By Paul Gardner
Alex Ferguson will not win any prizes for his dress sense. Or for speaking easily understood English. So what. All the 70-year-old Scot does is to win trophies. Though this season he can only win one. ManU’s chances of doing well in either of the English cup competitions, or of winning either of the European prizes disappeared quite early in the season.
So that leaves only the EPL within Ferguson’s grasp, which most coaches would consider more than enough, though ManU supporters, used to being top dog, might crave for more.
There are two other coaches who would probably be delirious at the thought of winning the EPL. Two more non-English coaches -- ManCity’s Italian, Roberto Mancini and Arsenal’s Frenchman, Arsene Wenger. Sartorially speaking, Mancini does well, in a stylish, understated, Italian way. Those Fellini-esque scarves, so casually draped, add a touch of class. Wenger, too, always looks pretty smart, but articulacy is his strength -- I’d rate him the best English-speaker of all the EPL coaches.
Both Mancini and Wenger have had strange seasons, which tell us something about the perplexing world of coaching. And craggy old Alex Ferguson was involved, early in the season, in helping to create the anomalous developments that have befallen Mancini and Wenger.
At the very beginning of the season, way back on August 28 last year, ManU inflicted a brutal 8-2 defeat on Arsenal. It was Arsenal’s worst defeat since 1896 -- yes, that’s 1896, not 1996.
Obviously Wenger had screwed things up pretty badly. Arsenal’s failure to win anything lately had resulted in some of its best players leaving -- notably Cesc Fabregas, Sami Nasri and Gael Clichy. Wenger had been slow in looking for top replacements. The team’s caliber had certainly slipped, but no one thought it was this bad.
On this display, even allowing for the absence of injured players, Arsenal looked more like candidates for relegation than prospective title-winners.
Just two months later, Old Trafford was the scene of another, even more stunning, humiliation. This time it was ManU -- on their sacred home turf! -- that got clobbered, 6-1. ManU’s worst home defeat since 1955. What made it even worse was that it was ManCity scoring all the goals. An unthinkable scoreline inflicted by the hated cross-city enemies, the team that had suddenly become super-rich with super-wealthy Abu Dhabi owners. Unlike Wenger, Mancini had been on a dizzy spending spree (with Nasri and Clichy among his signings). ManCity was now a team that was boasting it could win the EPL.
But if Ferguson had seemed, in the space of just two games, to have condemned Wenger to a relegation struggle, and to have conceded the EPL crown to Mancini, well, that’s not the way that coaches and coaching work.
Wenger’s team, so utterly hopeless at the season’s opening, now sits comfortably in third place in the EPL, more or less guaranteed of European soccer next season.
While Mancini’s side, which at one point had a five-point lead in the EPL, now sits frustratingly in second place, five points behind the leader. Which is, of course, ManU.
What happened? Mostly, coaching happened. Or didn’t happen. ManCity’s collapse can be blamed on poor decisions by Mancini. His endless patience with Mario Balotelli -- full of surly talent, but an undeniably disruptive influence -- contrasts with his intemperate attitude to Carlos Tevez. Even if one accepts Mancini’s version of the incident during City’s September 2011 European Champions League game against Bayern Munich -- that Tevez refused to take the field as a sub, a version Tevez disputes -- Mancini’s immediate insistence that Tevez would never play for him again comes over as almost hysterical. It set the tone for a bitter disagreement that deprived City of Tevez for six months. And this was the player who had been the team’s charismatic captain the previous year, and had led it to victory in the FA Cup.
City’s form faltered badly, Mancini’s attitude softened, and Tevez has now returned to play for the team. His performance this past weekend -- a hat trick in the 6-1 demolition of Norwich -- is a virtual accusation against Mancini’s coaching.
In particular, the interplay between Tevez and Sergio Aguero, was a joy to behold. Why had Mancini persisted so long with Balotelli, who found it difficult to combine with anyone, when he had the chance to field the symbiotic pairing of two Argentines?
Blaming Mancini for ManCity’s failings seems to me pretty clear cut. But it is not so easy to praise Wenger for Arsenal’s remarkable comeback from that awful 8-2 shellacking at Old Trafford. Wenger’s team rebuilding had all the signs of panic buying -- it included the purchase of Mikel Arteta who, amazingly, was signed without undergoing a medical examination.
Yet Wenger’s last-minute buys have turned things around. The only trouble being that this renovated Arsenal, despite the sudden blossoming of Robin van Persie into one of the most dangerous forwards in the EPL, is hardly giving us the attractive soccer that Wenger has long advocated. Consistent the team has certainly been during its steady climb up the standings. Spectacular, or even entertaining, it has generally failed to be. It represents, sadly, something of a betrayal of Wenger’s shining principles, his devotion to skilled soccer.
And while all that heavy-duty coaching has been going on, the unfashionable, Glaswegian-accented Ferguson has unerringly steered his team -- certainly the least-exciting ManU team for many a year -- into first place, and looks like keeping it there.
I see nothing in this tangled web of events to make me rethink my favorite definition of coaching: That it’s just one damn thing after another.