Not even Sir Alex Ferguson's most fervent admirers can claim he has never made a mistake. But then what an enviable habit he has, as he pushes towards his 71st birthday with all of English football once again trailing in his wake. The Ferguson trick is to so rarely make the same one twice.
It is a knack that can be described in various ways. Some might trace it back to the survival instincts acquired in the demanding streets of his native Glasgow. You might speak of that necessity to grow strong at broken places in a world which explores any sign of weakness day by relentless day. Perhaps more than anything it is a love of conflict, a passion to stay one step ahead because the alternative is to sink back into the crowd.
However you cut it, though, there is the recurring evidence of an ability to adapt successfully to even the most challenging circumstances – and learn from those mishaps which linger most powerfully in the bones. His victory over Manchester City on Sunday, with all the new possibilities of a psychological edge over rivals who so recently seemed to be an irresistible threat to an empire built over a quarter of a century, is surely one of the most compelling examples.
In almost every possible way it reflected Ferguson's most enduring strength. Above all, it represented that capacity to see precisely where he had previously gone wrong. In this case he had to go back no further than a little more than seven months. It was the night of Monday, 30 April, when he took his team to the Etihad Stadium in a self-betraying frame of mind. It was marked by unprecedented caution, a dismaying refusal to rely on all the old certainties despite the fact that his 13th Premier League title was surely in the balance. In the aftermath of an appalling performance – one in which United failed to muster a single shot on goal – no one was more appalled than Ferguson himself.
He gave City the freedom to attack at will, as some of his most gifted offensive players sat on the bench. Park Ji-sung, a spoiling specialist but one who had seen very little recent action, augmented a five-man midfield.
Wayne Rooney, who a few months earlier had devastated City in an FA Cup tie on the same pitch, was dislocated and dispirited as the likes of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck looked on.
On Sunday, all the old building blocks of the United empire were put back in place, even to the point when Ferguson had every incentive to take a point from the team who had not lost on their own ground for two years. Instead, he sent on the still coltish but also refined attacking instinct of Welbeck in place of striving young midfielder Tom Cleverley. Ferguson had come with his best attacking options, Young and Valencia wide, Rooney sweeping through from behind Robin van Persie. He came with his best instincts restored and he got his reward.
Those who worry about the momentum of a man who for so long was the greatest threat to Ferguson could only reflect on recent events at Villa Park, when Arsène Wenger was faced with a similar decision near the end against opponents who formed only a fraction of the threat posed by a reanimated City. Wenger, who for so long represented all that was bold and self-confident in the coach's dugout, replaced his striker Olivier Giroud with the midfielder Francis Coquelin.
If that seemed like a gesture of despair, it was even easier to see Ferguson's as a reaffirmation of the most enduringly combative values English league football may ever have seen. This certainly is a message that has rarely been so dramatically re-enforced in moments of maximum pressure.
It may have been coincidental that Welbeck's harrying of Gaël Clichy created the circumstances of Van Persie's decisive free-kick. Alternatively, it may indeed have been a reflection of a certain state of mind – one that once again, and despite the fact that United have rarely had more reason under Ferguson to fret about the efficiency of their defence and creativity in the midfield, seems to have been given still another lease of life.
No one is saying that Ferguson cannot be out-thought from time to time. Only that second-guessing does appear to be an entirely different matter. In fact, the latest facts suggest it might be entirely out of the question.
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- Antonio Valencia
- Dimitar Berbatov
- Javier Hernandez
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- Park Ji-Sung
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- Sir Alex Ferguson
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