It seems that the irony was lost on Sir Alex Ferguson when he praised Tottenham Hotspur in his post-match interview yesterday. In typical double-bladed style, the Manchester United boss commended the opposition as a “very good team”, but in the same breath disparaged them as a team who will “take the points off the teams who really matter to us”.
But surely Tottenham can be considered as a significant threat? A club that, while they may not challenge for the title, are capable of setting Manchester United back in their own title race. After all, the points gap yesterday morning between United and their rivals Manchester City stood at seven—last night, it had been reduced to five.
Of course, the feeling of surrendering two points in the final minute of an important match is what United are used to inflicting on their opponents, and it will have hurt the manager, players and fans who knew that City had reduced the chasm the previous day. For most, the only consolation will have been that United at least came away with a point.
There were two important quotes from Ferguson’s post-match interview yesterday, neither of which reflected well on the Scot.
It has become almost accepted nowadays, that in the event of United failing to secure all three points, Ferguson will look to the officials for his sacrificial lamb. At least, that is the impression that the relative lack of intervention from the FA gives us.
However, last night Sir Alex excelled himself and went one step further, implying that the “stand-side” linesman was harbouring some sort of conspiracy against his team.
There is a distinct lack of sympathy from their counterparts when United cry foul. Whenever Ferguson or one of the players bemoans a perceived offside goal or dive in the box, it is usually met with howls of derision and regurgitated phrases of wisdom, such as “taste of your own medicine,” etc.
Sometimes it is justified, but more often than not, United triumph not because of dodgy refereeing, but rather because they are the better team.
I will probably be chastised for saying this, but anyone who does not think that was a penalty on Wayne Rooney was most likely not watching the game. The England striker clearly was in control of the ball, and had dinked it slightly to the left before the outstretched leg of Steven Caulker halted his momentum, causing Rooney to hit the deck. Absolutely stonewall.
Whether or not Rooney would have then converted to take United two goals ahead is debatable. Even so, the next step for Ferguson (taking into account that we do not live in a world where bad decisions are met with a simple shrug of the shoulders) should have been to quickly air his grievances with the decision, and then move on. What he actually did, was instead launch an undermining attack on the assistant.
Stirring up the memories of an Old Trafford meeting with Chelsea two years ago, which ultimately cost United the title, Ferguson laid out a theory of espionage and sabotage, in which the linesman in question didn’t award the Reds “anything from that side of the pitch”. He remembered the linesman “well from his time in the Chelsea game” and was, quite understandably, shocked when he didn’t give the penalty.
Curiously, it is not what Ferguson said that rubs me the wrong way; it is the deflective manner in which he said it.
United did not play badly, but they hardly controlled the game. Throughout the second half Tottenham were the most potent, as United had seemingly been instructed to hold their lead and attack on the break.
This attitude is, by most teams’ standards, a pretty pathetic way to approach such an important fixture—by United’s, it is almost unforgivable.
It is obvious that I am not a master tactician like Ferguson, but surely he has the squad and players to be able to control an away game against Tottenham Hotspur? A team whom he had us believe do not matter in the same way that Chelsea and City do.
There are only two possible answers. Either Sir Alex must concede that he made a bad tactical decision and allowed an in-form Tottenham to barrage the United box, which was always going to end badly.
Or, more worryingly, he knows that he doesn’t have the players to go and pen the home opposition in their own half anymore, therefore having to compensate with the smash-and-grab approach. Belittling the linesman post-match has done wonders in distracting everyone from this rather troubling situation.
The second part of the interview concerned his opinion of Tottenham. A “very good team” was Fergie’s appraisal, but that was the best they got. From this, what becomes blindingly obvious is that Tottenham’s stock has gone up in Ferguson’s estimation, even though he won’t admit it.
Spurs manager Villas-Boas is no longer a young buck who Ferguson can playfully patronise in front of the media. He is now the manager who has taken four points from United this season.
United’s tactics betrayed the new-found respect that the Scot has for the Portuguese—how often do you see United go out and play relatively negative football? Maybe at the Etihad or Stamford Bridge, but Tottenham are supposedly one of those teams that might as well serve the three points up at the pre-match meal.
Twelve years ago, come the interval United trailed at White Hart Lane by three goals. Forty-five minutes and a quick tactical reshuffle later, United headed home with a 5-3 victory.
The Reds weren’t in that kind of trouble yesterday, but had they been, a similar comeback would have looked infinitely more impossible that it did in 2001. Granted, they had enough chances to put the game out of sight, but rather tellingly they didn’t take them.
Sir Alex Ferguson has achieved an unprecedented level of success since he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, and is probably the greatest football manager that has ever lived. He complains about officials, but so does every other manager. The difference is that when Ferguson does it, perhaps mainly due to the common perception that decisions usually go in United’s favour, everyone else cries ‘hypocrite.’
This is what divides his admirers and critics so fiercely—his uncompromising verbal attacks on officials for making decisions that in other matches have would benefited the Manchester club. It just so happened that yesterday, Tottenham got the rub of the green.
By deflecting the attention away from his players and onto the officials, Ferguson played a clever move. One that will buy the Scot some time and cover up the fact that despite topping the table, United are not as formidable a team as they once were.
He also risked the ire of fans from other clubs and his own, but going on past history, I doubt he really cares. For Ferguson, it has never been about pandering to the fans or keeping his mouth shut, and if United are crowned champions in May, it is unlikely to weigh on his mind.