Ferguson profits in tactical exchange

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The Independent Online
Shortly before the match Alex Ferguson shrewdly planted a small doubt in Brian Little's mind by suggesting that Aston Villa failed to solve a tactical problem that grew last week at Chelsea. "It made me think about the way Manchester United would set out to play against us," the Villa manager said afterwards.

There was a smile on Little's face because Ferguson is a cunning bird who seldom misses a trick in preparation. "Typical Alex," he added.

One of the things about British football with which Ferguson agrees, and was borne out recently by Manchester United's loss to Juventus in the Champions' League, is that it will be difficult for our our clubs to regain a reputation in Europe unless home-bred players are better educated tactically.

After the game I fell into conversation about this with two former Manchester United players of great distinction, Pat Crerand and John Giles. Both feel that retention of the Premier League championship is well within the scope of their old club but are less certain that Ferguson's dream of adding the European Cup to his many successes will be realised this season.

It is encouraging, however, to find thinkers like Ferguson and Little at the forefront of a process that requires players to concentrate fully on plans that have been laid out for them.

A problem, of course, that this can sometimes result in matches that do not live up to the public's expectation. Instead of the thrills and spills associated with English football they sometimes see a game that is not entirely to their liking. For example, you could hear some edifying comments being made about developments at Villa Park on Saturday. Why were Villa finding it so difficult to test Raimond van der Gouw, the Dutchman who was deputising in United's goal for Peter Schmeichel who was stricken with a stomach ailment? What was in Ferguson's mind when he sent out Gunnar Solskjaer as a lone attacker.

The answers lay in the strategy that Ferguson adopted against a team improved no end by Little's forward thinking. It would be exceedingly pompous to suggest that supporters are not required to understand these things fully, however their preference for a more open game increases the difficulties imposed on managers.

What Ferguson set out to do on Saturday was to counter the formation Little favours, three defenders, two raiding wing backs, three men in midfield and two strikers. He strung four players across the field with David Beckham and Jordi Cruyff wide to prevent Fernando Nelson and Alan Wright from getting forward

"They are equipped to play in different ways," Little said. "They can keep the ball when necessary and get at you with counter-attacks. And as you saw they defend very well in numbers."

It was Little's view that the central defenders on both sides were outstanding. This was particularly true of Gary Pallister who had a big part to play in the fact that Van der Gouw was rarely tested. There were occasional alarms in Manchester United's penalty area but the closest Villa came to scoring was an effort from Dwight Yorke (goalless so far this season) that was correctly disallowed for handling.

On the other hand Manchester United were unlucky not to justify Ferguson's planning. Coming on for Solskjaer at half-time, Andy Cole sent a powerful header against the crossbar and Michael Oakes who is proving more than an able deputy for Mark Bosnich took enough out of a shot from Ryan Giggs to deflect it against an upright.

Doubtless, sent out with thoughts about improvements in passing, Villa did better in the second half, making more productive contact with Dwight and the unfairly maligned Savo Milosevic, but you always felt that Manchester United were superior collectively.

Nominated by Ferguson as a team to be taken even more seriously this season, Villa are not yet into their full stride. "It takes time," Little said, "but I think we are getting there and we improved as the game went on."

What you could not fail to sense was an admission that Ferguson had outsmarted him. "They have got a lot going for them," he added.

It was put to Ferguson that as Rapid Vienna, who are his team's opponents this week in the Champions' League, adopt a system similar to that employed by Villa that this might have influenced his thinking.

A smile crossed Ferguson's face. He didn't say it but there is an old adage in the game about taking each game as it comes. That much hasn't changed anyway.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Oakes; Nelson, Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton, Wright; Curcic (Taylor, 84), Draper, Townsend; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: McGrath, Johnson, Joachim, Rachel (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Gouw; Neville, Pallister, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Giggs, Cruyff (Poborsky, 76); Cantona; Solskjaer (Cole 45). Substitutes not used: McClair, Scholes, Appleton.

Referee: S J Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Curcic, Milosevic. Manchester United: Beckham, Keane.

Man of the match: Pallister.

Attendance: 39,339.