Sir Alex Ferguson is renowned for numerous distinctive qualities and traits: his burning desire to win; his temper; and his man-management skills, to name but a few. However, despite his status as one of world football’s greatest and most successful managers, the tactical side of Ferguson’s management has regularly been questioned throughout his decorated career. Indeed there are several examples of tactical oversights which have been to Manchester United’s detriment, not least in their lacklustre showing in last season’s crucial ‘title-decider’ against Manchester City in April. Unlike some of his successful contemporaries like Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, all whom heralded for their tactical nous and insight, Ferguson’s achievements have commonly been attributed to his aforementioned supreme ‘man-managing’ capabilities, complemented by his compulsion to win and an extensive treasure chest from which to supplement his squads.
But this dismissal of Ferguson’s tactical understanding is unfair and overly simplistic. Manchester United’s recent victory over Everton, which saw the club’s lead stretched to 12 points over their once ‘noisy’ cross-town rivals, was the latest example of Sir Alex Ferguson’s willingness to tweak his side’s tactics in order to stifle opposing sides’ main threats. In this case the threat was Marouane Fellaini, a player who was the catalyst in Everton’s defeat of United in the opening round of the 2012/13 English Premier League season. By employing Phil Jones to man-mark Fellaini, who stuck to Fellaini like a piece of stubborn chewing gum for much of the game, United were able to blunt Everton’s main attacking avenue. This approach to cull the opposition’s main-threat was similarly utilised a few weeks ago, with Jones’ role on that occasion to shadow Spurs’ Gareth Bale. Though Jones has been important in his role, many of Ferguson’s game-plans have relied heavily on a defensive fluidity and understanding. With Jones (or whoever has been deployed to curb the opposition’s main threat) drifting from a set position, Wayne Rooney has often been required to drop into the midfield to maintain defensive shape. It remains to be seen whether United’s successful integration of their new tactics can be transferred onto the European stage. Arguably the biggest test of this defensive adjust-ability has yet to come – and the Champions League ties with a star-studded Real Madrid will perhaps provide a better yardstick for measuring Ferguson’s tactical progression.
Nevertheless, domestically, in a season in which Roberto Mancini’s tinkering with his squad – especially his repeated attempts to play with three at the back – has undermined City’s title credentials, Ferguson’s rotation and adaptability has often proved inspired. United’s superiority at the top of the league is in no small part to the way they have performed head-to-head against their closest challengers – with only Spurs coming away with a win. Whereas last season Manchester City visibly won the tactical battles in both of their encounters, it appears that this season Ferguson has identified a formula that bears fruit in the biggest games. There are other factors which have strengthened United’s campaign, particularly the imperious form of Robin van Persie up front. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the most vital cog in the Red Devil’s engine remains their wily and astute manager.