I don’t know how many of you watched our FA Cup game against Spurs on the BBC. I did, and in between the usual inane banter in the studio and the consistently good commentary of Jonathan Pearce (please retire, Motty, and take Lawrenson with you), was a strong theme. The excellence of Dimitar Berbatov was constantly referred to, with all the usual cliches, and with many a mention of how he is United’s “number one target for the summer”.
This is not the place to debate that move. It’s been done lots, and I don’t have a lot new to say on him at the moment. However, it put me back in mind of a long term strategy which has been in place at United for some time now. It is simultaneously the reason why we will look to buy someone like Berbatov, and the way we will fit that player into our side. It is the Super-Galactico strategy, and its importance is underestimated by nearly all the journalists, pundits and fans who give their views on our beloved club.
A history lesson
Let your mind drift back through the mists of time to 2003. We meet Real Madrid in the quarter finals of the Champions League, when they are at the height of their powers. Their team, to refresh your memory was:
Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Makalele, Conceicao; Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo; Raul.
A reliable keeper. Two full backs who were potent attackers. A solid centre back pairing, but who could play the ball and were a threat at set plays. Two deep lying midfield players, one a tackler who could pass, one a passer who could tackle. Three unbelievably talented free spirits who could play from anywhere, both scoring and creating goals. And a leader of the line, not as spectacular as the others but capable of brilliance, whose job was to score as many as possible from within the 18 yard box.
Sound familiar? See where I’m going? Well, let’s continue our history lesson.
We went to the Bernabeu on 8 April 2003, and were on the receiving end of one of the finest halves of football I have ever witnessed. Madrid were so good it was unfair, such levels of quality should be banned. We couldn’t get the ball, couldn’t even get close. We got out with a 3-1 defeat, and were delighted to still be mathematically in the tie. That’s the only time I can remember a United team being genuinely happy with a 2 goal loss.
Two weeks later, Real came to Old Trafford, and we came from 3-1 down to win an absolutely pulsating game 4-3. It was a stunning game of football, for fans of both sides and for neutrals. We went out of Europe, of course, but the over-riding emotion for Fergie, to judge from interviews he gave after the game in in following weeks, that night was “I want more of this”.
Crystallisation of the dream
And so it began. Strong defensive unit, fullbacks who could be wingers, two complementary central midfielders, three cascading attackers, and a focal point. The blueprint was there…4-2-3-1 is born – and haven’t we all hated it. Queiroz’s corruption; a betrayal of beautiful football; an admission we’re not good enough; over-sophistication…the list of criticisms is endless, and I agreed with most from time to time.
But born it was, and all we needed now was the players. Trouble is, that’s not so easy. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about Fergie’s Houllier / Benitez phase of buying lots of substandard players. And I’m going to pretend that he never saw Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson as the destructive/creative deep midfield pair, or Forlan as part of the free-roaming attacking trio. It’s been building for a while, now, though.
Two years ago, we had Ruud, complemented by Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo – not quite good enough, Ronaldo was immature and nothing like the player we see today, Giggs still struggles to operate centrally and Rooney dislikes operating anywhere else. Saha (a perfect fluid forward, at his best), was then and is still injured. Solskjaer (lest anyone forget, the player who was supposed to take over from Becks on the right) – injured, never to be the same again. Keane retired, and his replacements substandard. Bring back 4-4-2, we cried.
And last year, ground down by failure, 4-4-2 came back, and we loved it. At last, Quieroz has been subdued, we laughed. Not so – Fergie had subdued himself. Ruud, seemingly the ideal focal point, had gone, and to replace his goals we needed a more innately attacking system. Two up top, two wingers, attacking central midfielders…we needed our goals back, and Fergie was going to fix it.
At the gates…
But now he can begin to dream again, and I for one finally dream with him, rather than wanting the high-flying fantasies to be tinged with reality. The final piece of his 5-year puzzle is the focal point – but this time someone who has to fit in with our existing excellence, rather than rail against it as Ruud did. Allow me to present Fergie’s dream team:
EVDS (or Foster going forward) – solid keeper capable of match-turning saves.
Neville (or one of our various transfer targets) and Evra – great defenders who offer a lot going forward
Rio and Vidic – superb defensive pairing, capable of marshalling / dealing with an occasional lack of cover from the front 4 (watch how often we go man-for-man at the back compared with most teams).
Hargreaves and Anderson – deep lying midfielders, one more destructive, one more creative.
Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo – unbelievable attackers capable of creating chances and goals from anywhere on the pitch, all willing to drop deep and swap positions.
The Focal Point (Berbatov, Huntelaar, etc) – aerial threat in the box, good enough on the ground to link in with the passing movements, another 20 goals a season.
One big and one medium signing, and he’s there, in footballing heaven. And, without a ludicrous celebrity culture, an interfering president, managerial instability, so are we.
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