Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sir Alex Ferguson at 1000

Sir Alex Ferguson
Saturday's 3 Sept 2012 Barclays Premier League fixture between Southampton and Manchester United at St. Mary's was the thousandth league game in charge for Alex Ferguson.

Now 70 years old - he was born in 1941 in Govan - he scored on his debut at the age of 16 for Scottish team Queen's Park. 20 goals in 31 matches was his tally for that team, but in 1960 he went to St Johnstone where, apparently, he considered emigrating to Canada.

In the FIFA World Rankings, as of 3 September 2012, the Canada men's national team is ranked 79th in the world, just below Cape Verde Islands. Canadians might be wondering "what if?" today. After scoring a hat trick v Rangers he moved to Dunfermline, where he was dropped for the Scottish FA Cup Final after a bad league game v St Johnstone. There is no sentimentality in football, and this experience must have helped shape his future attitudes toward team selection.

The following season (1965-6) he was Scotland's joint top goal scorer with 31 goals. He joined Rangers – the club he supported as a boy – for a record (between two Scottish teams) £65k. Here there was another important moment where he seemingly threw away his 1969 Scottish FA Cup loser's medal after being criticised for allowing his mark to score, though Rangers were well beaten by Celtic 4 – 0.

His wife didn't like the idea of their moving to the English wilderness of Nottingham Forest, so he played for Falkirk and Ayr Utd instead.

Like Andre Villas Boas he was a young manager: only 32 at East Stirlingshire. Then came St Mirren, and in 1978 Aberdeen. Aberdeen had only won the Scottish League once: in 1955. There must have been something strange in the water that year as south of the border Chelsea won Division 1 for the first time in their history, and even Newcastle United managed a trophy: a 3 – 1 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup Final.

Aberdeen's record under Ferguson: League title: 1980, 1984, 1985, Scottish FA Cup: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986 Scottish League Cup: 1986 European Cup Winners' Cup: 1983 (Aberdeen 2 – 1 Real Madrid) European Super Cup: 1983

After interest from a number of clubs, such as Arsenal and Liverpool, Alex Ferguson became the manager of Manchester United on 6 November 1986.

Manchester United's record under Ferguson: Premier League Winners: 12 FA Cup Winners: 5 League Cup Winners: 4 Cup Winners' Cup: 1 UEFA Champions' League: 2 European Super Cup: 1 Intercontinental Cup: 1 Club World Cup: 1

Saints Against Devils

Southampton 2 – 3 Manchester United

1 September 2012

Ferguson's 1000th league game resulted in a win, but it was a struggle for United against a quick and technical Southampton side newly promoted to the Premier League. All seemed well as United kicked off in their changed black and white "Derby County" strip (although I'm guessing United fans might prefer "Germany" strip).

Southampton could not take possession of the football and it looked as if a thrashing might be on the cards with Valencia threatening on the right flank. Robin Van Persie, who makes it difficult to watch United without thinking one is watching Arsenal, pulls off a delightful half-volley trap-pass behind the standing leg – and a minute later the Dutchman's chest and volley just goes wide of Soton's post. Southampton's contribution in the first eight minutes is a long vertical pass that Lindegaard (preferred in United's goal to De Gea due to the latter's gaffe against Fulham) rushes out to clear. The Saints did not play route one football against Manchester City; are they more afraid of Manchester United?

In the twelfth minute the home team wins a corner – an interesting outswinging ground ball is delivered to the edge of the penalty box. The United defence seemed a fraction slow to any danger. Suddenly, without warning, United seemed very fearful. Carrick, who started the game high up the field supporting the attack is now playing deeper and is thus allowing space in the middle of the park. Schneiderlin shoots high and wide. A minute later, the same player intercepts a United pass in midfield, the ball is worked by Soton through the centre, then played out to the right of the penalty area, a diagonal cross finds star forward Rickie Lambert who outjumps Rafael and powers the ball down past Lindegaard's left hand with a textbook header. England coach Roy Hodgson, watching from the stands, must have been impressed. 1 – 0. There does seem some weakness in United's set up with the two small fullbacks vulnerable to diagonals to the head of tall far post forwards.

Welbeck, working harder than many of his teammates, works the ball to Valencia on the right. His delicate cross to the far post to RVP's chest leads to goal for the ex-Arsenal man, helped by Clyne's slip on the over-watered pitch. Southampton's lead lasted a mere 5 minutes. 1 – 1, but they are not disheartened: two minutes later good movement by Matt Le Tissier's favourite son (and team captain) Lallana leads to Lambert's shot; 17 year-old James Ward-Prowse shoots just wide; Lallana's shot just wide; Southampton are outplaying Man U in midfield where Carrick and Cleverley have done nothing but pass the ball on, and Kagawa with a free role behind RVP has a high pass completion rate but does not look threatening.

But then Clyne slips again, and there are questions concerning his footwear, which appears to consist perhaps of Adidas F50's, which do have those flat front studs, though I'm sticking with the overwatering hypothesis. United are playing without a recognizable left attacking player, perhaps to draw Clyne out thus allowing room for Van Persie's left foot? As the first half draws to a close. There is an unusual long ball down the middle that Van Persie just fails to bring down: we don't think of him being a target player in the Lambert/Carroll mould. Was this pass a sign of desperation by United?

The second half turned out to be even livelier – and a great advert for the Premier League. If Southampton do get relegated, will the FA allow them to stay up for their entertainment value?

Kagawa is still learning his trade at this level, but one suspects his apprenticeship may be a short one as he shoots just wide of the near post. RVP misses a good chance from 15 yards. A diagonal from Lambert, Evra slips in a carbon copy of United's goal, and the impressive Schneiderlin scores. 2 – 1. Now I am sure I would be instructing my players to send in high diagonals to the far post of United's defence if I were an opposing manager. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce are you reading this?

Puncheon beats Evra easily in the box and shoots. Yet another diagonal to Lambert in the box, though this one comes to naught. Puncheon is increasingly lively, showing his fitness, and indeed Soton often seem quicker than their opponents. Something needs to be done to counteract that. No sooner have I thought that when .. Ferguson has seen enough and Scholes and Nani are on for Kagawa and Cleverley. Scholes has immediate influence on the game – he passes to RVP whose shot is saved by Davis. Penalty! Seems harsh. Southampton's appeals for clemency fall on deaf ears. RVP steps up, attempts to chip the keeper, but Davis saves brilliantly. This fellow Scholes continues to impress: looks the best player on the field.

Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, a former goalkeeper, takes off Puncheon, and adds Zambian striker Emmanuel Mayuka; Lambert is also off, replaced by Guly Do Prado. The 78th minute sees Saints captain Adam Lallana off, with Rodriguez coming on. On 87 minutes, Robin Van Persie scores after Rafael's cross is met by Ferdinand, who hits the post; RVP is the first to react as the ball comes back. 2 – 2. A minute later Rodriguez' shot hits Ferdinand, which leads to a corner. Desperate defending by United. What an exciting game!

The ball goes down to the other end of the pitch. A tired looking Fonte slices the ball. Corner to United. The ball is sent in along the six-yard line, a short near-post run by Van Persie and he heads in for his hat trick. 2 – 3, and RVP's 100th Premier League goal.

We can see why Adkins made them in terms of fitness, but one may look at the three Southampton substitutions and make the assumption that Ferdinand would not have come forward had Lambert still been on the field. So would the second goal have come about? The absence on the left of the creative Lallana, surely an England national team prospect, and Puncheon out on the right, meant the dangerous aforementioned diagonals were now absent. If anything, it was the Southampton defence that had run out of legs toward the end of the game, and it looks like, at least under the current tactical set-up, Southampton are going to have to outscore their opponents to win matches.

On the United side of the fence, the overall positioning in a 4-2-3-1 seemed fine. But any formation in the world is dependent on the quality of the individual players contained within it. I see a gulf in class between Cleverley and Scholes. As mentioned above, with the excellent Van Persie up front, I had the impression I was watching Arsenal but (until Scholes came on) with a worse midfield. I don't know if now's the time, but the Ferdinand-Vidic axis seemed not to be as impregnable as it once was, though it's perhaps too early to bet against Man U winning the Premier League again .. especially with Ferguson still at the helm. Is this his last season?

Peter Rodd

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