Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fergie’s reinvention of Man United is complete

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!

Friday, October 13, 2006

The quest for external validation:

I attended a test today, and found a lot of friends there for the same purpose. After the challenging test, we started buzzing like a swarm of bees, asking one another, "Hey, what answer did you get for this question?" "Did you answer all the questions?", "Are you sure this is the right answer for this question?"

In a world where we are expected to trust our own judgement and be independent, why do we still look for others to confirm that we are doing the right thing?

It is the quest for external validation, a human tendency. Man is a social animal, patently guilty of the safety in numbers principle, sometimes derogatoraly referred to as the herd mentality. We need to be constantly told that our house is in order. We need the validation from others.

Not only do individuals require external validation from other individuals, but communities need external validation from other communities. The hordes of Japanese youth in Harajuku sporting blond hair is an attempt for external validation from the West. Even the Japanese pop scene has been modeled around the West, where pop icons are vertically marketed and branded with the youth in mind. Even a proud community like the Japanese occasionally look for external validation.

We give more weightage to external validation from certain individuals and communities, and less weightage to external validation from other individuals and communities. A few years ago, an Indian movie starring a Tamil superstar became popular in Japan. Indians were very pleased, because Japan, a developed country, a technologically advanced country, accepted one of their movies, so they felt they must be doing something right. The fans of the superstar were all the more pleased, and used it to build their hero's brand. The external validation from a powerful nation was valued.

If we follow the tendency to look for external validation, there will be no end to it. But the world belongs to those who assert their ideas with confidence. If we keep looking for external validation, we would be like the centipede which doesn't know which leg should move first. Our indecision would incapacitate us and impede our progress. Resist the natural tendency to look for external validation. Be assertive, we are as right as anyone else in this world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To complain about darkness or to light a candle?

Yesterday, after one of my two-hour lectures, everyone was complaining that two straight hours was too much, and we could could not concentrate for the second hour. They commented that the lecturer should give us a ten-minute break after the first hour, so that we could concentrate better during the next one hour.

But nobody seemed interested in going to the lecturer and suggesting that he gives us ten-minute breaks. Someone had to do it, so I decided I'll do it. I suggested it to the lecturer, who said he will consider the suggestion.

I'm reminded of the old saying that instead of complaining about the darkness, we need to light a candle. I don't know why many of us lack the initiative to do that. Have we slowly learnt to shortcharge ourselves? If so, then we need to unlearn it quickly.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm quite fed up of hearing people say Asians are too afraid to speak. But sometimes, the truth just stares you in the face. One of my lecturers asked a simple question: "How many of you has heard of Google?" A good round number of people put up their hands: Zero!

It was getting embarassing, and to salvage the situation, I raised my hand. The lecturer said, "Okay, one person has heard of Google. That person should get an A for this subject!"

I'm amused and amazed at how people behave as if they are exposing themselves to a line of fire by raising their hands. Similarly, going in front of an audience is often considered similar to exposing yourself to a radioactive environment. Quite often, people say, "If you do something wrong, I'll make you go up and sing a song." Why is it such a punishment to sing a song in front of an audience? What's the worst thing that can happen? Singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Is that really a punishment?

The cocoon of comfort is a wonderful place. But if we stay there, how can we metamorphosise into something that can add value to the world? Caterpillars leave their cocoon, turn into butterflies, add beauty to the world, and pollinate flowers, adding value to the lives of millions of plants. All this by leaving their comfort zone. Let's do that.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

I've always been fascinated by the concept of the 'gongsi' (a Chinese word meaning common ground, connection, networking factor). The entrepreneurial success of the Chinese has been based on finding common ground for networking. It's a case of functioning with a 'we' attitude rather than the 'I' attitude.

If you look for differences, you'll find only differences. But look for similarities, and you'll find the world a wonderful place. As a Singaporean, every day I mouthed those immortal words "regardless of race, language or religion". That has made me look for similarities rather than differences. That brings me to my first 'gongsi': being a Singaporean.

When I start talking to other Singaporeans about army days, I can talk till the cows come home. Where was this guy, what is he doing now, etc, etc, occupies many of the conversations I have with other Singaporeans. And since I can speak the standard Singapore English, that adds to the gongsi.

Every community you belong to can give you that gongsi. Being an alumnus of a particular school is a gongsi. Having a certain interest is a gongsi.

Sometimes, even if we don't belong to a particular community, an awareness of a particular community gives you a gongsi with a person belonging to that community. Yesterday, I was grappling with an elderly lady in a restaurant who didn't seem to know much English. I asked, "What is this?" a few times without getting any response. I decided to switch mode. I asked, "Zhe shi shenme?" (What is this) in Chinese. Her face lit up, and the ice was broken. Although I can be visibly seen as not being a Chinese, being aware of the Chinese language gave me a gongsi.

My Indian roots are a treasure trove of common factors. I am naturally aware of the way the Indian operating system processes information. Despite having grown up in Singapore, my awareness of India means I have a lot of common ground with Indians. I must be the only Indian from Singapore who knows and enjoys three Indian languages. Hindi, the language of Bollywood, has an ability to transcend cultures and impact even non-Indians. Tamil doesn't transcend equally well, but anyone who's a part of the Tamil community has some great humor, music and richness to enjoy. And my awareness of the Malayalam language surprises both me and the Malayalee community. Being Indian also means Rama is a respected friend, and Krishna is a member of the family. When we need focus in life, who better as a mentor than Arjuna?

I cannot identify with people who choose to divide rather than unite. Did you know that there are people who come from the same place and speak the same language, but stay away from each other because they belong to different castes? I've never understood those sentiments. When we talk about cutting across race, language and religion, isn't it even easier to cut across caste?

I've tried to learn from communities who network well based on common ground. The Chinese are certainly like that. Among Indians, some communities, like Malayalees and Sindhis, are good at it. The Tamil community I belong to is not known for its networking abilities, but I've tried to break the mould. Among the communities I belong to, the Singaporean community is the one community which is good at networking. So my networking abilities can be attributed to the fact that I'm a Singaporean.

There are some phrases from songs which run in my head, reminding me of the importance of having a network of friends. Toot gayi jo ungli utti, panchon mile to ban gayi mutti (A single finger which rises can be broken, but when five come together, the fist is formed). Ulagathin selvandhan aana oruvan oru laksham sondhangal saertha manidhan (A rich man in this world is someone who has gathered a million relatives)