Perhaps the greatest strength of Sir Alex Ferguson is his Man-Management abilities. Rarely does a Manchester Utd side take to the field not 100% certain that they will win the game, whilst being terrifically motivated and focussed on their task. This is his psychological trump card, for where many great collections of players have failed to deliver the goods, throughout his managerial career, Fergie’s teams have been utterly relentless in their drive for silverware and success. His ability to mould the collective persona of his teams around his vision of success is what sets him apart.
Another of his vital skills is the ability to know when the team needs to be rebuilt. It’s happened countless times; first of all, imposing his will on the dressing room, and ending the drinking culture at the club with McGrath, Robson et al. Then in the early 90’s, having to rebuild the team as the likes of Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Hughes were phased out. He’s been able to cover superstar-sized holes in the team after a player’s departure: Ince, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, and still he keeps on building successful teams.
Three things have happened that threaten the Ferguson dynasty, of which only two are rectifiable by him. Firstly, Roy Keane has not been properly replaced as the enforcer in their midfield. Secondly, Paul Scholes, despite being a shadow of his former self in the last 4 or 5 years of his career, finally disappeared from view, and despite having years of warning, the goalscoring, creative thrust from midfield also hasn’t been replaced. The players brought in to try and plug the gaps have varied; there’s the energy of Park and Anderson, but no guile; there’s Michael Carrick, who has a very high pass completion ratio (file under “does nothing”). Darren Fletcher is aggressive and bullies referees, but his overall fitness is lacking and in all honesty, is nowhere near as good a footballer as Keane was. Ryan Giggs is a 38 year-old left winger who has been shunted into the middle due to a dearth of viable alternatives. The centre of their midfield has gradually drifted away, and doesn’t look like coming back anytime soon.
And finally, The Glazers. Before they arrived, you could have bet your bottom dollar that something would have been done before there was a bona fide crisis. Despite continuing to fund large outlays on some players, this midfield problem, which started as a crack but has since been eroded into a gaping hole, doesn’t look like it will be solved soon. It is almost a certainty that he will buy in January, and buy big. But in the back of his mind, he will be thinking Juan Veron, Juan Veron. And worrying about making the same mistake, and history repeating itself; in the 2005-06, they failed to qualify from their Champions League group (which had Benfica in it), and finished a distant 2nd to Chelsea in the Premier League.
Man Utd strike such fear into the hearts of their opponents that even with a 2nd rate central midfield, they have been able to win games and league titles (see last season). However, their main weakness has now been exposed. They will still win many games, but teams will go to Old Trafford with less fear now. They will know they can be beaten. All the man-management in the world cannot hide that the heartbeat of the Man Utd side is weaker now than it has been in the last 20 years. And with the added blow of Nemanja Vidic being out for the season, the crisis doesn’t look like resolving itself anytime soon.