How Alex Ferguson adapted Manchester United to the Premier League’s changing tactical climate

Words by Chris Smith Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 18, 2018
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Sir Alex Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League trophies during his 27 years at Manchester. He is recognised as one of the greatest managers of all time, but often praised specifically for his man-management.

However, what is sometimes overlooked is Ferguson’s adaptability. Manchester United were the dominant force of the first two-and-a-half decades of the Premier League era and were the flagship club for the league across the rest of Europe. It is, therefore, important to recognise that, in an era when English football was obsessed with a ‘positions of maximum opportunity’ (POMO), long-ball method of playing, Ferguson was the first to implement foreign principles to enhance, expand and revolutionise the way his side played.

The Counter Attack

One his best attributes was his proactiveness; he picked on opposition strengths and often setup to nullify, particularly against direct rivals, allowing his team to soak up pressure, and hit teams on the counter. Heading into April 1993, Norwich City were the surprise Premier League leaders, sitting a point above Man United and Aston Villa, but their next game was at home to United. Norwich’s game-plan was to set up in a 4-4-2 but, unusually for the time, they played a possession-based game, focused on keeping the ball in midfield and moving the opposition around to create gaps.

It is this visit to Carrow Road that is one of the earliest examples of how Manchester United could withstand pressure from an opponent, before regaining possession and transitioning with frightening speed. Setting his side up in what is as close to a 4-2-3-1 as you would see in England at the time, Ferguson deployed the mercurial Eric Cantona in the number 10 role, just behind the striker – a concept that was so foreign to most Premier League centre-backs at the time that it made him a nightmare to mark. Do we stick or twist?

Cantona would be the central pivot to the Man United counter attack but ahead of him, Ferguson played Andrei Kanchelskis, a natural winger, as the centre-forward, while Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe would line-up either side of Cantona to form a trident of speed to work in tandem with the Frenchman. Paul Ince, playing in midfield alongside Brian McClair, was given licence to join the counter-attack and the outcome was ruthless. The Red Devils scored three goals within 21 minutes, tearing through Norwich whenever they lost the ball.

The third goal, in particular, was scored with devastating efficiency, working its way from Paul Ince, charging forward from a deep position, to Cantona, slotting the ball into an open net, with just six touches and in nine seconds. It was front to back in rapid speed, but without the lumped ball behind the defence that was almost customary in the Premier League at the time.

This would become a hallmark of Ferguson’s approach to ‘six-pointers’ at the top of the league and is something that would be reflected in the likes of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Rafa Benitez’ Liverpool over a decade later.

Learning from your enemies

In June 2004, a seismic change occured in English football. That change was the appointment of Jose Mourinho as Chelsea manager. Mourinho was unlike any rival that Alex Ferguson had faced in the Premier League – Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers were your typical 4-4-2, get it to the wingers and cross the ball kind of side. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side lined up in the same way, but with a lot more flair and a complete disregard for defending which would, in the end, be their downfall.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had been Ferguson’s biggest challenge to date, winning three Premier League titles in six years, including the ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003/04. However, as much as the Frenchman brought a lot more fluidity to the system, he still played a 4-4-2 system, the only real variation being Dennis Bergkamp’s number 10 role, which itself was garnered from Ferguson’s use of Cantona years earlier. United still reigned supreme.

In the space of just one title-winning season in 2004/05, Jose Mourinho completely changed the tactical landscape of the Premier League, introducing the 4-3-3 system and effectively waking the country up to the continental approach. Initially, Ferguson struggled to cope, surrendering the title in each of Mourinho’s first two seasons in charge. Mourinho left Chelsea in 2007, but not without Ferguson learning a serious lesson. He immediately turned away from the traditional 4-4-2 approach, adopting the three-man midfield that had helped Chelsea be so dominant over that two season period.

Ferguson was well-placed to make this change. Backed by assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, who is widely cited as the man responsible for bringing Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani to the club, United were able to move Michael Carrick into the ‘Makelele’ role at the base of midfield, while Ferguson also assembled one of the deadliest attacking tridents the league has seen: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, mirroring the Robben, Duff, Drogba line-up that Mourinho favoured at Stamford Bridge. Queiroz, himself a Portuguese coach in the Mourinho mould, was a master in the 4-3-3 system and when the Old Trafford faithful began losing patience with their side’s slow switch from 4-4-2, he was the first to reinforce Ferguson’s resolve, once going as far as calling the United fans ‘stupid’.

Eventually, the result was astonishing. Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez scored a combined 79 goals between them in the 2007/08 season, firing United to the Premier League title and, more significantly, a second Champions League success under Ferguson, beating Chelsea in the final.

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