It’s weird being a United fan these days. Despite being second, ahead of teams like Liverpool and Spurs (who are according to some experts, two of the best attacking teams ever seen in the Premier League), and only behind The Best Football Team In History TM, this Jose Mourinho outfit is often described as one of the worst Manchester United teams in recent memory. A rich man’s West Bromwich Albion, as I heard a Bitter call us. Of course, our goal difference being superior to 18 of the 19 other teams doesn’t matter much. Neither does the fact that we are averaging almost 2 goals per game. After all, the Sir Alex Ferguson years provided us with much more than that. We blew every team away. Or did we?
I can’t read an article about United these days without the mention of how attacking the Sir Alex Ferguson teams were. “The legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson” is goals, attacking football. Entertainment, above all things. Then how come the same journalists, for more than a decade, called Sir Alex out for playing pragmatic football that was inferior to Wenger’s Arsenal? It’s only five years since the legendary Scotsman retired, but many people seem to have forgotten what his teams were all about. Resilience, determination, winning; these were always the priority. Sir Alex would pride himself on being Scottish, being a hard-working individual, which transpired onto his players for more than 26 years. There were of course magnificent victories, which are fondly remembered thanks to a magnificent thing called nostalgia. We’ll always remember the good days, the magnificent victories, the enjoyable days out to Old Trafford with our mates. From 4-0 to 9-0, there were amazing times. But isolated incidents shouldn’t determine a legacy that lasted for more than 26 years, and many people seem to have forgotten how life actually was in the days we were spoilt with success.
I have been a United fan for as long as I can remember, and barely missed a game since 2003. My father would tell me about how magnificent Cantona was, Robson’s impact on a stagnated team, how the class of 92 changed the footballing world, and thanks to season reviews that could be bought on VCR I managed to get an insight into his entertaining world of football. It all looked amazing. But when I started watching regularly, I was left slightly disappointed. I’d been brought up to think that United was a football team that went gung-ho every week, without any restriction or hesitation. But here I was, ten-year-old me, watching United sit back to soak up pressure at the Ibrox for more than 70 minutes. Phil Neville had scored an early goal to put United ahead against Rangers, but from the 20th minute onwards, I can’t remember us having a shot on target. Tim Howard finished as man of the match, and I remember Sir Alex getting scrutinised by the media. Oh well, I thought, hopefully this was just a one off. But it happened again, at Anfield, two weeks later. United sat back for most of the game, letting Liverpool dominate the game. We showed aggression, which sparked a fire in both me and the travelling fans that I witnessed on the telly, but quality on the pitch was sparse. Giggsy scored two ridiculous goals in the second half, and we somehow won the game 2-1.
As Arsenal went on to have their invincibles season, I was starting to wonder whether I was supporting the right team. All my mates at school supported the Gunners, and the media portrayed them as being the best team in the history of football. They could do nothing wrong, scoring at will, with people thinking they had reclaimed their dominance following a season where they lost the title despite being 10 points ahead at one stage. Thierry Henry was the best player on the planet, and Wenger had finally proven himself to be the superior manager. Sir Alex had become too pragmatic, not advancing with the times, unable to handle the free-spirited Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldinho’s Barcelona was together with Arsenal showing the way of a new brand of football. My loyalty was put to the test when Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto knocked United out of the Champions League in the Last-16 stage. United needed a win to progress, and it looked good for the first 40 minutes. Scholes had put us ahead after 30 minutes, and doubled the lead ten minutes later. Somehow, the assistant ruled it out for offside. Honest to God, I still don’t understand how he disallowed that goal. It was a shambolic decision, and it affected the players. United came out in the second half, looking unsure, hesitant on the ball, afraid to attack. The defensive approach looked to pay dividends as the clock ticked towards full time, but a goalkeeping mistake by PFA Team of the Season Tim Howard meant that they progressed to the quarter finals. Sir Alex was again ridiculed for his defensive approach in Europe, starting Fletcher over Ronaldo on the right wing, as he felt the need for more defensive cover. It caused some United fans called for him to be sacked, but thankfully, the board knew better. United went on to win the FA cup that season, despite being battered by Arsenal in the semi-finals. The display was resilient, and personally, I loved it. Fletcher, Scholes and Keane provided a masterful performance against an Arsenal team that blamed their loss on Thierry Henry being injured. Experts and fans alike swore to Arsenal winning everything once the Frenchman came back, as no one could see anyone stopping this mesmerising Arsenal team. It would turn out to be the last league title they have won so far.
It wouldn’t be much better next season. Despite bringing in Wayne Rooney, United struggled for goals. They were unable to find the net in 17 of the 61 games they played that season, most notably against Arsenal in the 2005 FA Cup Final, and against AC Milan over two legs in the Last-16. It was a complicated season. United absolutely battered Arsenal in that final, described as the “most one-sided final in recent memory”. AC Milan were also put to the cosh, and United produced an attacking masterclass to beat Arsenal 4-2 at Highbury in February. But these games had become a rarity. United would attempt to control games, kill them off, and often seemed content with scoring a goal or two. The criticism of Sir Alex reached its peak in December 2005, when United were knocked out of the group stage in the Champions League following three goals scored in six games. Benfica and Villareal went through, and United’s lack of attacking intent meant that Lille would finish third in the group, eliminating United from the possibility of competing in the UEFA Cup. Despite Mourinho’s Chelsea becoming Champions, the press were praising Wenger for his approach to football. He, unlike the other Premier League managers, wanted to play football. They wanted to entertain, and every neutral loved them. Despite rescuing a Champions League spot that season, Arsenal was the club that played the best football. Sir Alex was done. He was finished. Ronaldo wasn’t disciplined enough, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was on his way out, and Keane’s controversial interview had only confirmed the doubts of the press. When Ronaldo had his “winker” incident in the summer of 2006, and United replaced Roy Keane with Michael Carrick, people were expecting us to finish outside the top four. United had become stagnant, boring, defensive, and lacked a true goalscorer. United, in true fashion, would go on to play the best football I’ve seen from them in my 25 years.
People always praise the 2007/08 double winning team. But my best experience as a United supporter came the previous season. I had become accustomed to United being a defensive team, and refusing to bring in a striker that summer worried me. Louis Saha and Alan Smith were supposed to be Rooney’s partners up front, two strikers who were yet to score 20 goals for the club. But it all worked out quite well. Despite a blip in February/March, which included some anxious 1-0 wins against the likes of Liverpool and Lille, a team consisting of a ferocious duo of Rooney and Ronaldo blitzed opposition away at will. It was a team that could dominate opposition onto submission, respond to difficult periods (as Everton found out), or produce some of the most stunning counter attacking football this world has seen (as AS Roma found out). It was my first experience with a dominant, attacking Manchester United, and it would remain for the following season. The team learnt from their Champions League semi-final loss against AC Milan, and became a more defensively resilient team. The Double Winning team of 2007/08 remains as the last free-flowing, attacking United team I can remember.
Most people would remember the 2008/09 season for Kiko Macheda. That wonderful bastard made me celebrate my neighbours into calling the police because of public disturbance. Others may remember it for the comeback against Spurs, or the magnificent semi-final victory against Arsenal in the Champions League. But what that season was, was the most defensively magnificent United team that has graced the Premier League. Van Der Sar kept 14 consecutive clean sheets, which included two 0-0s and eight 1-0s. The team went to Porto and the Emirates with a defensive approach which was based on a lethal counter attack, Ronaldo proving the difference when he had to step onto the stage. But as a fan, I found myself frustrated most of the time. Incredible, I know. The two previous seasons had spoilt me. But it felt like we had regressed three seasons back. There was a serious lack of attacking intent for most of the season, in which Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic were discussed as our best players. Berbatov being brought in didn’t exactly help. Sir Alex had discussed the need to become better in possession, to become more dominant on the ball, but replacing Carlos Tevez with the lethargic Bulgarian made United a more pragmatic side. Ronaldo’s goal tally was reduced by 19, and the Portuguese left us in the summer. In hindsight, we know that Sir Alex was planning for life after Ronaldo. The Scotsman’s biggest accomplishment was keeping United successful, but the free-flowing football disappeared. Instead, his teams produced a fighting spirit that I’ve come to associate with United. The loss of Queiroz may have contributed to the decline in attacking intent, but Mike Phelan definitely aided Sir Alex in producing teams that would fight to the last whistle. In his last four seasons at the club, United survived on his legacy. Not that of attacking throughout, but fighting until the last whistle. Except for in the 2011/12 season, when United didn’t win a single game after conceding the first goal, it was all about comebacks and last-minute winners. Rio, Nemanja, Pat and Edwin were all reaching the end of their career, and our frail defence led to some dramatic nights. Thankfully, Sir Alex’s presence could win games on his own at times.
There are many myth’s related to Sir Alex Ferguson and his United teams. One of them is that he brought Van Persie in to ensure that we scored more goals. Losing the title to Manchester city on goal difference had become typical for the direction United were going. And Van Persie did win us the title. His goals were pivotal, both in their execution and their timing. But United as a team scored less goals, and finished the season with a goal difference 13 worse than the 2011/12 side. In his final season, Sir Alex preferred to stick by Tom Cleverley rather than bringing in Mousa Dembele, claiming that the Belgian lacked the discipline to play as a midfielder. Cleverley was also preferred to Pogba, which led to the Frenchman’s controversial departure to Juventus. Offensively minded midfielders have often been an issue for Sir Alex, with Gary Neville recently claiming that Veron’s free-spirited approach disrupted United’s structure. Even Anderson, brought in as an attacking midfielder, spent most of his stay at Old Trafford shielding the back four. It was all supposed to be systematic. We weren’t Arsenal. You couldn’t pick up the ball wherever you wanted, you needed to be within your zone. We needed to be defensively solid.
I love Sir Alex Ferguson to the bottom of my heart. He has my endless respect. But his myth has begun to surpass his legacy to a level where it’s impossible for any manager to be successful. I may not agree with everything Jose Mourinho does, but on the pitch he’s as close to the Sir Alex Ferguson I’ve experienced as we are going to get. Experts claiming it to be an embarrassment for United to sit back against Liverpool or Chelsea have not watched any of the games we played against them in the last fifteen years. I’ll take exception of the 2007/08 fixture at Old Trafford, when we were lucky enough to see Javier Mascherano get the most stupid sending off I’ve ever seen. We’ve always sat back against the top teams once we’ve got a goal or two, hoping to hit them on the break. When people discuss Sir Alex’s legacy, I’ll remember it for the 30 seconds of aggressive tackling against Wigan Athletic in 2012. I’ll remember it for the 180 minutes of resilient defending against Barcelona in 2008. Or the 3-2 comeback against AC Milan in 2007. I won’t think of his United teams averaging more than 2 goals per game in only 11 out of his 20 Premier League seasons. Or opposition teams outscoring us in 10 of them. Or the fact that only 6 players managed to get to the 26-goal mark in his 26 year reign. I will remember Sir Alex Ferguson for winning trophies, getting us over the line, and making the players show a passion and determination for the Manchester United kit.
Jose Mourinho has made United improve massively in the last two years. The football is much better, despite criticism being more ferocious than ever. He got it wrong against Sevilla, and his comments post-match may have been a bit excessive. But the man has a point. United, despite being dominant in England for the majority of 20 years, have only managed to reach the semi-final of the Champions League 7 times since it was rebranded in 1992. The Old Trafford crowd was edgy throughout, and I was shocked to see the reaction that some of the fans around me expressed. I’ve always possession in the Champions League, as the tempo is slower, and team-transition is more balanced compared to the domestic games. But people began to moan in the 20th minute. Mourinho got his comments about McTominay spot on, calling out fans for booing a backwards pass in the 80th minute. In Europe, this kind of play has become a necessity. The temperament of the fans seemed to shake our players, with simple mistakes completed all over the park. Booing by the Stretford End can’t have been well received either, for a man who has channelled his inner Sir Alex by asking for more support from the fans. Many people forget that the team is still in transition. One can point at all the money that’s been spent, but money has never been a guarantee for success. I can understand the fans’ frustration about Jose being too pragmatic at times, as football has become an entertainment business that thrives on spectators getting involved. If people want to raise their concerns about his playing style, they are entitled to. But saying that it isn’t the Manchester United way, or using the words “Sir Alex would never have gone to Anfield for a point”, is self-deception at its best. If you need a reminder, look at our approach at the Etihad in April 2012. Or the 2-1 loss to Chelsea in April 2008. Even Highbury in January 2006 deserves a mention. Because that was the Manchester United way. And apparently, it still is. People just don’t remember that.