As mentioned in the last section, Ferguson’s long transition to a system that would work in Europe was one of the greatest challenges of his career, but he was wise that he had taken the time before to make himself untouchable. For it was a return to the bad old days of ta-ra Fergie – the two things that individually are acceptable but together United fans will not tolerate. No trophies and awful football.
It’s become popular to suggest that Ruud Van Nistelrooy was in some way a hindrance to that early experiment of a side, his single-minded lust for goals obstructing the creation of a team ethic. If you encounter anyone who pushes this notion, do not talk to them, because they have nothing of value to say. It was remarkable, an utterly superhuman feet, that Van Nistelrooy did manage to score so many goals, considering the way the rest of the team was set up.
It’s a great shame, too, because had he avoided a fallout with Ferguson it would’ve been glorious and right were he to be involved in what followed. Swap Carlos Tevez for Ruud in his prime in that later United side and you can understand the possibilities. The breakthrough game when the enormous gap between midfield and attack that was necessary for the clean sheets was filled not by one freak of nature, but by a rotating cast of attacking talent, that the breakthrough game. United’s European record in the years following 2008 were utterly incredible, and had we not been unfortunate to suffer at the hands of one of the truly greatest club sides of all time, it would be a period that would have given us not one, but three European cups. I’m sure you don’t need to be told how many that would make in total.
He may have redeemed himself very recently by dragging a pretty awful squad to yet another fourth-placed finish, but the days when Arsene Wenger was thought of as a hypermodern, continental coach who would blow away the British dinosaurs have never seemed so far away.
Throughout Wenger’s early to middle period, some truly epic clashes took place between the two sides, a real bitter, angry rivalry, with brilliant games fought with primal brutality, and yet at the end of it all, Ferguson would carry on a winner while Wenger faced up to trophyless year after trophyless year.
Ultimately, it was Ferguson’s ability as an innovator – moreso than Wenger was – that enabled him to outlast him. The old problems of the English culture had already been addressed by Ferguson, and as the new millenium dawned, Ferguson willingly entered the lean years to use them as a painful process to reinvent his side and kill off the old 4-4-2, while Arsenal were simply painful and stayed there. 2008 would be the reward, although there ought to have been others, but the plight of United’s once-great rivals is a grim reminder of what could’ve happened had the road not been travelled.
It seems odd that in 2013, such problems as the fabled booze-steeped traditions of that great oxymoron, English culture, can still be a problem, as Paolo Di Canio attests. Yet it certainly was in the case of United, when Ferguson arrived.
Of course, it wasn’t necessarily a detriment. Bryan Robson could drink twenty pints the night before a big game and still go out and put in a titanic performance the next day. Unfortunately, Bryan Robson is Bryan Robson, and the other players at United at the time possessed a shortcoming which many since then have shared: they were not Bryan Robson.
What that meant was that Ferguson was leading a side that had some very good players, but was close yet very far away to the title. They would never be good enough unless the culture at the club was eradicated. Doing so would be painful – perhaps moreso than 4-5-1 – and almost cost Ferguson his job, but the end result saw the real foundations in place for what would become a period of utter dominance throughout the 90s.
4. Manchester City
This one may not be over, but with United in a period of austerity, it would’ve been easy to envisage a haegemonic City carrying out the ‘tick-tock’ prophecies off all the maniacal Blues who considered themselves soothsayers back in 2008. Yet through a remarkable utilisation of some pretty thin resources, Ferguson held off the challenge, before losing out at the last (still a shameful episode) and then immediately reclaiming it with a month to spare.
It’s sad that due to the Glazer regime, Ferguson had to go out with a relative whimper compared to the swagger of the great 1994, 1999 and 2008 teams, but it was a job well done by the only man capable of doing it.
Before City, there was Chelsea, and unlike the nouveau-nouveau-riche City, they came with an equally-large problem attached: José Mourinho. So far, City haven’t been able to construct a team anything like the evil automatons of the Mourinho regime, winning every game 2-0 and lacking even the faintest suggestion of fragility.
Of course, Ferguson eventually prevailed, realising that a better mix between attacking power and defensive solidity could be gained by moving from a 4-5-0-0-0-0-Van Nistelrooy formation to a 4-2-0-0-0-4. The football was excellent, not quite on a par of ‘99 or ‘94 since it lacked their cavalier stylings, but backed up with remarkable solidity. The problem was that Mourinho’s team remained long after the man himself had buggered off. And they always seemed to be a perennial nuisance, having a bizarre hoodoo over us.
Yet even though we lost many toe-to-toe clashes with them, over the course of that side’s existence, in trophies and plaudits there was only one winner. And when we did have to face them directly in Moscow, even if it was our only victory over them, it would’ve been worth a thousand others.