Alex Ferguson’s Champions League legacy

Alex Ferguson was, really, just being Alex Ferguson. Drenched by rain but also the sensation of success after Manchester United had finally lifted the European Cup again in the early hours of 23 May 2008, he still wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m proud of winning it because, as I’ve said many times, we should have won it more.”

In repeating a customary speech of his, Ferguson was illustrating the kind of drive that kept him at the top for so long. He was also, however, fortifying the one single remaining criticism of his managerial career: his overall Champions League record is rather underwhelming. Two trophies in about two decades.

There are, however, two sides to the argument.

The first side is that he should have gone a lot further a lot more frequently and thereby won more Champions League titles by simple virtue of the resources and platform he enjoyed at United. Two trophies and two other runners-up spots are not, apparently, enough for 18 seasons in the competition with the club. What’s more, Ferguson’s most regular round of elimination has been the quarter-finals. He’s been knocked out of the competition at the last 16 as often as he’s got to the semi-finals. United have also failed to get past the group stage more often than they’ve won the tournament. Just as damningly, his team only won a solitary knock-out tie between May 1999 and February 2007. In 25 two-legged eliminators overall, Ferguson has successfully navigated a small majority of 14 (56%).

That side of the argument certainly involves a fair amount of negative stats.

The other, more favourable side, however, has a few stats of its own and offers a lot more context.

Ferguson’s debut season with United in the Champions League was 1993-94, when the remodelled and restructured competition first began to announce itself as a marking behemoth. Famously, the competition has never been retained since then. There’s been an era of variety and competitiveness among champions that is unprecedented in European Cup history.

The role-call of winners in his time is revelatory. From 1993 to 2013, it reads:

3 – Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan

2 – Manchester United, Bayern Munich

1 – Marseille, Ajax, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, FC Porto, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea

So, really, only three teams have won as much as, or more than, United in that time.

When it comes to managers in that period, meanwhile, Ferguson has no superior:

2 – Ottmar Hitzfeld, Vicente Del Bosque, Carlo Ancelotti, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jupp Heynckes

1 – Raymond Goethals, Fabio Capello, Louis van Gaal, Marcello Lippi, Rafa Benitez, Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola.

Indeed, the only manager to have lifted more European Cups than Ferguson at the time of his retirement was the great Bob Paisley. The legendary Liverpool boss, however, never had to truly build his own empire. He made Bill Shankly’s regular winners into relentless winners, but didn’t have to put the same structures in place. In a time when repeat victories were characteristic of the tournament rather than rare, Paisley maximised the effect of the Liverpool trophy-accumulating machine. For that, he obviously deserves huge credit, but the dimensions of his spell in charge are not really comparable to Ferguson’s.

In fact, part of the problem with properly analysing Ferguson’s European record is that, really, there is no other manager who has stayed in the competition for so long with such a prominent club to actually provide fair comparison.

The only coaches that otherwise come close – at the point of 2013 – are Arsene Wenger at Arsenal (14 seasons), Miguel Munoz at Real Madrid (12 seasons), Jock Stein at Celtic (nine seasons) and Giovanni Trapattoni at Juventus (six seasons).

Their records read as follows:

1) Munoz at Real Madrid – 2 victories, 2 finals, 2 semi-finals, 2 quarter-finals, 3 second rounds, 1 first round

2) Wenger at Arsenal – 1 final, 1 semi-final, 4 quarter-finals, 6 last 16, 2 group stages

3) Stein at Celtic – 1 victory, 1 final, 2 semi-finals, 2 quarter-finals, 1 second round, 2 first rounds

4) Trapattoni at Juventus – 1 victory, 1 final, 1 semi-final, 1 second round, 1 first round.

Wenger, evidently, barely compares. The other three, who are all considered in Ferguson’s tier of legendary managers, actually have similar, mixed records and went out early a surprising amount of times. Even Paisley saw Liverpool go out in the first round twice.

This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the United manager’s theory that “a four-year cycle is probably the most you can achieve in terms of success”.

The relevance is that it’s very difficult to reach the latter rounds of the competition relentlessly because teams go through necessary periods of refreshment of refreshment and transition. There will be lulls.

Of course, the counter-argument to that might be that certain Ferguson cycles should then have seen more success; particularly, 1992-95, 1995-98 and 2001-06.

The exact length of Ferguson’s career, however, means that there are naturally a number of caveats to all this. He encompassed too much history.

For a start, his first few forays into the European Cup came in the aftermath of the Heysel ban. As English clubs endured a difficult isolation between 1985 and 1990, football in the rest of the continent enjoyed a quantum leap, mostly due to events in Milan. On the pitch, Arrigo Sacchi’s pressing game altered the way sides approached matches. Off it, Silvio Berlusconi’s business model completely altered the way clubs approached marketing.

After almost four decades in which the European Cup had enjoyed different eras of domination by different individual teams – Real 1955-60, Inter 1962-66, Ajax 1970-73, Bayern Munich 1973-76, Liverpool 1976-85 – and in which Milan actually became the first side to win the trophy again after more than a six-year gap, the era of the monolithic super clubs was upon us.

English teams suddenly had an awful lot of catching-up to do. Among some of the more embarrassing results in this period were Leeds United getting torn apart by PSV Eindhoven, Aston Villa being eliminated by Trabzonspur, Liverpool going out of the Uefa Cup to Brondby and – most comically – Blackburn Rovers’ frustrations leading to David Batty and Graeme Le Saux turning on each other at Spartak Moscow.

Ferguson, of course, suffered his own humiliations. There was the unsavoury elimination to Galatasaray when Turkish football was still weak, the evisceration away at IFK Gothenburg, the Uefa Cup exit to Rotor Volgograd and the three 1-0 home defeats in 1996-97 that saw United’s cherished unbeaten home record in Europe ended.

At the end of that campaign, Ferguson tried to make a move for the kind of players that could genuinely transform United. He went for Gabrial Batistuta, only to find that the marketing of both the club and the Premier League couldn’t yet quite match the expenditure elsewhere. All the shirt sales hadn’t yet turned them into one of the mega-clubs.

As Ferguson later said, “my hands were tied because Manchester United’s policy on salaries gave me no chance of providing the financial package required to secure those great players’ contracts. I think the restrictions applied to wages prevented us from being the power in European football that we could have been in the ’90s.”

At that point, United’s top wage was £23,000 a week. When the club were offered Ronaldo by the player’s agent before he went to Barcelona in 1996, they were told they would have to start at £50,000 and likely go higher.

Ferguson laid out the case. “The club has got to get to grips with what actually makes a winning club in Europe. It is not anywhere near that. It is not Barcelona, it is not an AC Milan, it is not a Juventus, it’s not a Real Madrid.”

Nevertheless, in that 1996-97 season, United still reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. It was evidence that every season in the Champions League was sharpening both the team and the manager. They were growing with the experience of initially painful defeats to the likes of Juventus. As Gianluca Vialli told La Republicca in 2011, “Sir Alex told me he learnt a lot from the games against Italian opponents in the ’90s. He changed his style.”

All of that actually makes the victory of 1999 an even more remarkable feat. Unlike Aston Villa in 1982 or even arguably Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980, Ferguson didn’t win the European Cup from an existing elevated platform of English dominance. In the early ’80s, the English league was undoubtedly Europe’s strongest and it is highly plausible that the risen tide eased those two provincial sides to titles.

To win the 1999 trophy, however, Ferguson had to lift United from much lower down.

He does deserve criticism for failing to build on the treble success. That 1998-2001 side, most identified by a core of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Roy Keane at his best, never won another knock-out tie. In the next two seasons, they went out at the quarter-final stage. It was the first of those eliminations that laid bare Ferguson’s most obvious continental failings.

In 2000, a three-man Real Madrid central midfield – driven by Fernando Redondo – comprehensively outmanoeuvred Ferguson’s relatively flat 4-4-2. One of the main problems was that Ferguson, although a somewhat underrated tactical strategist, wasn’t at that point an innovator. On the whole, he has generally responded to tactical trends rather than led them.

Henning Berg, who was United’s back-up centre-half, outlined this superbly in his autobiography. There are very few coaches, Berg said, “as good at practical tactics as [Kenny] Dalglish and Ferguson. There’s nobody as concrete as them before and during a match. Nobody that better exploits the opponent’s weaknesses. Inside any system there are lots of variables that chance from one game to another. Small details. Dalglish and Ferguson know this better than most. ‘They play like this, so we’ll play like that.’ ‘He plays like this, so you’ll play like that.’ They don’t wrap it in. They tell us what to do and, if we do it, we win.”

Up to that point, as Berg transparently shows, Ferguson’s main strengths had been spotting the smaller tactical elements in each game and building up huge reserves of both momentum and mentality in order to maximise that knowledge. By doing so, he was never going to truly stay ahead of the pack. He was only ever going to occasionally get his nose in front. Ultimately, United were prone to being outthought by some outlandish tactical variation, as happened in 1999-2000.

It was this that led to both the appointment of Carlos Queiroz and, in many games, a conservatism and defensiveness never previously associated with Ferguson. As Patrice Evra has stated, “tactically, Quieroz brought something important to Man United.”

It did all take time to have an effect though.

First, Ferguson’s retirement plans unsettled the team and resulted in the great missed opportunity of 2002. A league was delivered the following year thanks to Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals but Ferguson still realised he needed to restructure. The team endured a prolonged period of transition as the manager introduced a new core, with the ructions of the Glazer takeover hardly helping.

From all that, it’s no coincidence that the period between 2006 and 2009 was United’s greatest in their European Cup history. A number of important elements finally came together: Ferguson’s own inherent abilities and experience; a new tactical nous developed from so many long nights of the soul in Europe and, finally, the newly elevated platform of the exceedingly rich Premier League.

With three of the best forwards in the world in Carlos Tevez, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson and Queiroz honed a revolutionary strikerless formation in which the trio would interchange and exchange gloriously.

That only got them so far though. It shouldn’t be forgotten United only scored two goals in the last three games of the victorious 2008 campaign. As such, the difference was a defence that was, statistically, the best in the club’s history. Ferguson had added a canny resolve to his old sense of romance. Indeed, the tense semi-final victory over Barcelona in the 2007-08 semi-final was the polar opposite of the rampaging comeback against Juventus at the same stage in 1998-99.

As Evra also said, ‘I remember the semi-final against Barcelona away when [Quieroz] was speaking with everybody before the second half. The tactic was to have the team very compact and to let Barcelona play with the ball. He said possession didn’t matter.”

That new balance resulted in a three-year sequence of semi-final (2007), victory (2008) and final (2009), as well as another final again in 2011. In short, it was the sort of true competitiveness in Europe that many had for so long expected from Ferguson’s United.

The only problem was that, in the meantime, United’s 2008 semi-final opponents made one of the starkest quantum leaps in the game yet. Responding to Barca’s evolution was beyond Ferguson.

Ferguson is then far from beyond criticism for his European record, but there is an argument he is being judged by unfair historical standards, rather than for just being Alex Ferguson.


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