Tactical (D)evolution, or How Fergie Hopes to Catch Barcelona by Going Backwards

This appeared on SB Nation first, where it had a sexy and legitimately sourced photo.

It’s the 28th of May and in the Champions League Final, Manchester United have just lost to Barcelona (again). In fact they’ve been ‘outclassed’, a fact which has resulted in the unanimous opinion that in order to catch Barcelona next time (and prevent a generation of dominance) Manchester United need to invest in some ‘class’ of their own, inject some ‘craft’ into their midfield.

Over the summer Wesley Sneijder was widely upheld as the solution, with Samir Nasri, Luka Modric and, even, Cesc Fabregas all mentioned as possible alternatives.

Meanwhile Fergie bought David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young and brought Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley back to the club. This group of players is not particularly crafty. Young, Cleverley and, to a lesser extent, Welbeck do of course offer some craft – though not at the Sneijder-Fabregas level, it does not define their games (it is nobody’s ‘USP’) – but to look at these players in isolation misses the point. Manchester United’s summer acquisitions, as a group, provide Ferguson with strength, workrate, pace and, crucially, with Englishness and with youth.

These features have marked the most successful United teams since the Busby Babes and the tragedy of Munich, they had nine Englishmen in their matchday squad in Barcelona in 1999 and even in the Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired victory of 2008 they started with six English players. In 2011 they started just three with three more on the bench and of those six three (Paul Scholes, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand) are now in various stages of retirement.

Ferguson’s transfer strategy, then, suggests that he intends* to get closer to Barcelona by becoming more like Manchester United.

* Whether this was an explicit intention from the outset is beyond the ken of this commentator; Fergie may well have tried his damndest to bring one of the aforementioned playmakers to the club, I just don’t know. I do know that were he to have brought such a player to the club, the move would inevitably have failed, but it doesn’t really matter anyway; (d)evolution is always accidental.

In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. Buying in a craft merchant to play alongside Darren Fletcher probably wouldn’t have worked. It certainly wouldn’t have become a match for the synergetic triangle of near perfection that is Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi within a single season.

Moreover, with his well-know Socialist inclinations, Fergie is likely acquainted with the Hegelian principle of dialectical progress and knows that no abstract can remain dominant indefinitely. In fact, screw that. Sir Alex knows loads about football and has seen in his thirty years of football management many tactical systems dominate before fading away. He knows that it is through opposition, not imitation, that progress occurs and success is achieved.

Jose Mourinho knows that too – which is why his Madrid play such self-consciously anti-football that he infuriated his own star player the first time he tried it, Ronaldo seemed happier scoring the Copa Del Rey winner.

He also knows the futility of designing a team to the chief end of being able to beat a side from a different league that it might face a maximum of twice a season. He has watched the depressing outcome of such a project at close proximity. Arsene Wenger’s Barca-light may have been the only side to defeat the Catalans in last season’s Champions League, but it got them nowhere in the end.

Wenger’s mistake, which Ferguson would never repeat, was based on the fundamental differences between the realities of playing in England and those of playing in Spain. Rather than the terms ‘thesis’, ‘antitheses’ and ‘synthesis’ with which he is usually credited (these come from Kant), Hegel actually uses the terminology ‘abstract’, ‘negative’ and ‘concrete’ to depict progress. This formulation highlights the abrasive effect reality has on an idea (which it ‘negates’ into ‘concrete’) and explains why Arsenal could never be as good a version of Barcelona as Barcelona themselves: they exist (for 38 games a season at least) in a different reality, one in which pure tiki-taka cannot flourish*. This resulted in Arsenal playing a form of high-pace counter attacking football, concluding in a series of short passes around the area, which led them to be likened to Barcelona, when really they weren’t that similar at all (last season’s game at The Emirates bears this out, Arsenal won by being Arsenal, and lucky). At best Arsenal were the most like Barcelona that the Premiership would allow.

* This idea also goes someway to explain why The Rainy Night In Stoke question is of such enduring fascination for some. Tiki-taka is an abstract concept which has been hardened into the ‘concrete’ form of Barcelona’s high pressure football, a concrete that is currently dominant in Barcelona’s twin realities of Spain and Europe. There are fundamental differences between the style of play of English clubs and those of their Spanish counterparts (which is why Pep Guardiola raves about Cesc’s ‘anarchism’) to which Barcelona would have to adapt. Of course their players are good enough to adapt (as Fabregas again shows), so Barcelona would still win, but the question is not quite as stupid as it is often depicted: it would be interesting to see how they would adapt.

Becoming Barcelona’s negative is Mourinho’s objective (whether he wants it to be or not, Madrid played Barcelona four times in a fortnight last season).

Ferguson has set himself the far more ambitious target of turning Manchester United into a concrete force in their own right.

His additions, four out of five of which played in the Premier League last season, have turned Manchester United into a sort of Premier League dream team. He has turned the Premier League into his own personal La Masia, where young players develop their potential in an environment of shared experience from which a synergetic unit emerges.

This unit is effectively a really really good version of an old-fashioned four-four-two. It provides the perfect backdrop for the more continental talents of the likes of Nani and Anderson to flourish and the process, like all of Ferguson’s best moves (deliberate or nor), makes perfect sense in hindsight.

By rejecting their Guardiola’s ideology in favor of the formation England loves best, it looks like Ferguson may have dragged United closer to Barcelona (who are busy becoming an even more complete version of themselves, toying with variations of the Dream Team’s 3-4-3), and he’s done it without betting the farm (that’s a Barcelona training ground pun by the way – fully intended) on Wesley Sneijder.

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