Monday, April 9, 2012

Lessons learned from Manchester United

As we continue to draw closer to the conclusion of the 2011-12 English Premier League season, there are a number of lessons that we can draw from the defending champions.


"There is no I in TEAM" is a phrase beloved of managers who decorate the dressing room with inspirational slogans. At Manchester United's Carrington base there are some carefully chosen quotations from Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson on the walls of the academy but neither quotes nor platitudes where the senior players operate. There is no need. While their neighbours argue on the pitch and fight on the training ground, United have lived up to the name as they have run down, then overtaken, the arrivistes down the road.

"We tend to take unity for granted here," said Ferguson yesterday. "We expect it here. It doesn't happen everywhere." He could then have mentioned Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov squaring up to each other over the taking of a free-kick last weekend, or Balotelli's various scrapes with team-mates at City's adjacent training ground. He did not need to, the comparison is in everyone's minds already, and Ferguson instead picked out the row between Wolves' Wayne Hennessey and Roger Johnson as an example of how pressure can get to teams.

Ferguson added: "Players like Ferdinand, Carrick, Scholes and Giggs can ensure that unity. There are young players in the dressing room who wonder why Giggs and Scholes have lasted so long, and if they are willing to learn and be top players, then they are great examples to Welbeck, De Gea, Da Silva and Cleverley. Can you win a title without unity? Well, a team wins the League."

A squad, too. Mancini's complaints at a lack of depth in his squad may seem ridiculous given the cash at his disposal but Ferguson underlined the need for a big group. United have used 31 players in the League this season – 17 more than Aston Villa when winning the 42-game First Division in 1980-81. Players who back in August were expected to play major roles, such as Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and the Da Silva brothers, have all made fewer than 10 appearances each.

"It is a bigger squad than we have had in the past," said Ferguson. "We had 22 at Blackburn [on Monday] and with four [more] out injured that is a big squad.

"The need for a bigger squad is obvious. It is hard to win the League, no doubt about that, and you have to protect your team as best you can."

When Vidic ruptured his cruciate ligaments in Basle in December it seemed United's challenge was destined to falter. With Rio Ferdinand plagued by back problems, the Serb had emerged as the dominant partner in central defence, the probable tutor to raw talents Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Even Ferguson had publicly wondered how much longer Ferdinand could continue. Dropped from the national side, the 33-year-old seemed to be moving towards a new career as one of his generation's self-appointed Twitter spokesmen.

Three months on, Ferdinand's focus is back with the day job, and Ferguson approves. He said: "This has probably been his most consistent form for a long, long time. In his younger days he would make the odd mistake through his carelessness and casualness. He had that trait in him. Now he is using his experience and he is not making any mistakes at all.


Ferguson is looking for his side’s never-say-die attitude to see them grind out the results needed to claim their 20th league title.

The Red Devils are currently eight points ahead of rivals Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table after defeating QPR on Sunday.

United were saved by two goals in the final 10 minutes from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in their outing against Blackburn earlier in the week to claim all three points.

And the boss insisted that it is no coincidence that United often find the net late on.

Sir Alex told the club's official website: "Over the years we have had these moments when we have scored late goals.

"Look back to 1993 and Sheffield Wednesday, two goals in the last nine minutes of injury-time. It is part of our history. We don't give in.

"We are capable of scoring late goals. It is not an accident. There is a thread relating to the history of the club that way for many years now.

"This season you could point to the recovery at Chelsea, or you could point to Norwich or Monday night. With nine minutes to go it was still 0-0, but the players didn't give in.

"They kept their intensity and concentration really well. That was the plus point on Monday. The intensity of our game was brilliant and our concentration was great."

With just six games left for both Manchester clubs, the title is United’s to lose and the 70-year-old is looking minimal mistakes during the run-in.

"You have to grind results out and keep going and hope the team in front of you make mistakes or lose points.

"You drop points in this league. It's a fact. We all drop points. No-one goes through a season without dropping points.

"It is about when you drop them and, on the run-in, your aim is not to drop as many as your immediate opponents, which we haven't done.


Mancini has warned his players that they will have to learn from their closest rivals Manchester United if they want to become the top club in England. Mancini knows he will have to strengthen during the summer and come back stronger next season using Sir Alex Ferguson’s blueprint for success, if they are to overtake United at the top.

The Italian had admitted this past weekend that the Premier League crown will remain at Old Trafford if the Red Devils beat QPR (which they did) and his side lose to Arsenal on Sunday (which they did), a scenario that would leave them eight points behind.

Mancini insists his starting XI would match or even better United’s starting XI, but admits Sir Alex’s squad have more experience and organisation when it comes to winning trophies.

The City manager told The Sunday Mirror: “United is a strong team, but the difference is in the 20 players, not the 11.

"Probably if we played our best 11 players against United’s best 11 players they would not be better. But we are not ready to lose three or four players.

"Maybe next year if we have more players with strong mentality it will be enough.

“United are better as a club and in their mentality. That is because they are used to staying on top. They can play without problems.

“They maybe don’t have the pressure we have because they have won everything. When you play a team like United, that is the difference, not the players.”

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