn't been prepared to sacrifice his philosophy and change when football changes, has remained blindly faithful to players who aren't good enough, in fact couldn't be further from the truth.

But can you say that he is, for the most part, a pragmatist? Well, possibly. He's created very much a winning formula at Manchester United, has been able to quickly identify key players, such as Cantona or Ronaldo, and built his teams around them. I'd like to explore why, in many ways, Ferguson has the best of both types. He is the perfect manager.

His Idealism

1. The exciting football

I'm going to be honest here. My family absolutely despise Manchester United, because they've won too much that they, perhaps immorally take it for granted. I can understand that stance, but controversially I quite like them, and that's partly because of the football they play. 

As a Birmingham City fan, I've been to Old Trafford 5 times and on each of those occassions (except for once), we've been absolutely pummelled. Whilst my dad next to me would be scowling at how Ryan Giggs can be running rings around our defence into his mid-thirties, the chant of 'you've only come to see United' would break out. I would smile to myself knowing that that it wasn't an entirely false statement.

The way United play is not dissimilar to Barcelona in some respects. It's pass and move, attack, and it comes with a kind of relentless inevitability that they will definately score at some point. When United attack Blues, they might cross the ball in and we'd manage to head it out, but the ball would only end up back at Paul Scholes's feet, and he would instigate another attack. For us, it was a constant backs to the walls job, and that's impossible to defend against.

Over the last 20 years, Manchester United have become the Indiana Jones of football. If they're losing or drawing a match with 10 minutes to go, you can always bank on them to grab a goal or two, for me that's what makes them so exciting. 

I think for this 'you can run, but you can't hide' sort of attitude that United play with, Ferguson deserves much credit. Although Barcelona are brilliant at playing total football, with constant spontaneous movement, it seems to me like Pep sends his players out with little instruction, just to do their thing, whatever comes naturally. That's not to suggest he doesn't do any planning, but Barcelona under Guardiola would never change shape to accomodate their opposition's strengths/weaknesses. 

With Manchester United it's slightly different. There's a system behind it. By all accounts, Ferguson will furiously scheme, study and analyse the main weaknesses of his opposition team and will look to formulate a plan based on that. For example, in December of our first season in the Premiership, we played at United. Due to an injury to Martin Grainger I think it was, Steve Bruce was forced to give a debut to 17-year-old academy graduate Matt Sadler, at left back. Clearly as part of Fergie's plan, Paul Scholes directed all of his passes to the right wing, for David Beckham to try and manipulate the inexperienced Sadler.

2. A judge and developer of talent

In the development of a world-class player, there are several stages. When a talented kid is about 8 or 9, which seems ridiculously young but that's the way football is, they are signed by their local club in say Brazil or  Argentina (or Portugal in Ronaldo's case). Then, about a year later they are snapped up by one of their countries' biggest clubs to move through the youth system for about 7 years. It's the third stage that clubs like Manchester United comes in.

That club, and Alex Ferguson in particular, is fantastic at spotting potential talent at that stage. If you look at the number of bargain signings he has brought in, such as Solskjaer, Schmeichel and Cantona, they've been fantastic. Although I struggle to understand why they were sold, United also spotted the talent in Gerard Pique and Giuseppe Rossi, and made Cristiano Ronaldo a world-class player. Although he has had a whole scouting team underneath him for this, Ferguson has played a big part in Man United's ability to develop players with potential. He is almost as good as Wenger at that, even if Ferguson is rather more willing to part with larger sums of money to get the players he wants.

3. His loyalty

What amazes me, is that Ferguson was managing Man U in the mid-eighties. That seems unthinkable to me, because having been born in the 90s, I associate the 80s with the 'olden days'. When I think of the 80s, my mind immediately jumps to Chariots of Fire, Ronald Reagan, weird theme music to detective series, Flash Gordon, people with funny hairdos, Grease, parties, Madonna... you get the idea. Just to think that a football manager was in charge of a club at the same period of time, still is to this day - and is showing no signs of wanting to retire - amazes me. I struggle to know how Ferguson does it. You'd have to guess that he must have an incredible inner-drive and stamina, to succeed as much as he has done. 

His Pragmatism

1. The modernisation of United

Crucially, Ferguson has been willing to change United's game when football has changed. In 2002, he made an audacious and perhaps visionary move to bring in Carlos Quieroz as his assistant manager, and potentially his successor, to replace Steve McLaren. 

It was Quieroz who spotted and played a big part in the development of Ronaldo. When he signed, Ronaldo seemed happier to be beating a player than creating a goalscoring opportunity for his team, and with assist-machine Beckham gone, many questioned Ferguson and Quieroz's plans for the future.

But Ferguson clearly trusted them. Roy Keane, United's midfield general and captain for the last 12 and a half years, reportedly did not maintain a good working relationship with Quieroz, not liking his tactics and level of authority Ferguson gave him. Keane was therefore released, along with the likes of Phil Neville and Nicky Butt who carried the old school English mentality at United.

This was a brave statement of intent from Ferguson, to in a sense accept a transition period in order to build a team that was capable of competing in Europe, but it was one which held a great deal of forward planning.

2. A big game manager?

Over the years, United have become known for being a team that can handle the pressure in the big matches. I've done some research into this, looking since the 1992-93 season when they first won the title under Ferguson, at the number of points they've taken from the runner-up that season, or the Premiership winner if United didn't take top spot. The results are interesting:

93 v Villa- 1pt
94 v Blackburn- 1pt
95 v Blackburn- 6pts
96 v Newcastle- 6pts
97 v Newcastle- 1pt
98 v Arsenal- 0pts
99 v Arsenal- 1pt
00 v Arsenal- 4pts
01 v Arsenal- 3pts
02 v Arsenal- 0pts
03 v Arsenal- 4pts
04 v Arsenal- 2pts
05 v Chelsea- 0pts
06 v Chelsea- 3pts
07 v Chelsea- 2pts
08 v Chelsea- 3pts
09 v Liverpool- 0pts
10 v Chelsea- 0pts
11 v Chelsea- 3pts
12 v Man City- 0pts

In 20 title-chasing seasons under Fergie, the results from the big games are slightly unexpected. They've picked up exactly 40 points from the 40 matches, which averages 1 per game. Considering that you get 3pts for a win, that's not necessarily a good average, it's the equivalent of winning 1 game and losing 2. Furthermore, in just 4 of the 20 seasons have United gained an advantage over their rivals from the key matches, and in 6 of them they've taken no points at all. The last time United took maximum points from their rivals was in 1996, so maybe we can question the big game mentality many associate with United.

However, on the flip side of that, the fact that they've actually won 12 of these titles and have not got the best record against the top teams tells you something else. It only highlights their ability to grind out results in the potential banana-skin matches.

3. The motivation genius

Alex Ferguson is a fantastic psychologist, and my guess is that he does this by demonstrating a level of trust in his whole squad. By all accounts, he plans and plots his team selections months in advance, but has a way of keeping players who aren't in the team happy.

When United won the treble in '99, they had 4 top strikers in Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham. That's not too dissimilar to this season. Andy Cole had a deadly finish on him, great composure and ability to lead the line, like van Persie. Dwight Yorke brought a great energy and could operate well in the space in front of the defence, like Rooney. Hernandez, like Solskjaer, is a great supersub with lightening pace and is an ideal poacher. Sheringham and Welbeck have brought slightly differing traits to the United teams.

For me, the key to United winning the treble in '99, was Ferguson's ability to keep all 4 strikers on their toes and fully motivated. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spoken of the way he helped his confidence build. For instance, when United were drawing 1-1 at home to Spurs on the last day of the 98/99 season, they needed a win to win the title. Apparently Ferguson said: "it's okay, if we need a goal with 10 minutes to go, I'll just put Ole on". He wasn't needed in the end as United won 2-1, but Solskjaer has said that those words made him grow and simply feel big. If players walk onto the pitch with that kind of empowering motivator and man manager behind them, I'm not surprised United have won as much as they have in the last 20 years.

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