A lacklustre win in Bucharest was followed by a lifeless defeat five days later for Manchester United. And Sir Alex Ferguson's tinkering is damaging their progress.
Changes are on the horizon at Goodison Park for Manchester United on Sunday. Some are enforced (Chris Smalling is out, Ashley Young is doubtful) and some are warranted (Rio Ferdinand and Anderson). But say it was United who slaughtered Manchester City 6-1, preserving the starting XI would still be as outlandish as a grammatical tweet from Ferdinand.
Two lines from David Bowie’s Changes symbolise the 21st century Sir Alex Ferguson, ‘Every time I thought I'd got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet.’ His unrivalled success is so profound that he has spawned his own And Now for Something Completely Different spin-off with Let’s Try a Brand New European Formation, only the laughter is minimal.
It seems frivolous to criticise someone as esteemed as Ferguson when he has won so many trophies that they could occupy the spare seats at the Etihad stadium. Rotation, after all, is a prerequisite for contemporary football’s swollen squads and tactical manoeuvrings’ importance has risen to obsessive levels.
Ferguson is so fond of tinkering however that he makes Claudio Ranieri’s erratic selections at Chelsea look tame. Rafael Benítez was also guilty of chopping and changing when he only named an unchanged side three times in 199 games during one spell at Liverpool, but whereas Ranieri was derided, Benítez was scrutinised for breeding instability. When he finally fielded an unchanged team it smacked of an attempt to appease a baying media. Ferguson on the other hand isn’t interested in pandering to anyone and has said before: ‘The days when Liverpool won the league only using 14 players are no longer possible – nobody even thinks about that now.’
Guessing his team is tantamount to nailing a jelly to the wall. When United visited Stamford Bridge on 1 March, it was the first time in a mammoth 165 games that the team had remained unchanged. Tinkerbell’s Terrible Tombola (to coin fanzine terminology) is as unpredictable as it is baffling.
To illustrate its cult following, the private messageboard of Redissue fanzine has run a prediction league in which users attempt to guess Ferguson’s correct starting XI for each game - the success rate is abject. And it is long overdue for a photoshop wizard to impudently pay tribute to the Scot with at the expense of Gary Oldman on the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy poster.
In 2006/07 United played some of their best football under their manager’s 20 years an 11 that any supporter could predict weekly.
But where did this all begin? Ferguson’s fixation with Europe was given a rude awakening in the 1993-94 foray into the European Cup courtesy of elimination to Galatasaray, which certified that younger players would instead be exposed to the League Cup in the future. It would be almost a decade later when he ramped up his modifications.
Obsession with club football's greatest prize was intensified in 2001 when he signed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastián Verón, which should have made a front six of Keane-Verón-Beckham-Giggs-Scholes-Van Nistelrooy one of football’s greatest attacks. Yet instead it discombobulated the rhythm of the team, and infected United’s league form (they had lost six games before Christmas). Devoid of the recently-departed Steve McClaren, like Madonna trying her hand at directing, Ferguson lacked the nous to make something function.
Scholes specifically was a conspicuous victim of his manager’s meddling as he became frustrated with his unaccustomed support-striker role, scoring just one goal in the first three months of the season. That manifested itself when he uncharacteristically refused to play in a League Cup game at Arsenal and was fined £80,000.
Carlos Queiroz was an underrated factor in Ferguson’s greatest successes at the club, with a settled side. In 2006/07 United played some of their best football under their manager’s 20 years an 11 that any supporter could predict weekly. Then in 2007/08, Ferguson and Queiroz struck the balance in establishing a Premier League and Champions League team that was instrumental in United clinching the double in Moscow. Queiroz left soon after and frankly, Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen are not as strong or reputable enough to influence Ferguson’s decision-making.
Ferguson’s policy however is not without its merits since United are habitually impressive from January onwards and their players fresh as daisies thanks to his strategy of rotation. He has already fielded 31 players this season, an indication of preparations for the business end of the campaign.
However in August, United scored 11 goals in two games against Tottenham and Arsenal, playing a brand of football that was oozed Sir Matt Busby's ethos. Contrast that to the inexplicable catenaccio line-up at Anfield two weeks ago and it is arguable that stability should be as pervasive a mantra for Ferguson as it is for politicians.
A simple statement it may be, but a run of games showcases a player in their best form. United have enough shortcomings to contend with that they can’t afford to drastically alter the selection process from weekend to weekdays. More alarmingly is the credible theory that Ferguson doesn’t know his strongest side, and is engaging in a trial run against Chelsea and City when that is the purpose of pre-season. Surely time to change a habit.
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