x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

One goal does not undo a gameplan

Though they lost to title rivals Chelsea, Ferguson got United's tactics right at Stamford Bridge.

Wayne Rooney played up front on his own at Chelsea as Ferguson adopted a defensive approach.
Wayne Rooney played up front on his own at Chelsea as Ferguson adopted a defensive approach.

Winning, as the cliché goes, is everything. Yet emerging victorious is always accompanied by a desire to be recognised as the moral winner. It is part of the paradox at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson's management. He is fiercely competitive, yet invariably regards himself as righteous at the same time. It appears a source of enduring frustration that this opinion is not universally shared. Beaten by a goal that probably should not have been awarded from a free-kick that probably should not have been given, Ferguson had grounds to feel disenchanted at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, even if his latest outburst towards an official may reduce the sympathy for him.

Yet, regardless of Martin Atkinson's refereeing, there was a sense in which the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea was a moral victory for Manchester United. Lacking their first-choice central defensive axis and one of their premier strikers, they enjoyed the better of the game. With system and shape, organising the personnel at his disposal, Ferguson excelled. His past tactical triumphs have been attribu ted - perhaps wrongly - to former assistants such as Carlos Queiroz and Steve McClaren. This, however, was surely the Scot's work. Ferguson is not often described as a defensive strategist, partly because he rarely needs to be one. Conservatism is often a product of the ageing process, but even at 67 there is an adventurous streak to him that, as in last week's 3-3 draw with CSKA Moscow, often manifests itself in his tactics.

Yet it is tempered with the realism to recognise when it is wiser to seek to hold what you have. Sunday was one such occasion. The second-string centre-back pairing of Jonny Evans and Wes Brown were shielded by the five willing helpers positioned immediately ahead of them. "There was not much space in midfield," Carlo Ancelotti said afterwards. That was the plan. London's congestion charge certainly applied to the area either side of the half-way line at Stamford Bridge. In probably Chelsea's strongest department of the pitch, each of their premier performers had a companion. It wasn't man-to-man marking, but duties were assigned.

Michael Carrick operated in Deco's sphere of influence, the excellent Darren Fletcher and Anderson got close to Frank Lampard and Michael Essien respectively and Ryan Giggs tucked in to track Michael Ballack. On the right flank, the presence and speed of Antonio Valencia inhibited the often marauding Ashley Cole. It was a system that provided a platform to counter-attack; but for one set-piece it might have worked. One dubious goal does not automatically render a gameplan misguided.

Proof, perhaps, that picking the right team and the right tactics does not guarantee the right result. But it was also a reshuffle necessitated by absentees and an unofficial admission of weakness. With Dimitar Berbatov sidelined and Michael Owen not warranting a place, Ferguson had little option but to play Wayne Rooney as a lone striker. It was a consequence of injury and inactivity in the transfer market. Many, this observer included, believe Ferguson should have signed another world-class forward in the summer. Without one, the reliance on Rooney is exacerbated, the significance of the mercurial Berbatov increa-ses and the margin of error for a United side lacking stardust is smaller.

Even with Cristiano Ronaldo, United only took five points from a possible 18 against the rest of the "Big Four" last year. They still mustered 90 overall and won the title, so a setback at Stamford Bridge is not a terminal blow to their hopes. But with defeat, Ferguson's tactical prowess becomes still more significant in the remainder of the campaign. Manchester City's 3-3 draw with Burnley was notable for several reasons. It was Burnley's first point away from home in the top flight since 1976 and three Scotsmen scored, a comparative rarity in the Premier League nowadays. It also included six goals without a strike by the man who began the season as the division's dominant striker.

Emmanuel Adebayor has not scored since his eventful afternoon against Arsenal in September. The three-match ban he incurred for stamping on Robin van Persie is one factor, but momentum is essential for strikers. Adebayor appears to have lost his when suspended. In an intriguing parallel, Tottenham's Jermain Defoe returned from a suspension collected against a former club - Portsmouth, in his case - and at a time when the goals were flowing. His was a comparatively quiet comeback on Saturday, but those moments of striking ill-discipline already appear to have had a disruptive impact on the two clubs' seasons.

Arsenal's 4-1 win at Wolves took their tally for the campaign to 36 in just 11 games. By way of comparison, that is more than three clubs mustered in the whole of last season. At their current rate, Arsene Wenger's side are on course for a barely credible 124 league goals. The unbeaten side of 2003-4 were christened "the Invincibles". The search is starting for a moniker for the prolific team of today.

In the 11th month of the year, the famously goal-shy striker Johan Elmander belatedly opened his account for 2009. Cause for celebration? Hardly: his Bolton side lost 5-1 at Aston Villa. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae