Ferguson needs old certainties for greatest test

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The Independent Football

Of all the advice aimed at the head of Sir Alex Ferguson none has been so immediately persuasive as that from the former Manchester United player, John Giles, this week. Beneath a headline which proclaimed, "Fergie isn't finished," Giles suggested in his Daily Mail column that the Old Trafford manager might consider relocating Roy Keane in the middle of defence, a move which would have myriad benefits.

It was, Giles argued, a problem position which Keane could "play in his sleep," it would allow Paul Scholes to revert to his natural hunting ground in midfield, and also give Ferguson the straightforward option of returning to his classic 4-4-2 battle formation by sending in Dwight Yorke or Andy Cole alongside Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

Mindful that Ferguson would more readily submit to canal root work without anaesthetic than be seen to have someone else doing his job, the Giles thesis was couched in terms of the utmost respect. One way or another, Giles expected "maybe the greatest football manager we have known" to find a way out of his current jam. Maybe coincidentally, there has been a meeting of minds, at least if last night's indications are true, that Ferguson will indeed play the Irishman as a central defender against Chelsea today.

One thing has been made plain by Ferguson himself. The sand of time is beginning to race. If Fabien Barthez plays he does so in the knowledge that another misjudgment of the kind which destroyed United against Deportivo La Coruña, Liverpool and Arsenal might well end all serious hopes of retaining the Premiership – and cast further doubts about the feasibility of the manager's dream of going out with another European Cup at Hampden in the spring. The pressure is no less intense on Barthez's compatriot Laurent Blanc, whose failure to deal with the pace of a third Frenchman, Thierry Henry, at Highbury last Sunday may finally have persuaded Ferguson that the great old warrior is no longer viable in an Old Trafford role that was always seen as transitory. But if these are utterly crucial areas of the team over the next few weeks, there is also a huge collective responsibility to answer the challenge laid down by the United manager at Anfield recently.

After a defeat of a passivity which Ferguson, who has always believed in the importance of attending to the dirty washing in private, just couldn't stomach, he said that it all came down to a question of how much hunger his players retained. Was it time for some of them to move on?

The relevance of the question has only intensified since then. A lacklustre victory over Leicester, a sloppily conceded equaliser in Munich, a serious run-around at Highbury, have scarcely eased the tension. But then why would a critic as astute as Giles still grant house room to the idea that redemption is still not beyond reasonable anticipation?

It is because of something quite fundamental to the balance of power in English football. Ferguson may be embattled, but he still retains the strongest hand in the domestic game. He still has the best resources, and by some distance. Would he trade en bloc for the squads of his most serious rivals, Liverpool, Leeds, Arsenal – or that of today's hugely expensive opponents Chelsea? Hardly.

Individually, he might take Michael Owen from Anfield, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry from Highbury, and, while displaying his current club form, Rio Ferdinand from Elland Road. Elsewhere, Ferguson must be happy with his big edge in individual talent. Indeed, one reason for his dismay is that at the start of the season he was able to claim – and who could have seriously argued with him? – that he had his strongest-ever squad. His summer additions, Van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron have done nothing, certainly, to erode the idea that they are players of the highest class.

Two factors, clearly, have worked against a seamless Last Hurrah for Ferguson. The most important, I suspect, was his decision to announce so early his departure as manager at the end of this season. There was no precedent. When Bill Shankly and Don Revie, the men who created, Ferguson-like, their own empires, left Liverpool and Leeds United they did so suddenly in 1974. Revie, to his eternal regret, accepted the call from England. Shankly simply walked. But, interestingly, they did so with resounding triumphs still fresh. Shankly's Liverpool had ripped Newcastle apart in the 1974 FA Cup final with Kevin Keegan's two goals utterly eclipsing the scoring phenomenon Malcolm Macdonald. Leeds had romped to the title, five points clear of Liverpool. The implication is unmissable. Both Revie and Shankly retained their authority, their control of the players' ambitions, to the moment they departed.

Ferguson, by telling the world that he would be gone in the spring of 2002, surrendered that advantage, and it is one he cannot recall now. In effect he became a lame-duck president, a man serving out his time. What he does with that time now is maybe the greatest challenge of his extraordinary career. All he can do, practically, beyond week by week selection of teams and tactics, is remind the players of what it was which carried them so irresistibly to domination of the English game. It was that hunger which went missing at Anfield. It was pride in performance by individual players that didn't depend on, as in the case of one of United's now most seriously under-performing stars, David Beckham, a call, say, to the England captaincy. It was that knowledge, which Keane was apparently born with, that great pros define their status every time they go out on to the field.

The other major contribution to Ferguson's difficulties, it is now beyond doubt, is more familiar. It is the dislocation to selection, and rhythm, that sometimes comes with the arrival of outstanding new talent. Malcolm Allison ranks his attempt to inject Rodney Marsh into a Manchester City team that appeared to be skating to the 1972 title as the biggest mistake of his career. Kevin Keegan's investment in the brilliant but erratic Colombian Faustino Asprilla, when he held a 12-point championship lead with Newcastle United, brought only selection chaos and an abandonment of the vital width provided by Keith Gillespie.

Ferguson's response to the arrival of Van Nistelrooy and Veron was to compromise with the pattern of play which had previously brought him success. It would, at the very least, have been impertinent to question the right of such a successful football man to try something new, but having tried it, it could be that he too now sees that there could be some considerable virtue in returning to the old certainties. It might have been a case for the old belief that insists, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". What isn't in doubt is the capacity of United to rise up with the kind of brilliant functionalism which on several occasions this season, in between the pratfalls, has lit up the sky.

That retained capacity to play thrilling football means that although United may be down, only an idiot would say they were out. It is a truth which might just engulf Chelsea today.

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