Friday 9 December 2016

Alex Ferguson: Master and commander

Alex Ferguson is still Manchester United's most valuable asset, says Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Alex Ferguson's declaration on Friday that the Premier League is now a two-horse race with his side as ever the only reliable runner will have made many of his opponents uncomfortable.

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His words reminded Chelsea of their astonishing collapse since the autumn when Abramovich decided to wield his power. His statement pointed out to Manchester City that, in an era when nearly every club is watching what it spends, they had the financial power to win the title this year.

And it will serve as notification to Arsenal that they are now alone as challengers, a role which may add to their self-doubt.

There should be no problems for Alex Ferguson's side in winning a title, even a record 19th title, from here.

The weaknesses of others should be enough but every year there are more questions to be asked about Manchester United and the Glazers.

Manchester United's latest figures can be analysed, the numbers can be crunched, but there is always a way in football for personality to tell the story.

The story of Manchester United under the Glazers could be told by the sight of Bebe doing whatever it is he does against Crawley Town last weekend, or Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick swapping roles in Marseille on Wednesday night.

These players are not the future of Manchester United, but Alex Ferguson's genius is that he has always been able to deal with the uncertainty to come by shaping the present with his unyielding will.

How successful he has been will be seen again on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United might have preferred to play Chelsea in December before a curious postponement more than 24 hours before the game, even though the streets of London were clear of snow by the kick-off time.

Chelsea now have Fernando Torres, but they don't have much more confidence, despite their win in Denmark last week.

United have entered into the stage of the season in which they are most comfortable without facing any of their real challengers.

This week changes that. On Tuesday, they play at Stamford Bridge and then next Sunday head to Anfield. By the time they visit Arsenal in May and play Chelsea at home, the title could be decided. Just another quirk of the fixture list.

Any vulnerability will have to be tested by then. This is an ordinary side by Ferguson's standards, asserting its rights through crushing home form.

The absence of authority has been easier to detect away from Old Trafford. United failed to win away in the league until October and they have conceded more than a goal a game on the road. It is a startling statistic given that they have still to play most of the teams that can test them and Manchester City's ambition when they played in November began and ended with not conceding. They claimed their fourth away win at Wigan yesterday, but they have beaten Wigan every time they played them in the Premier League.

United have reduced their own ambition under the Glazers but Ferguson allows them to compete.

Gary Neville warmed up for his role as a forthright pundit a couple of weeks ago when he dismissed the dogma of the holding midfielder on which so much football philosophy is built. Manchester United had won the Champions League, he said, with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in central midfield. There was no holding midfielder. "What you need is good players who recognise danger. The idea that you need a natural holding midfielder -- I don't go along with that."

Neville's point was valid even if he may have forgotten that in the final in Moscow Owen Hargreaves was also in midfield.

More importantly, United under Ferguson have set out to dominate midfield in a manner which does not seem possible when Carrick and Gibson are named in the side. At his best, Carrick can impose his personality on the game. Unfortunately, he has a mild-mannered personality.

United under Alex Ferguson have always believed in being daring but this season their success has been based on pure nerve.

It takes nerve to sign Bebe without seeing him play. It takes nerve to insist that Gibson is a player who can be central to Manchester United sides when he is not so much a holding midfielder as a holding operation. Ferguson has managed his situation expertly in all its imperfections.

He dealt with the Rooney affair even though the assurances the Glazers gave the player about investment in the squad were not acted upon at the first opportunity.

United are now talking about spending in the summer as they talked about spending big ("Watch this space!" as David Gill said in April 2010) last summer, the summer that saw the arrival of Bebe.

United would point to Chicharito, who scored twice yesterday, as evidence that Ferguson's determination not to overspend does not rule out the arrival of quality. Chris Smalling has, in recent weeks, demonstrated his potential, while Nani is closer to justifying his transfer fee, if not the other £34 million United spent that close season on Anderson and Hargreaves.

Against Crawley Town, there was little to give hope for the future and when Carrick was giving a performance in the Stade Velodrome that was only effective in taking the pressure off Gibson, who was substituted anyway, there was the sense that United's vulnerability could be exposed at any moment.

Instead, they turn to the past. Ryan Giggs has signed for another year and Paul Scholes is expected to do the same. The decline of Carrick and the failure of Gibson to take any of his opportunities gives Ferguson no option but to persevere with his players from the golden age.

This season could yet be the most historic if United claim the title that would move them ahead of Liverpool.

Ferguson might choose that moment to retire even if the owners and any potential new owners will fear that change.

If the Glazers were also to sell the club, there might be even more uncertainty. The Glazers' assertion on Friday that they "will not entertain any offers" is completely meaningless as there is nothing else they can say at this moment without causing a frenzy.

They would surely entertain a big offer but that might not be one the Qatar royal family, who are repeatedly linked with a move, are prepared to make.

United's commercial revenue is increasing and while the noble Manchester United Supporters' Trust claim that the negativity surrounding the Glazers is costing them money, the drop in revenue is minimal and perhaps no more than can be expected in a recession.

Yet the Glazers remain a debt drain.

They have Ferguson to thank for their position. Only the most perceptive among their fans have held on to their scepticism while many now view the green and gold scarf as a supplementary piece of merchandise on the way to the megastore.

If United join the stable under Qatar influence, the debt may be wiped out but it will become harder to distinguish United from Chelsea and Manchester City.

Ferguson has made the club the force that attracts these offers and he enters into a crucial week in an historic season. In a time when they have to call on Bebe and Gibson, Ferguson, 69, remains Manchester United's greatest hope for the present. He has already taken care of the past. History for Alex Ferguson is always in the future.

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