Ahead of the club’s FA Cup semi-final clash against Arsenal, Manchester United’s fans the world over shared a very similar, very familiar feeling – of pure exasperation.
Feeling exasperated with Alex Ferguson is not something new to the Old Trafford faithful; and the team-sheet showed an experimental side featuring seven defenders, at home against one of their biggest rivals where United are expected to attack. I literally felt bad for the millions of couches around the world that were getting a good walloping.
With twin defenders Rafael and Fabio da Silva playing alongside the lumbering John O’Shea in midfield, there was a sense that Ferguson was taking a huge gamble not just with his experiment on the pitch, but the Treble dreams of United fans everywhere.
But that’s what Ferguson does. He’s toyed with my emotions that way for the better part of the 13 years I’ve supported his team.
It feels like he’s some reality TV producer sometimes, keeping around the most annoying contestants just to p*** people off. And for the sake of expanding on that metaphor, I’m going to start calling Jonny Evans the Sanjaya Malakar of Manchester United.
But love him or hate him, you’d have to admit that Ferguson’s loyalty to the club’s most maligned players has often paid dividends.
At various points in his distinguished tenure at the club, fans have urged Fergie to ditch players from Darren Fletcher to Ryan Giggs, and look how both have turned out.
John O’Shea is another example. During his atrocious performance against Southampton earlier in the FA Cup, I could’ve sworn Fergie had gone senile for keeping him around, let alone allow him to play.
But as with so many others in the past, O’Shea lifted his performance to repay his manager’s faith. He wasn’t brilliant, but he did his job, which was to get his big butt in the way of Arsenal’s midfield artisans.
Perhaps that’s why players who cross him get booted out so quickly. They haven’t just betrayed him as professionals, they’ve betrayed his trust.
The Arsenal game, however, wasn’t as much a demonstration of Ferguson’s man mangement, but his tactical ingenuity.
His plan worked to perfection. The completely unrecognisable midfield quartet or Fabio, Rafael, O’Shea and Darron Gibson – supported by Wayne Rooney in the attacking midfielder’s position – smothered Arsenal (though they were aided by the absence of Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song) whilst retaining the quality to finish them off.
It was one of those games where Ferguson reminds fans that no matter how exasperating and incomprehensible some of his decisions appear, the great man actually knows what he’s doing.
Ferguson has often been seen as the lesser footballing brain compared to some of his peers, like Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Carlo Ancelotti, and more of the man manager.
While that might still hold true, Ferguson has pulled off his fair share of experiments in the past, many as bold as his latest success against Arsenal.
In 2006, Ferguson surprised everyone when he first plonked full-back O’Shea in central midfield alongside Giggs, who at that point was still mainly a winger.
The partnership fluorished, with Giggs floating around the park and drifting past midfielders with his pace and balance, and O’Shea providing an anchor in midfield with his physical presence.
That experiment was borne mainly of necessity, due to injuries to Paul Scholes and Alan Smith, who himself was a defensive midfielder at the time after Ferguson had decided to make the most of the ex-striker’s appetite for a nice, crunching tackle.
He wasn’t the first forward to be converted to midfield by Ferguson. Brian McClair made way for Eric Cantona to partner Mark Hughes by dropping to midfield in the early 90s.
But while Smith and McClair’s conversions were gradual, Phil Neville’s transition from a full-back to midfield anchorman came out of nowhere, and left quite an impression too.
United’s rivalry with Arsenal was at its simmering peak when Ferguson surprisingly selected the younger Neville brother to do a man-marking job on Patrick Vieira, and he won widespread acclaim for his performance. He would go on to play regularly in that position until his transfer to Everton in 2005.
More recently, there were Rooney’s impressive albeit somewhat inconsistent outings on the left-wing; which brought to mind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s extended run as a right-winger, where he performed well enough to keep David Beckham out of the team.
But Ferguson has also had his fair share of failed experiments. Paul Scholes, one of the finest midfielders of his generation, was converted into a supporting striker in 2001 after Ferguson bought Juan Sebastian Veron for an English record transfer fee. Not only did it affect Scholes’ form, it ruined the balance of United’s midfield and Veron was sold two years later in a cut-price deal.
The most epic fail however, remains Rio Ferdinand’s brief stint as a defensive midfielder.
During a match against Wolves in 2006, with Scholes, O’Shea, Giggs and Smith all injured, Ferguson paired Ferdinand and Rooney in midfield, and United won 3-0.
It worked pretty well, prompting calls from the British press for Ferdinand to be given England’s problematic holding midfield role.
Probably feeling quite pleased with his latest tactical masterstroke, Ferguson played Ferdinand in the same position for their next Premier League fixture against Blackburn.
It backfired spectacularly. Ferdinand messed up a routine backward header to allow David Bentley to tap the ball into an empty net, got himself sent off for a horribly late challenge on Robbie Savage, United lost 4-3 with Bentley netting a hat-trick, and no one ever mentioned anything about Ferdinand playing in midfield ever again.