Manchester United: Going into the Champions League final
This piece appeared on SB Nation first.
Manchester United have been this year has been relentless, started from a serious question at the beginning of the season. By now, we assumed the answer would’ve revealed itself in glory or despair, yet despite the title triumph and Champions League final place, we are still none the wiser.
In terms of being worthy winners, a good side, then yes, beyond all doubt. It’s a popular suggestion that Ferguson is the main reason behind United’s success this term, but he has reaped the rewards of a wonderful squad of players – the product of years of tweaking. True, the first XI may not be what it was, but the entire group of players is superior to anything previously seen at Old Trafford or anywhere else. It is a masterpiece, years in the making.
It is perfectly-sized, without being too big or small. The backups in each position are almost universally superior to their equivalent backups across the rest of Europe. There is no strongest XI, because it is a team that has often been picked on a ‘horses for courses’ basis – and one that has also utilised United’s greatest strength of someone stepping into the void when a teammate suffers injury or loss of form.
It is also noteworthy for the sheer number of strategies United can deploy. They can attack you with relentless pace and directness with Valencia and Hernandez. Alternatively, they have players with enough guile to unlock stubborn, defensive teams, such as Berbatov and Scholes. The old guard brings experience, while there is a general youthful energy to the rest of the squad. If you think of virtually any type of player, from classic, touchline-hugging winger, to deep-lying regista, there’s one in the United squad, ever-ready for when his time comes.
And it will always come. The fact that no player, with the possible exception of Michael Owen, finds himself without the requisite game-time, or stuck to fester on the bench repeatedly, is a simply incredible testament to Ferguson’s powers of squad and man management. All players that are rarely used are still young enough to be playing reserve football. There are no follies here, no reminders of past mistakes in the transfer market, or failed investment in youth. They have been utilised perfectly this season, but United’s title was won first and foremost by the foundations.
Consider a defensive crisis at Manchester United – if their first-choice central defenders are out, they are replaced by Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans. After that, they still have John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Conversely, Chelsea would be forced to move Ivanovic inside to partner Alex, before having to rely on unproven reserve players. Arsenal have the disappointing Squillaci to partner one of their other three centre-halves before, again, having to rely on untested players. It’s true right across the park – Ferguson’s is the ultimate ideal, the injury-proof, bad form-esistant balanced squad.
It’s a common criticism to hear of managers that they “don’t know what their best XI is.” It’s United’s strength, rather than weakness, and that’s down to the fact that it’s successful – in the hands of as astute a manager as Ferguson is, it’s a potent weapon. The first XI may not be as strong as Barcelona, but United have other tricks up their sleeve – big-game players, such as Park Ji-Sung, impact players like Javier Hernandez, can swing the balance not only over the course of the season, but also in the big games, as was proved against Chelsea.
Yet if supporters cannot reminisce over this team in the future, reciting the first-XI with teary eyes, are they that great? United’s present squad is a labour of love, but not really a work of art. Functionality has triumphed over philosophy, as is Ferguson’s wont. It may be that he doesn’t have the resources to built a truly great team, or that it is a team in transition – oddly, virtually none of United’s squad are in their prime, and when their playing days are over, they will mostly be remembered for a different time in their careers. But whatever the reason, it is a highly effective strategy for the relentless accumulation of trophies, with the final problem solved – previously, Ferguson has spoken of ‘eras’ and ‘teams’, yet now, he has found a way to achieve victory even in transition, for the process to be self-repeating, and perpetual in it’s changing, rather than periodically ushering in and out new sides. The rate of change and improvement has been swift enough to achieve the holy grail – a kind of footballing Technological Singularity.
Victory over Barcelona, then, can only come if Ferguson’s choices are correct. His squad provides such ample resources that he can simply envision the perfect hypothetical team to beat Barcelona – in style, at least – and select it from the vast options he has at his disposal. In opposition to Manchester United’s vast repertoire, Barcelona, as the chant goes, only have one song. But what a song it is. Nobody has been able to work out a definitive way to stop them, but it will be down to Ferguson to do just that – and few would bet against him.