Sunday 17 December 2017

Ferguson the last great in era of disposable managers

Alex Ferguson recently distilled the secret of his management into five simple words -- "Get rid of the c***s".

When he is the keynote speaker at gala functions, he probably elaborates on this core belief but not much elaboration is needed.

It was, he explained to Dave Brailsford, head of Team Sky, the secret to his longevity. Ferguson's eternal vigilance has made him the manager he is. He wages war and in the modern world he wages war against his own obsolescence and the obsolescence of men like him.

Of course, there are few men like him. In the last week, he has embarrassed himself by criticising Rio Ferdinand for embarrassing Alex Ferguson by not wearing a T-shirt. Ferguson rarely seems antediluvian, which is remarkable in itself, but on that occasion he did.

His capacity for reinvention, no matter how he achieves it, is the most remarkable aspect of his story. His ability not to become weary of the fight, or indeed weary of Anderson, is almost as astonishing as all he has achieved in the game.

Today, he faces Roberto Di Matteo. Di Matteo brings to mind Churchill's words about Clement Atlee when he said that an empty car pulled up at Downing Street and Clement Atlee climbed out.

When Roman Abramovich sacked Andre Villas-Boas primarily for antagonising senior Chelsea players, he took a familiar route in football by appointing a successor whose style was the exact opposite. If AVB's personality had been too abrasive, Di Matteo was a fitting alternative, given that he appears to have no personality at all.

Chelsea clearly needed this after AVB's approach. Di Matteo is a contrast in every way. He is a man entirely governed by his self-control. His diplomacy may lead to a great career coaching the football teams of egotistical men.

The game today may be between the future and the past. Alex Ferguson believes there should be no bigger ego at a club than his own. He may have envied the money Chelsea were allowed to spend but he would never have been allowed to spend it with the freedom he demands.

Diplomacy has never been a core value for Ferguson, yet he has welcomed the Glazers' takeover and the freedom he has been given.

"Ultimately, I run the football side of this club and in order to do this, you need backing from above," Ferguson said in the summer. "The Glazer family have let me get on with my job, there is no interference or obstruction, only support."

The fans who rightly worry about the debt on the club were concerned with this stance. Ferguson has granted the Glazers legitimacy not only by his comments. His genius has covered up the weakening of the team and the reality that only one man has kept them as a force challenging for championships. Manchester United remains a club that fights for titles despite the presence of Tom Cleverly, Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans because of Alex Ferguson.

A victory for Chelsea today and they will be declared the winners of the league in autumn, just as Manchester City were when they won 6-1 at Old Trafford at the same stage last season.

Yet Ferguson has learned to surrender these games and prepare his side for the matches where the league can be won. After last season's defeat, United won eight of the next nine games while City struggled. In the run-in, United stumbled uncharacteristically, allowing City, who had looked broken when they lost at Arsenal, to win it on the final day.

Roberto Di Matteo's presence may not stop Chelsea becoming champions, just as Roberto Mancini could not stop Manchester City becoming champions last season, even if Mancini gave it a pretty good try.

Yet their position as coaches of the wealthiest clubs also reflects the reality that men like Alex Ferguson represent the past, certainly to those clubs who have the money to dispense with managerial genius.

From Anzhi Makhachkala to Manchester via Paris, clubs are working on a philosophy which may be at odds with Ferguson's secret of success.

City may have won the title despite Mancini's interventions which saw the isolation of Carlos Tevez and the promotion of Mario Balotelli for most of the season.

Ferguson has been punished for his genius. If you can win the league with John O'Shea and Darron Gibson, then the need for world-class improvements is lessened. They remain dependent on Paul Scholes as a midfielder, although Wayne Rooney is demonstrating that he may be reinvented in that role.

Rooney may yet be another battleground for Ferguson and the suspicion remains that when Ferguson gets the opportunity, he may yet decide to assert his authority over a player who started the season so poorly.

At the moment, Ferguson needs Rooney and he may rediscover his zest in midfield, especially with Robin van Persie looking comfortable and staying fit.

Van Persie may be the signing that allows United to regain the title. The absence of a midfielder is most obvious in Europe but in England United can win the league by scoring goals and, once he stays fit, Van Persie can do that.

Arsenal did well financially from the deal, given his age and the time left on his contract. Wenger may also have noted the struggles of Fernando Torres and thought the same could happen again.

Di Matteo is the third manager who has tried to accommodate Torres, who looks a man adrift too often. He was the first part of Abramovich's plan for reinvention which stumbled during the time of AVB.

For now, this team that has been assembled is Di Matteo's to play with. Eden Hazard has been the most spectacular signing but Juan Mata demonstrated his class when given time and space against Villas-Boas' Tottenham last weekend.

Abramovich pines for a great coach and spent a long time wooing Pep Guardiola in the summer, but what he would do with him is unclear. Di Matteo could win the Premier League this season and still lose his job.

Di Matteo was successful for a time at West Brom with an attacking style but when he took over from AVB last season, he placed an emphasis on defence, or appeared to do. Certainly, he placed an emphasis on not attacking but against Barcelona and again in the Champions League final in Munich, Chelsea gave away chances. These were not exceptional defensive displays.

This season, Chelsea have changed and in the last week their strengths and weaknesses have been displayed.

When they were allowed to play at Tottenham last weekend, Chelsea were irresistible. They still conceded goals too easily, something that Shakhtar Donetsk took advantage of in midweek.

Is it a coincidence that Chelsea have become the side Abramovich has always wanted them to be under the manager whose CV is only slightly more impressive than Avram Grant's?

The flaws in this Chelsea side might mirror the flaws in Di Matteo's West Brom so perhaps he is making his mark.

With Chelsea, it will always be impossible to say who has shaped the team. Di Matteo negotiates his way through a club which has become impossible to negotiate for many managers.

Alex Ferguson takes a different route and his way is non-negotiable.

Chelsea v Manchester United,

Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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