The Perfect Ten wouldn’t be complete without mention of Sir Alex Ferguson’s rivalry with Arsene Wenger. These two great managers shaped together the course of club football in England.
Wenger arrived in the country as almost an unknown. His methods seemed unorthodox to begin with and he spawned a counterculture against traditionally accepted football practices in English football. Wenger brought a continental style to the Premier League which pushed United more than any other side ever could.
Without Wenger and his European philosophies counteracting against the tactics of long, direct play historically found in English leagues, Ferguson would never have found a worthy rival who helped push on his own beliefs of how football could be played. Ferguson’s landmark signing of Eric Cantona became United’s first step away from ‘English’ football toward ‘European’ football.
It was Ferguson, not Wenger, who built a brand of football that so efficiently cast together the cultural stylistics of the European game with the hard hitting, power and directness of the English game. United had an ability to adapt their style in a number of ways; defend resolutely, probe with possession, attack with crosses from the wings, or use some of the most devastating counterattacks the game has ever seen.
Arsenal went through periods of utter brilliance – their ‘Invincibles’ season being the absolute peak – but they were often guilty of overplaying in a way United never did. Ferguson would simply never have allowed it. Arsenal tried at times to walk the ball into the net and Wenger seemed to become more concerned with aesthetics than decisiveness.
On the other hand United always maintained a killer instinct. Ferguson possessed it in his footballing DNA and was devoted to transferring it to his players. Ferguson’s United had an ability to do something Wenger’s Arsenal could not – play ugly and win. They didn’t have to call upon this attribute very often. But an attribute setting United apart from Arsenal in the Premier League era is the resolve and ruthlessness to win at all costs – even if it means sacrificing beautiful play.
When United and Arsenal were drawn together in the semi final of the 2009 Champions League it whet the appetite of football fans all over the world. Here were two sides playing some of the most adventurous and attacking football in the game. Over two ties for a place in club football’s most desired finale it was expected United and Arsenal would tussle to the death in a fascinating bout.
Even though United dominated Arsenal in the first leg of the tie at Old Trafford they had to settle for a 1-0 victory. In the return leg at the Emirates it was quite a different outcome. Ferguson’s own personal decisiveness and the ruthless edge he so frequently sharpened had successfully transmitted to his team. Inside 11 minutes they found themselves 2-0 up and cruising to the final in Rome.
This was Cristiano Ronaldo’s last campaign for United and his rumoured exit to Real Madrid regularly filled the gossip pages of the newspapers. He elevated himself above his peers and was quite rightly deemed to be the best footballer on the planet at that moment in time. Everything seemed to just fall into place for him. His performances from 2007 to 2009 showed an irresistible mixture of outrageous flair with laser-like focus on developing himself as a player. He played with such verve and confidence, it felt as though every time he picked up the ball in an opponent’s half he could score.
In his final three seasons at United he scored 91 goals in 155 matches – with an outstanding 31 league goals in 34 matches in the 2007-2008 season. This was the beginning of Ronaldo’s ascent to becoming not only one of the game’s greatest ever players – but also greatest goal scorers.
As discussed previously, Ronaldo had a helping hand in the invention of the much revered and copied ‘false nine’ role often attributed to his long standing rival, Lionel Messi. This game against Arsenal showed Ronaldo’s effectiveness in a side which operated without a designated centre forward. Ferguson opted not to include Carlos Tevez or Dimitar Berbatov in his starting line up and instead used Ronaldo in a free role at the tip of his team’s formation.
His former United teammate, Gary Neville, said Ronaldo changed the way he saw and understood football. Neville said: “He would prey on the weak. He was an absolute bully. He sniffs blood, he will find the weakness in the back four. If he’s not getting the left-back in the first 15 minutes, he’ll switch to the right-back. If he’s not getting the right-back, he’ll switch to the left centre-back. He has helped to redefine the game by creating a new breed of flexible forward.”
The pinnacle of all of Ferguson’s tactical innovations came into full force that night in the Emirates. Not like Messi – a false-nine who would drop deep and help give support to the midfield as part of the build up play – but a ruthless bully, an assassin, an irresistible force like no other, who would leave his teammates to mop up and fill the gaps behind him so he could go and win the game for them.
In this match he scored a long range effort which the goalkeeper should probably have dealt with better. However, it deserved to go in such was the force of the strike combined with the outrageous belief he could even score from that distance. His second goal was vintage United counterattacking prowess. Park, Rooney and Ronaldo all combined to take the ball the entire length of the field in seven touches before Ronaldo slid to crash home and make it 3-0.
Perhaps Ronaldo’s biggest achievement is the resilience and determination he has shown in his pursuit of greatness. His irresistible talent, unyielding dedication and grand stage decisiveness were skills he crafted in a United shirt under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson – and this match against Arsenal will live on as a portrait of United’s most supreme player.