independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ferguson stays true to old ways in a changing world

United's manager has seen off all previous rivals and Mancini may go the same way

Alex Ferguson shocked nobody with his attempts to put pressure on Roberto Mancini on Friday. The world may have tired of some of Ferguson's tactics but few find it astonishing that a man who will be 71 on New Year's Eve continues to fight for his club. It may be among the most extraordinary aspects of Ferguson's career that this is seen as normal.

Ferguson endures. He is simultaneously a relic and a modern football man. He represents a link to football's past but he never seems old-fashioned. He may yet see off another rival if he decides to stay another year and City fail to defend their title.

When Ferguson goes, no manager is likely to amass that sort of power again; Ferguson has the power because he has been a great football manager. Today he opposes his latest challenger: a great football club with great means with a manager whose contribution can be debated.

Manchester City's lamentable time in Europe came to an end last week but the arguments about Mancini will continue.

The financial muscle provided by Sheikh Mansour is the key factor in making City the champions of England, but it also leads to a dilution of the manager's role. At Manchester United, Ferguson has shaped an empire. Clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea know that money can overcome the strengths of any man.

Clubs are increasingly reluctant to leave things to the whim or hunches of the manager, especially when they feel there is information that can benefit them and which can be interpreted best by somebody other than an old football man.

Ferguson has always been open to new ideas but the very nature of his genius means that the new ideas will always come up against his insistence that he knows best. An insistence that can be backed up by the record.

Everything Manchester United have achieved in the modern era, including their global renown, can be credited, in the most part, to Ferguson. Their power has been achieved thanks to some smart recruitment but all of it was driven by Ferguson's desire to dominate.

In the London Independent on Friday, Ian Herbert told the story of how City's new chief executive Ferran Soriano marvelled at Manchester United's expansion while he was at Barcelona. City marvel at it still but they are finding ways to be smarter.

In some areas, City have moved far ahead of United. Last season, United had the worst injury record in the league. They had 39 injuries that kept a player out for two weeks or longer. Manchester City – who are known to be at the forefront in using data analysis for injury prevention – had the fewest significant injuries, with seven.

Last month, United opened a new medical centre which they hope will end this run, although the long-term absence of Nemanja Vidic has been so damaging to United again this season. Ferguson may have decided that he can win the title purely through scoring goals but United are most vulnerable in the big games where their inability to control a game is exposed.

All clubs are now searching for ways to explain more about a game. Significantly it is City and Chelsea who are leading the way in the search for data that can give a side an advantage. At clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal, this data is used too but there is always the sense that it will be used to confirm the instinct of the manager rather than go against it. Wenger, like Ferguson, is a modern man but a manager who believes in his way above all else.

Mancini has spent some time establishing a power base at City but with the arrival of Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, he knows there will be further struggles. City are determined to use the best analysis and the best analysis demands interpretation by trained analysts which will see a further diminishing of the power of the manager.

After every game at City, the players are presented with all their data figures. There is a danger in this approach as players may become fixated on figures which aren't as relevant to success as they'd think.

Some players and managers at other clubs are known to be obsessed with pass completion statistics. Pass completion in the final third, however, is far more important than simple pass completion while the goalkeeper's save percentage is another key figure, but one that is often overlooked.

Other players are walking examples of how data can help. Last week, Petr Cech saved another penalty. Cech is a student of statistics and has an astonishing penalty-saving record, helped by a system at Chelsea which is geared towards developing the brain as well as the physical attributes of the player. Clubs with omnipotent owners may be more reluctant to appoint managers who want all the power as well. Both City and Chelsea can point to their trophies if anybody suggests that turning over managers is not the way to get things done.

Sheikh Mansour is more patient than Roman Abramovich but both City and Chelsea are pursuing avenues which they hope will be less fallible than trusting the instincts of one man.

"Everyone is searching for the holy grail of metrics," says Ben Lyttleton. Lyttleton is best known as a journalist but he is also part of the Soccernomics Agency, a consultancy which is at the forefront of data analysis, finding what Lyttleton describes as "hidden truths" in the statistics. Some of the principles of Soccernomics were laid out in the book of the same name written by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, which was influenced by Bill James and his statistical analysis of baseball.

In the search for these hidden truths, football has gone down some blind alleys which will confirm to some that the football men should be trusted and the data should be viewed with scepticism. The great football men will always win out, but there aren't too many of them and they have always applied the principles of data in their own way.

George Graham used to tell Ian Wright that he wanted him to make 10 runs across the line of the defence in every game, while the signing of Eric Cantona may be the finest example of what would today be called a Moneyball signing in the history of football.

Clubs don't know if they can trust their managers and increasingly they are reluctant to do so. For every Ferguson, Brian Clough or Wenger, in his prime, there are a succession of duds with impressive patter who leave a club with unwanted and expensive failures.

Yet the world demands much from their manager and they expect him to have all the answers. These days, he may be just a good front-of-house man while others scan the globe for talent and solutions. Mancini's mistakes can be highlighted and his persistence with Mario Balotelli last season and the alienation of Carlos Tevez.

Szymanski believed that fewer than 10 per cent of managers achieve results which are better than expected season after season. Ferguson, Wenger and Mourinho were unsurprisingly among them. The rest, and Mancini, is probably among them, would do well not to get in the way. Below the elite, there will always be managers who rise through their genius and control everything but the big clubs may start fearing the inherent risk in this approach. There is a risk in abandoning it too because when the right manager is appointed, he can change everything for the better.

Yet if only one in 10 managers make things better, clubs will be reluctant to allow a new appointment too much power.

Ferguson shaped Manchester United to his will. Today he faces another rival and another philosophy. This season he can get the better of the rival, he usually does. But a manager may never build a club of the size of Manchester United through the force of his own ambition again.

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