He is regarded by many as the greatest football manager of all-time, winning 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League twice. However in Europe’s elite competition, his side struggled to reach the level they repeatedly did domestically, both success and performance wise. His continental record does not strike you as the greatest of all-time, far from it, and his sides never quite had the same arrogant swagger about them in the Champions League as they knew they weren’t the big fish in that particular pool. All this had lead me to pose the question: Did Sir Alex underachieve in Europe? It is a sensitive matter particularly around sentimental Manchester United fans but the question can still legitimately be asked as he certainly didn’t have it all his own way as we explore in detail.
Only 2 wins in many years at the top –
When having this debate with fellow football fans, they will regularly point to the fact the he won the Champions league twice. How can anyone that has won this prestigious title on 2 occasions be considered an underachiever in the competition? Well, if you consider the fact that Ferguson was at United for 27 years, about 20 years at the top. Then you can see how 2 fortuitous wins within that time span is somewhat of a disappointment for the so-called greatest manager of all-time. Also you cannot escape the large fortune he had to secure those 2 titles, being outplayed by Bayern Munich before striking 2 shock late blows in the Camp Nou and relying on a John Terry to slip on the Russian turf against Chelsea to secure glory in Moscow. On both occasions United were a top side who were right up there but were by no mean the stand-out side in the tournament. Almost everyone believed Bayern deserved to win in 1999 and thoroughly outplayed them whilst many believe Chelsea marginally deserved to win their first title in 2008.
In addition, if you look at the other top managers in the past, most have better European records. Paisley won 3 titles in only a handful of seasons at Liverpool, Guardiola matched Ferguson’s 2 within 3 years at Barcelona and Mourinho has already won it twice in his considerably shorter career. Both the last 2 names mentioned will most likely comfortably surpass Sir Alex in the coming years. The Champions League is the pinnacle of club management and Ferguson holds a good but not outstanding record from his time involved in it. What he did domestically and the longevity of his success at one club is still something that should not go unnoticed as anything other than magnificent but it’s still something to think about…
Never had an era of dominance –
If you look back at all the greatest clubs sides under a single manager’s regime down the years, they have all enjoyed an era of dominance in Europe. Liverpool under Paisley in the 80’s, Milan under Sacchi in the early 90’s and Barcelona under Pep in the late 2000’s. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides never had such a spell. All the great sides I mentioned had sustained periods in which they comfortably lead the way in Europe and were seen as the continents benchmark. United relied on the stars aligning for them to have a lucky cup run every now again but even when they did reign victorious you could not tell me that they were seen as comfortably better than anybody else in Europe by the majority of people. In 1999 Bayern Munich were seen as the best team and in 2008 many saw little to choose between the Red Devils and Chelsea.
In fact you could never say there was an addition of the Champions League in which United set the tournament alight or could confidently say they were the best team. The likes of Barcelona under Guardiola won it in true style, sweeping all before them and playing every team unfortunate enough to face them off the park. Liverpool also dominated in the 80’s when they won their titles, emphatically running out deserved winners against almost everybody. United’s titles, as great an achievement as they were, they did not outplay or necessarily look superior to the opposition they faced in the semi-finals and finals in 1999 and 2008. Although they did play very well during both campaigns, being right up there among the best and did have misfortune on other occasions but the point still stands. They never had a sustained spell as the team to beat!
Style of play –
Down the years Manchester United played some wonderful, thrilling, attacking football under Sir Alex Ferguson but I believe his style of play or philosophy might not have been the to succeed in the Champions League. It was perfect for the Premier League because it was physical, fast and end to end as seen by United’s dominance domestically for a number of years but they were unable to replicate this in Europe. As a lot of English sides have found out to their peril down the years is that European football is mainly all about possession and retention of the ball whilst waiting patiently for the right opening. United were always too gun-hoe, looking to counter-attack and play quick, creative football that would often see them give the ball away regularly despite looking dangerous. If you give the ball away regularly against the likes of Barcelona, they will not give it back for an extended amount of time and the chasing will make your legs start to go, leaving you knackered when you do get the ball.
Furthermore I don’t think Ferguson acquired the right players to dominate Champion League matches. He often played work horses like Nicky Butt, Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea who were good Premier League players as they boasted the required skill set of physicality, hard work and endeavor to succeed back home but unfortunately they were shown up in Europe where you need top ability. Their tale was a familiar one as a lot of Ferguson’s players looked great in the Premier League but were often shown up both tactically and technically in the Champions League.
Bad record against the top teams –
For almost the entirety of Ferguson’s United reign, his side were the crème of English football and due to their colossal global brand many believed they had to be up there with the elite of world football alongside AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona. However the Scotsman’s record versus these other so-called top tier teams was very poor. Whenever his and one of the before mentioned sides would meet, United would often look far inferior in comparison as their opponents dominated the ball and therefore the game on the majority of occasions.
Often United who always tried to play attacking football, would have to sit back and soak up pressure because they simply couldn’t get anywhere near their opponents. This was definitely not a game plan, just Ferguson having to accept that his team weren’t good enough and had to defend for their lives as result. Their free-flowing football that had been working so effectively in the domestic league looked somewhat found out and easy to handle for Europe’s elite. They looked leagues off the great Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan sides at times.
Not the big fish in the European market –
Once again just like the style of play debate, United were the big fish in the Premier League transfer pond, often being the heart break team stealing fellow English side’s top players. However once again they did not match this dominance in European football as they often missed out on top players to clubs willing to offer more money and who seemed to act more decisively in the market. The likes of Lucas Moura, Karim Benzema, Danielle De Rossi, John Obi Mikel, Ronaldinho and Claudio Marchisio are all examples of this amongst many others. Admittedly Ferguson wasn’t handed the money that the likes of Real Madrid and PSG were in his later years but you can’t escape the fact that many top players rejected United and they were never quite able to attract the names that AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich could. They seemed to be a less desirable option for some reason.
As a result of this United’s squads generally featured less star names from the world of football. Don’t get me wrong, some quality players wore that famous red jersey during the Fergie years but as good as they were the likes of Nani, O’Shea, Brown, Sherringham, A.Cole, Valencia and Yorke just weren’t quite in the same league as Messi, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Iniesta, Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Puyol, Robben, Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Seedorf, Kaka and Ibrahimovic – who all featured for Europe’s other premier clubs. In addition, when they did have players of that caliber such as Beckham and Ronaldo they usually sold them on to Real Madrid who seemed to be a step up for certainly the latter of those 2 names. Scholes, Giggs, Vidic, Van Der Sar and a lot more many were certainly all world class but the truly big names to represent them were certainly few and far between in comparison to others.
The other side of the argument –
However in every argument there will always be two sides and the other side of it certainly contains some strong points. Ferguson won 2 Champions League titles in his Manchester United career and built the club from nobody’s in Europe to its conquerors twice. He also lost in 2 other finals and made multiple semi-final appearances in which he often ran the opposition very close. Ferguson’s sides played some thrilling football in some wonderful European matches against top sides. The 3-2 win over Juventus in Turin, the 3-3 draw with Barcelona, the 4-0 win over AC Milan and the sensational 7-1 win over Roma in 2007 spring to mind. If he had luck in both of his victorious finals then some of it was certainly evened on other occasions. Semi-finals against Borussia Dortmund and quarter-finals against FC Porto come instantly to mind along with a few other examples.
Another worthwhile point would be the considerably lesser money he spent assembling his squads than the likes of mainly Real Madrid alongside PSG, Man City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Obviously he spent some hefty amounts of cash on various players down the years but in comparison to others he was working on somewhat of a shoestring budget in top end Champions League team terms. He had far less resources and yet still reigned victorious in Europe twice. You can see the pull of the opposing argument.
Despite some strong points assembled against my original opinion I still believe that if you look at the bigger picture in which Manchester United are supposed to be up there with Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich with arguably the greatest manager of all-time on their side. Then maybe they should have secured more than 2 titles in his lengthy reign at Old Trafford? It’s certainly a point worth putting out there.
However I am not necessarily saying that because of my views he is therefore not the greatest manager of all-time. That is a whole other debate. I believe he has to be right up there but in my opinion this is a chink in the great man’s armor and a section of his career that may be a little weak compared to others alongside him. Domestically he was the master and his man management as well as motivational skills alongside his ability to continuously rebuild squads without an absolute fortune to spend, should be highly admired. Although for a mixture of all the points I have made during this article, Sir Alex Ferguson underachieved in the Champions League in my eyes. Now I have to prepare myself and wait for the tirade of abuse to hit me. Bring it on I say!