LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Josep Guardiola manager of FC Barcelona (L) and Sir Alex Ferguson manager of Manchester United watch from the touchline during the UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Alex Ferguson's managerial prowess has come to the fore this season - but he has favoured old-fashioned methods to achieve success.
In recent times, we've seen rise of tactical analysis in football, largely on the internet by the unqualified - some good, some bad. Most of them share, to an extent, a shared editorial stance on certain things. One such observation is a number of tactical 'trends' spotted in the game - examining how football tactics have changed, past strategies that are now outdated, and newer ones that may represent the future of the game.
Alex Ferguson, however, who was widely praised this season for harnessing the full extent of his considerable powers to lead his team to a record 19th title and a Champions League final, has clearly not been listening. His Manchester United side have bucked the tactical trend, using allegedly outdated methods to prosper at home and in Europe. Below are just some of the more modern tactics which have been rejected by Ferguson's team.
1. Inside-out wingers.
Playing wingers on the 'wrong' side is a trend we've seen across Europe from the biggest to the smallest clubs - but not at United. Ferguson has always played Ryan Giggs on the left, Antonio Valencia on the right, and Nani, a primarily right-footed player, delivered his best performances of the season on the right wing during Antonio Valencia's injury lay-off. Since returning to the left, he has been a peripheral figure.
The reason for this is probably United's strikers - all three are excellent at getting on the end of crosses, with Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez's heading ability and Dimitar Berbatov's strength and technique. Wingers positioned on the opposite flank don't have the option of playing a quick ball across the box - a problem exacerbated by the fact that Giggs and Valencia are very one-footed players. If a very left-footed player is playing on the right, the only option he has is to come inside. If he's playing on the left, he can do either, making them more unpredictable. United's width has compensated for a lack of creativity from midfield, and playing on the right hasn't inhibited Nani's goalscoring ability either.
2. The importance of the midfield
Despite enjoying success in recent years with a 4-3-3 in the big games, United have generally played a high-tempo 4-4-2 for most of the season, including against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal. Even more surprisingly, they've done it without a great, or even good midfield.
United have been overrun in the centre, even when playing with three central midfielders, by the likes of Bolton, Birmingham, and Blackpool this season. There are a number of reasons for this, such as injuries, loss of form, and not having any particularly great midfielders in the first place. However, the fact is that United have managed to have a great season despite severely lacking in what is apparently the most important part of the pitch.
There's a simple reason for this - United's defence and forwards have been so good, that they've made up for it. United have arguably lacked a midfield since the Juan Sebastian Veron experiment - since then, they've generally had two quiet, static midfielders and relied on a fluid and creative frontline to do the attacking. It's not worked as well as it did when Cristiano Ronaldo was one of them, but this season, it's still been enough.
3. The death of the poacher
An obvious one - Hernandez has been the signing of the season, scoring a huge number of important goals in his first season in English football. Nobody can deny that the Mexican has had a stunning impact, and yet his position is one which had been threatened by extinction.
Of course, you can argue that he is not a mere poacher - he has tremendous pace and work-rate, which offer him more than the likes of Robbie Fowler, say, did. But his sole reason for being on the pitch is to score goals. He's not a modern forward as we'd think of them - unlike Fernando Torres and Karim Benzema, he has no great dribbling ability and is not great at creating chances for himself or for others. Unlike David Villa or Samuel Eto'o, he's unlikely to be useful deployed on the wing.
Despite that, Hernandez managed to force his way into being United's chief goalscorer, after displacing Berbatov and striking up a partnership with Rooney. Rooney is another player who fulfilled this role brilliantly last season, picking up the Player of the Year award in doing so. This year, he's showcased his other talents by moving deeper, but United have been reliant on a goalscorer for two years now, and it's done them no harm.
4. The decline of the playmaker
Not quite so obvious - but as pointed out earlier, United's midfield has been pedestrian, workmanlike, and lacked inspiration or creativity. Ferguson has done his best to paper over this by Rooney moving into the hole, and playing a role very similar to the Rui Costas and Bergkamps of yore. He had a dreadful start to the season, but since then he played off Hernandez to perfection, providing creativity and instances of inspired, match-winning finesse. It may be a temporary fix, until United can buy a midfielder capable of doing the same. But for now, Rooney is a true number 10.
Of course, there are some elements of 'new tactics' which United have adopted - attacking full-backs, showed by the sidelining of John O'Shea and Wes Brown in favour of the Da Silva twins. A pacy frontline has been the norm at United for a very long time, as has the fluidity of the forward players (though that has lessened since the introduction of Hernandez and Valencia.)
Another problem with all this, is that United did come across one team that showcased many of these modern tactics rejected by United, complete with passing midfielders, false nine, and inside-out wingers: Barcelona. But in becoming the second-best club side in the world, United have shown that, as always, there is more than one way of playing the game. Whether teams like Barcelona become the norm will depend on whether coaching adapts to tactics, as for most teams around the world, the sorts of players necessary are not readily available. But for now, United have shown that the old ways have not died out.