Even the most passionate Manchester United fan among us has to admit, we rode our luck in the ’99 Champions League Final. Our typically English 4-4-2 formation and tactical naivety were exposed by a well-oiled Bayern Munich machine which should have rolled out of sight long before the three magical minutes. But we won. And that helped paper over the cracks. No one bothered that we lacked a holding midfielder like Makelele, a playmaker like Zidane or a master goalpoacher like Inzaghi. It did not matter.
But over the next few seasons, the chickens came home to roost. Against the best teams of Europe, we always came up short. Real Madrid outplayed us in 2000 and 2003. Milan did the same in 2005 and 2007. The ruthless German machines of Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen put paid to our hopes in 2001 and 2002. Porto stunned us in 2004. The ultimate humiliation came in the 2005-06 season when we were bundled out at the group stages.
Successive failures made Sir Alex Ferguson try reinventing the team along tactical lines. He tried to acquire astute players with a footballing brain, who can deliver against tricky teams on the continent.
Fergie’s first attempt at reinvention was a disaster. In the summer of 2001, he splashed 28 million pounds on Juan Sebastian Veron, a creative Argentinian midfielder who could decide games with moments of magic. But in his first season, the only magic he showed was disappearing whenever the team needed him. Laurent Blanc came in the same summer with an amazing pedigree that included a World Cup, a European Championship and a Champions League. But his laid-back attitude and lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed. Ruud Van Nistelrooy answered Fergie’s call for a master goalscorer, but attempts to accommodate him into the team meant United compromised on the flowing football that had come to characterize them. These changes made it a painful transition for United, and we even managed to go four years without winning the Premier League.
But behind the scenes, Ferguson was engineering a true metamorphosis. He unearthed little-known gems in Vidic and Evra. He moulded a genuine superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo. He cleared the dead wood comprising of Tim Howard, Roy Carroll, Gabriel Heinze and Alan Smith. He made a ruthless decision by discarding Ruud Van Nistelrooy, a move many said was calamitous. Then in the summer of 2007, he made his most adventurous purchases: Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. All of them were tactically-aware, continental-style players. Hargreaves was schooled in the Ottamar Hitzfeld school of tactics at Bayern Munich. Nani and Anderson came from the Portuguese league where games could resemble chess matches. And Tevez had perfected his technical abilities in the streets of Buenos Aires. These were not only gifted players, but big-match players who could hold their nerve when it mattered. All the pieces were falling into place.
Ferguson finally succeeded in his attempts to master 4-5-1. Paul Scholes’ attempts to play in the hole behind the striker were an unmitigated failure, and Fergie realized he needed other players to support the lone striker. Players with more penetration. Like Ronaldo, Anderson and Nani. Or players with energy, like Park Ji Sung. He went out and bought such players, and moulded them into the 4-5-1. He reinvented Wayne Rooney as a lone striker.
The tactical nous of assistant Carlos Queiroz was immensely important, as evidenced by the team’s struggles during Queiroz’s one-year sojourn as manager of Real Madrid. Madrid’s decision to sack Queiroz proved to be a boon to United, who promptly brought their Portuguese tactician back.
All these moves bore fruit spectacularly in 2008 as United finally regained the Champions League with a penalty shootout victory over Chelsea. The new purchases - Hargreaves, Nani, Tevez and Anderson – all held their nerve to convert their penalties. Chelsea had three players – Drogba, Terry and Anelka – who cracked under the pressure. That proved to be the difference. United had the right players, system and mentality, and they became champions of Europe again.
During the transitional period between 1999 and 2008, there were chaotic seasons when Fergie’s experiments failed, and several players couldn’t make the grade. We hardly remember Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, David Bellion, Tim Howard, Roy Carroll and Liam Miller. Those were signings Fergie would like to forget about. But the great man has made it to the pinnacle once again. The only thing he was absolutely dying for was to win the Champions League again. He has now done it, and attained footballing immortality. So, what next? Of course, he’ll be absolutely dying to win it a third time!