In 2002 Alex Ferguson made a bold and visionary decision to bring in the Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz as his assistant.
It was a masterstroke in terms of modernising Man United in order to do more in Europe and to take them into the 21st century. Yet ten years later, United have returned to their pre-Queiroz, British-style, which is not good news for United fans.
Man United almost ended last season as English Champions; a matter of minutes separated them from glory and then in a fleeting moment, the title was gone.
Losing the title however was possibly the best thing to happen to United, as it may have allowed Ferguson to stress to the board that this team needs strengthening. With the arrival of Kagawa it appears that United are certainly looking to improve, yet this is just one of many United fans should be hoping arrive this summer.
United’s inability to compete with Chelsea, Madrid, Barca and most importantly Man City, means that Ferguson needs to be shrewder in the market.
Kagawa is a good acquisition, mainly because he gives United something they lack: creativity and guile.
Investment is important and smart investment is even more key, United need to do something to stay with the big spenders.
Yet the reason why United are falling further away from their elite rivals has to do with their tactics as much as the quality of their players.
Enter a vision
In 2002 Carlos Queiroz arrived at Old Trafford to replace Steve McLaren.
Queiroz had previously been coaching the national sides of UAE and South Africa and Ferguson sought to bring in a coach who could replicate and further the work of McLaren.
He did an excellent job in his first year and United brought the title back to Old Trafford, snatching it from Arsenal in the 2002-03 season.
In that following summer, United would embark on a new approach to how they played the game—out went the poster boy Beckham and in came Cristiano Ronaldo.
There was talk before Ronaldo arrived that Ronaldinho and Arjen Robben were sought after to come to Old Trafford. Although this didn't happen, what these targets indicated was that the classic United style of play was about to change: favouring dribblers over crossers.
In the summer of 2003 however, Queiroz’s was sought by Real Madrid and he left United to go manage them.
Unfortunately for him, his time there was not a positive one and he returned as United’s assistant that following summer, just as Rooney was being signed from Everton.
Reforming the old partnership with Alex Ferguson proved an attractive option to both sides. United had trailed 15 points behind Arsenal, and Ferguson was forced to bring in temporary help from Walter Smith during the tough end of season run-in.
Subsequently, Queiroz returned to United as assistant manager in July 2004, signing a three-year deal.
With the return of Queiroz, Crisitano Ronaldo had a coach who could teach and educate him to further his game and develop him into one of the world's best.
Although that following season no trophies were won, United were developing a new style and Ferguson appeared willing to be patient in order build and develop their excellent youth players in Ronaldo and Rooney.
Some important factors affected the coming seasons.
The arrivals of Van Der Sar, Vidic and Evra brought stability to what was, at times, a leaky defence. And in November 2005 United made their most decisive decision, they released Roy Keane from the club.
It was Queiroz who was heavily rumoured to be one of the main reasons for team captain Roy Keane's departure from Manchester United. According to Keane, he did not like the tactics that Queiroz employed and he also did not like the way he was given so much responsibility as if he were manager of the club.
This was a clear indication that the old school United mentality was being phased out.
Beckham, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and now Keane were all moved on. It was an indication that Ferguson was willing to trust the vision of Queiroz and create a side capable of not just dominating England, but Europe.
A transformation from British to European
One of the major criticisms of Ferguson has been his failings in Europe—four finals reached in his lengthy career at United does seem a too few compared to the dominance that United have had in England.
It was clear that the coaching of Kidd and McLaren, although successful, meant that United lacked the edge and understanding of the European game. This is why I believe Queiroz was brought in: to make United dominant in Europe by modernizing their style.
Queiroz transformation of the side was complete in the summer of 2006 when Ruud Van Nistelrooy was moved on, citing issues between him and Ronaldo, whose late delivery meant Ruud was not receiving the right service.
Ferguson chose Ronaldo and that following season United not only won the league, but did it in style. Ronaldo scored 23 goals in all competitions, almost as many as he had done in the previous three seasons.
What was clear was that Ronaldo was now the goal scorer, yet his position was from the right wing.
This evolution of style was away from United’s wide play tactic of crossing and finishing. Ronaldo was now instructed to stay wide and drive inside, with the single mentality of scoring goals.
Queiroz clearly saw the way football was developing and the use of inverted wingers—those who cut inside not out and who seek to score not provide—was what Ronaldo was groomed to be.
It appears Queiroz saw the future of football, in players like Ronaldo and sought to modernise Man United in this style.
Ronaldo’s evolution was rewarded with many goals and success.
He picked up the PFA Players' Player of the Year award, the Young Player of the Year award and Fans' Player of the Year award. Ronaldo was also one of eight United players named in the 2006-07 Team of the Season (where the back four and goaltender were picked).
It was clear that Queiroz had succeeded in transforming this side from a rigid, 4-4-2 force into one which was now fluid and flexible. Ferguson’s intentions to modernise the team now saw United playing more dynamic fluid football, reflecting the more open and progressive play of the Dutch and Barcelona.
In 2007-08, Ronaldo won the European Golden Boot, the first winger to receive this award.
It just showed how far United had come in terms of their progressive style. Their winger was now their forward and the side was created to get the best from Ronaldo.
Often the ball would be played down the left, it would then be switched long to Ronaldo who would be hugging the right touchline with his immaculate touch. His speed and skill would frighten the full-backs and his ability to drive and shoot at speed with power and precision meant he was the most frightening player in the world.
Pure perfection and all credit to Queiroz for making this possible.
United won the title three times in a row from 2006-2009 and it was apparent that Ferguson’s own vision to evolve the side and create a truly modern European side was vindicated.
Queiroz was the architect, he solidified the defence and created an attacking foursome which was fluid, creative and ruthless.
The creator leaves & old ways return
However in 2008, amid rumors of an opening for the Portuguese national coach, Alex Ferguson started to push for Queiroz to be his successor as manager at Old Trafford and discouraged any possible suitors from approaching him.
Nevertheless, following the departure of Luiz Felipe Scolari in July 2008, Manchester United agreed to release Queiroz from his contract and he was appointed manager for the Portuguese national team.
This was a major loss for United and Ferguson, as he was clearly grooming him as his replacement. Ferguson had handed over much responsibility and he had allowed Queiroz to evolve the style of the side.
Ferguson should have done more to keep Queiroz, perhaps even stepping aside to allow him to manage the club. Instead, he left the current Champions Leagues winners, and his departure would mean a gradual decline in style, quality and success.
Although United were unable to keep Queiroz for the 2008-09 season, they did keep Ronaldo, and they almost won the Champions League again, losing in the finals to Barcelona in Rome.
Yet losing Ronaldo and Tevez that following summer meant the team which Queiroz had perfected were no longer. The new assistant Mike Phelan, who replaced Queiroz, is the reason I believe that United increased their gap between the top sides and their selves.
In the Champions League final in Rome, Barcelona showed the world that they were in fact the rising side of Europe and that their style was the one which served a method for success.
If Queiroz had been there would it have been different? Would they have been tactically better than they were that night? I believe so.
For me, the present Barcelona style could have been United.
They were progressing to this way of playing, yet the departure of Queiroz was a damaging blow which I don’t believe many comprehend.
When Portugal came calling, Ferguson should have stepped down to allow him to take over and continue his great work. Losing Ronaldo was inevitable, yet Barcelona lost Ronaldinho too.
It was who replaced these men that mattered.
Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen showed a regression back to the old ways.
Phelan clearly has an old coaching mentality and this showed in how United began to play.
He replaced Ronaldo, an inside forward with Valencia, a classic winger. I rate Valencia highly, yet he was step backwards in terms of the modern game.
I also believe that the arrivals of Nani and Anderson would have been more beneficial if Queiroz was there to nurture them as he clearly did with Ronaldo and Rooney.
His absence and ultimate influence has been lost on these players.
Anderson particularly has had his creativity and guile coached out of him to become a continuity midfielder. This is sacrilege to what was one of the most promising attacking midfielders of his generation.
And Nani possesses the skill yet lacks the focus which Ronaldo was given under the guidance of Queiroz.
A widening gap of styles
Although Phelan has had domestic success, United have not closed the gap on sides like Barcelona, but got further away. Now we see the emergence of Madrid, Bayern and now Man City.
The quality of these sides is high, yet the key factor is their style reflects the modern game: a modern 4-2-3-1 with four interchanging forwards creates problems for even the best defences.
The key to this formation is the use of two holding players to prevent counterattacks, break up plays and supply forwards.
Yet as we see progressive tactics abroad, we see United have reverted back to a 4-4-1-1 which offers little creativity or variety.
A formation which against the poor sides of the Premier League will work, yet as has been seen against sides like Bayern in 2010 and Barcelona in 2011, is ineffective when up against the top sides.
Even sides like Newcastle and Wigan have outplayed United this season and this is because their style has become too predictable.
Last season was the worse United for over a decade.
Although their points tally was high, teams like Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea were distinctly poor and their only genuine rivals in City took six points from them.
At the start of the 2011 season, United were appearing to want to play open, attacking football, yet the key to this tactic is having a stable defence behind it. In the 3-1 win over Chelsea it could easily have been a defeat and the final straw was the mauling against City at home.
Whereas Queiroz had sorted the defence and made it organised, the new team of Phelan and Meulensteen had seemed to allow complete openness to come through the whole side.
If you wish to play with four attacking players, then you must have a strong midfield and defensive stability, the 6-1 loss showed the lack of defensive organisation which was United's strength under Queiroz.
Gary Neville has spoken of the methodical methods of Queiroz in training. It was modern football—fluid in attack, yet knowing your position and role.
Just what Guardiola has done at Barcelona.
Top-level coaching is not just about choosing a side and playing, it is intricate and detailed, it is why Mourinho and Guardiola are the best right now, they focus on the detail.
United clearly have lost their focus.
Although they almost won the title still, performances in Europe indicated that this style will not lead to success and I anticipate City and Chelsea being much better next season.
Can they re-modernise?
The arrival of Kagawa shows the intent of a willingness to play a more creative and fluid attacking system.
Antonio Valencia has shown he is capable of driving inside as well as out and United will need to play more in this style if they wish to go further in Europe.
Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen answer for what happens to United now. I have my doubts about Phelan’s capabilities in such an illustrious role and really question Ferguson’s decision to regress the style of play.
Just as United were about to peak they reverted back to the old way.
It is not easy to choose an assistant, you need to trust them implicitly. Yet it is important to choose a man with vision and an understanding of the modern game.
Real success comes in Europe now, and United appear a long way off from getting close to a European crown at this time.
For me, if they continue with a 4-4-1-1 philosophy, then I expect them to go out early in Europe and to struggle in the league.
In 2003 Ronaldo was purchased, a vision was laid down and, with patience and guidance, United became the best side in the world.
I don’t see that vision today.
Young players have been brought in but I don’t see the creativity of an Ozil or the skill of a Messi in that side.
What I see is continuity players, effective to a level. I thought United were more than that.
I see a side holding on to their crown of England’s best, yet around them I see sides and coaches evolving and adapting to the modern game.
Until United address this issue they will not be on top of Europe again and this must be a cause for concern for the fans.
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