Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Man. U vs Barca - Not so Fergilicious, Again:

Deja Vu of a Spoiled Champions League Final 

In two of the last three years, the UEFA Champions League Final has proffered a veritable ‘Clash of the Titans’; the best team from the two strongest leagues, head-to-head in a one-off inside an enormous, neutral stadium, with the largest viewership in the world for a yearly sporting event--easily the confirmed 110 million--openly drooling themselves.

It is the epitome of the Champions League.

For purists, it's football at its zenith.

It is football enormity.

Yet these most heralded of all match-ups—in terms of their competitiveness, epic potentiality, and substance as a spectacle--have fallen flat, twice. I blame one man: Sir Alex Ferguson.

The Game’s Best Ego-Whacker

It is inarguable--and perhaps the greatest part in the parcel of his legendary managerial reputation--that Sir Alex Ferguson knows how to deal with players’ egos. In fact, the best way I can think to describe his unprecedented ability to keep his players' egos in check is with this visual metaphor.

The possibly insane, screeching Asian child with the padded whacker (‘Is that a Man U polo he's wearing?’) represents Ferguson's vigilance over his teams’ emotional balance, while the crocodiles—obviously—are the manifestation of the uglier side of players' egos attempting to rear their heads and get away with it.

Over the years, Fergie has been able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that he--and no individual hotshot or dilettante owner--is responsible for Manchester United's unmatched success in what is now arguably the strongest football league in the world. Since the 1992 founding of the Premier League, his Manchester United has captured 12 titles, while his closest rival, if you can call him that, Arsene Wenger—trophy-less in the past 6 years—has 4. (A side note: can anyone imagine Ferguson allowing his star player to sulk his way through almost the entire season as Fabregas did this year?)

Sir Alex's record becomes increasingly impressive as we see managers sacked with increasing regularity. Coaches seem, year after year, further devalued in their perpetual struggle with both players and owners for the reins to the club, to the point where there’s an emerging assumption that if the proper players are bought, all the manager need do is cheer them on.

On one hand, simply playing your best players and then screaming at the TV is something many simpleton fantasy managers think they can do to great effect, and anyone who’s coached the game knows it’s not even close to that simple. On the other hand, when the big game comes, most coaches hope they’ve got all their talent both focused and available...

Ferguson doesn’t seem to care. He seems to be so busy still ego-whacking, that when the one team in the world comes knocking that can whoop his team even when his current line-up is gelling, he seems to fail to look up.

Can Anyone Even Beat This Barca Team?

Barcelona is a club who’s style—as opposed to their manager—seems to come before any one player or coach. Since Barca shed their last coach (who’s most common pitch-side, facial expression his last two seasons there was this) as well as a few of the game’s most elite attackers whose egos were becoming too crude for the club’s delicate, piecemeal method of success, there have been only two potential obstacles in the way of their complete European dominance: Man. U. and Mourinho-coached teams.

While Mourinho’s win-at-all costs tactics have garnered one UCL victory over Barca (in the 2010 semis), and a chorus of critics (in the 2011 semis), when Fergie’s teams get mauled by Barca it seems that the story is that Barca are just too good. For us to agree, we must assume that the 2010 Inter team contained significantly more talent than the 2011 Man. U. squad. Not sure I'm on board there. So while Mourinho’s stylistic ruthlessness is maligned, Ferguson’s managerial version of it flies under the radar.

While his Premier League reputation has long since become solid gold (and got him bloody knighted), watching Manchester United's flops in two of the last three Champion's League finals against Barcelona has left me with the feeling that his style is somehow unfit for competition against the best, at their best, that with Ferguson there is some sort of incongruousness between his sometimes brutal talent management style and winning at the absolute highest level.

Fergie's Latest Two Cracks at Barca

When I watched the 2009 UCL final, I remember thinking it was extremely odd for Tevez to be on the bench. That year, the seemingly indomitable triumvirate of Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo had pulverized opposing teams’ defenses with an unmatched brand of both speed and power, but also a trust between them that led to consistently ambitious and dangerous off-the-ball runs that wore teams down with their sheer exuberance. The way those three played together, for me, the mere spectator, was integral to that team’s ‘identity’. I was mistaken. Apparently, Man. U.'s identity was more about the coaching style of Sir Alex himself then the way that year's team was successful.

As a fan of the game, I was immediately disheartened, knowing that one side was now seriously hamstrung, and I--wishing along with the world's largest captive audience--had hoped for a prodigious clash.

As most of us are aware, the UCL is no underdog league. Currently, given the schedules these teams play, normal teams are systematically weeded out through the rounds by not being disgustingly rich enough to have the means to field two studs at almost every position. So the whole point, in my opinion, of a UCL final is that sometimes you get to see the absolute juggernauts square up. After the game, I remember cursing Ferguson for wasting this moment.

When Manchester finished off Shalke (admittedly one of the deeper runs ever by an underdog), and Barcelona fought, passed and dived by Mourinho’s revamped Madrid, I again had the feeling that, aside from that disgraced Madrid side, these were certainly the best two teams in football, and that this was another affirmation of why the Champions League can be the most compelling of sporting spectacles our species has organized.

This time, however, my excitement was tempered: 'What was old Fergie going to do about Nani, and Berbatov?'

Now, while both of these players still (and may always) have clear flaws, they played a key role in Man U's success this season. Nani's 14 assists and Berbatov's 20 goals were both tops in the Premier League this season. But (perhaps irrelevant) stats aside, Nani was the creative force behind many of Man. U.'s strongest shows of football this season, and although Hernandez's recent vein of form had left Berbatov seemingly expendable, Barcelona represented a different sort of challenge, one where a recent vein of form doesn’t necessarily hold up.

It again came down to: was the identity of Man. U. its best players, or Fergie’s latest 'strongest' line-up, inspired, in part, by whose ego was ripe for a smashing on this enormous stage? For different, tactical reasons, I would be fine against having either Nani or Berbatov on the bench against 999 teams out of 1,000.

'Not against Barcelona.
 Please, not against Barcalona, again.'

As the starting line-up was displayed I cursed Fergie for the second time in three years, this time before the game even started. 

The Nani 'Cycle', By Way of Example

After the game Sir Alex spoke about Barcelona in terms of his own coaching philosophy:
Great teams go in cycles and the cycle they (Barcelona) are in at the moment is the best in Europe, there's no question of that. How long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at another point...they certainly have the philosophy. Can you find players like Xavi and Iniesta and Messi all the time? Probably not. But they are enjoying the moment that they have just now. (soccernet)
Nani, a snub for this year's shortlist of the EPL player of the year award, and Man U’s strongest and most consistent offensive performer for much of this season, came onto the pitch in the 69th minute. Within five seconds he was bombarded by an inspired Messi attack that lead to Barca’s third, clinching goal. Talk about an ego crushing, and one which coincided exactly with the end of the period where the game was winnable by both teams, especially given Barca's historic hold on possession. Nani, in hindsight, had about ten seconds in which to shine.

Now, barring the strongest mental resilience on Nani’s part, the downturn of his part in Man. U.'s latest ‘cycle’ is all but inevitable. The funny part was that it almost seemed that Messi--although he obviously had a vested interest in the same thing--was an actor in Fergie’s grand scheme: his mastery over his players. Berbatov, by the way, was not even privileged to be selected as a benchwarmer.

Granted, groups of players rise and fall, often in cycles, by themselves or with help, and Ferguson has mastered the aspect of getting a few egos to coexist for two or three consecutive seasons. He knows--better than anyone else right now--when to hold and when to release a player from the fold. Yet I wonder if Ferguson will ever allow one of his own teams to break cycle slightly and peak properly when the enormous challenge of a particular game depends on him doing so.

Perhaps he could try this at least once, against the game's best, on the world's grandest stage for club football, and we the largest captive audience would finally be granted our epitome: a spectacle of substance to match the herald and the hype.

-posted by A. R. McKenna


  1. I was hopeful there would be a game for the first 15 minutes then ManU just seemed to lose control. I watched them all year storming the defense with speed and numbers. The storm was gone, Barcelona's defense is pretty good, I never really noticed as much.

  2. Are we in a soccer drought now?

  3. What do we have coming...
    CONCACAF June 5 - 25
    Too bad none are at Foxboro. It looks like Jersey is the closest it gets to you, Sat the 18th.
    Ecuador's Primera A going strong 11 months a year. They only give them the end of Dec to the middle of Jan off.

  4. I was disappointed that Ferguson didn't react to the pattern of play that had been clearly established in the first half. They were lucky to go in on level terms. Hernandez, Valencia, Carrick and Giggs were not in the game at all. I would have went to a 5 man midfield by bringing on Fletcher, Anderson and Nani for Park, Giggs and Hernandez. At least it would have given them some chance of getting and keeping possession.

  5. Another thing that I found strange was that Ferguson said Berbatov wasn't on the bench because he needed midfield options but when he finally brought on Nani after 69 mins it was instead of Fabio after the 3rd Barcelona goal.

  6. Right, his selection and substitutions really felt to me as if he were more playing favorites than making sense of his opponent or what was happening during the match. It seems the two ways to get at Barca are absolute anti-football (which thankfully wasn't his aim), or to try and wrestle some of the possession away from them, and you can't do that with your most skillful players on the bench.