Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded by many as the greatest football manager of all-time, winning 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League twice. However in Europe’s elite competition, his side struggled to reach the level they repeatedly did domestically, both success and performance wise.
His continental record does not strike you as the greatest of all-time, far from it, and his sides never quite had the same arrogant swagger about them in the Champions League as they knew they weren’t the big fish in that particular pool. All this had lead me to pose the question: Did Sir Alex underachieve in Europe?
It is a sensitive matter particularly around sentimental Manchester United fans but the question can still legitimately be asked as he certainly didn’t have it all his own way as we explore in detail.
Only two lucky wins in many years at the top
When having this debate with fellow football fans, they will regularly point to the fact the he won the Champions league twice. How can anyone that has won this prestigious title on two occasions be considered an underachiever in the competition?
Well if you consider the fact that Ferguson was at United for 27 years, about 20 years at the top, then you can see how two wins within that time span is somewhat of a disappointment for the so-called greatest manager of all-time.
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Also you cannot escape the large fortune he had to secure those two titles, being outplayed by Bayern Munich before striking two shock late blows in the Camp Nou and relying on a John Terry to slip on the Russian turf vs Chelsea to secure glory in Moscow.
On both occasions United were a top side who were right up there but were by no means the stand-out side in the tournament. Almost everyone believed Bayern deserved to win in 1999 and thoroughly outplayed them whilst many believe Chelsea marginally deserved to win their first title in 2008.
In addition, if you look at the other top managers in the past, most have better European records. Bob Paisley won three titles in only a handful of seasons at Liverpool, Pep Guardiola matched Ferguson’s two within three years at Barcelona and Jose Mourinho has already won it twice in his considerably shorter career.
Both the last two names mentioned will most likely comfortably surpass Sir Alex in the coming years. The Champions League is the pinnacle of club management and Ferguson holds a good but not outstanding record from his time involved in it.
What he did domestically and the longevity of his success at one club is still something that should not go unnoticed as anything other than magnificent but it’s still something to think about.
Never had an era of dominance
If you look back at all the greatest clubs sides under a single manager’s regime down the years, they have all enjoyed an era of dominance in Europe. Liverpool under Paisley in the 80s, Milan under Sacchi in the early 90s and Barcelona under Pep in the late 2000s.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides never had such a spell. All the great sides I mentioned had sustained periods in which they comfortably lead the way in Europe and were seen as the continent's benchmark.
United relied on the stars aligning for them to have a lucky cup run every now again but even when they did reign victorious you could not tell me that they were seen as comfortably better than anybody else in Europe by the majority of people. In 1999 Bayern Munich were seen as the best team and in 2008 many saw little to choose between the Red Devils and Chelsea.
In fact you could never say there was an addition of the Champions League in which United set the tournament alight or could confidently say they were the best team. The likes of Barcelona under Guardiola won it in true style, sweeping all before them and playing every team unfortunate enough to face them off the park.
Liverpool also dominated in the 80s when they won their titles, emphatically running out deserved winners against almost everybody. United’s titles were far more down to luck and as great an achievement as they were, they did not outplay or necessarily look superior to the opposition they faced in the semi-finals and finals in 1999 and 2008.
Although they did play very well during both campaigns, being right up there among the best and did have misfortune on other occasions but the point still stands, they never had a sustained spell as the team to beat.
Style of play
Down the years Manchester United played some wonderful, thrilling, attacking football under Sir Alex Ferguson but I believe his style of play or philosophy was not right to succeed in the Champions League.
It was perfect for the Premier League because it was physical, fast and end to end as seen by United’s dominance domestically for a number of years, but they were unable to replicate this in Europe.
As a lot of English sides have found out to their peril down the years is that European football is mainly all about possession and retention of the ball whilst waiting patiently for the right opening.
United were always too gung-ho, looking to counter-attack and play quick, creative football that would often see them give the ball away regularly despite looking dangerous. If you give the ball away regularly vs the likes of Barcelona, they will not give it back for an extended amount of time and the chasing will make your legs start to go, leaving you shattered when you do get the ball.
Furthermore I don’t think Ferguson acquired the right players to dominate Champions League matches. He often played work horses like Nicky Butt, Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea who were good Premier League players as they boasted the required skill set of physicality, hard work and endeavour to succeed back home.
But unfortunately they were shown up in Europe where you need top ability. Their tale was a familiar one as a lot of Ferguson’s players looked great in the Premier League but were often shown up both tactically and technically in the Champions League.
Bad record vs the top teams
For almost the entirety of Ferguson’s United reign, his side were the pace-setters in English football and due, to their colossal global brand, many believed they had to be up there with the elite of world football alongside AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
However the Scotsman’s record v these other so-called top tier teams was very poor. Whenever his and one of the before mentioned sides would meet, United would often look far inferior in comparison as their opponents dominated the ball and therefore the game on the majority of occasions.
Often United, who always tried to play attacking football, would have to sit back and soak up pressure because they simply couldn’t get anywhere near their opponents. This was definitely not a game plan, just Ferguson having to accept that his teams weren’t good enough and had to defend for their lives as a result.
Their free-flowing football that had been working so effectively in the domestic league looked somewhat found out and easy to handle for Europe’s elite. They looked leagues off the great Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan sides at times.
Not the big fish in the European market
Once again just like the style of play debate, United were the big fish in the Premier League transfer pond, often being the heartbreak team stealing fellow English side’s top players.
However once again they did not match this dominance in European football as they often missed out on top players to clubs willing to offer more money and who seemed to act more decisively in the market.
The likes of Lucas Moura, Karim Benzema, Danielle De Rossi, John Obi Mikel, Ronaldinho and Claudio Marchisio are all examples of this amongst many others. Admittedly Ferguson wasn’t handed the money that the likes of Real Madrid and PSG were in his later years, but you can’t escape the fact that many top players rejected United and they were never quite able to attract the names that AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich could.
As a result of this, United’s squads generally featured less star names from the world of football. Don’t get me wrong, some quality players wore that famous red jersey during the Fergie years but as good as they were the likes of Robson, Cantona, Cole and Rooney just weren’t quite in the same league as Messi, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Iniesta, Figo, Zidane etc.
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar were all world class but the truly big names to represent them were certainly few and far between in comparison to others.
In addition, some players of that calibre, such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, were sold to other clubs, with Real Madrid deemed a step-up for these two in particular.
The other side of the argument
However in every argument there will always be two sides and the other side of it certainly contains some strong points. Ferguson won two Champions League titles in his Manchester United career and built the club into European conquerers all on his own.
He also lost in two other finals and made multiple semi-final appearances in which he often ran the opposition very close. Ferguson’s sides played some thrilling football in some wonderful European matches against top sides.
The 3-2 win over Juventus in Turin, the 3-3 draw with Barcelona, the 4-0 win over AC Milan and the sensational 7-1 win over Roma in 2007 spring to mind. If he had luck in both of his victorious finals then some of it was certainly evened on other occasions. Semi-finals against Borussia Dortmund and quarter-finals against FC Porto come instantly to mind.
Another worthwhile point would be the considerably lesser money he spent assembling his squads than the likes of mainly Real Madrid alongside PSG, Man City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Obviously he spent some hefty amounts of cash on various players down the years but, in comparison to others, he was working on somewhat of a shoestring budget in top end Champions League team terms. He had far less resources and yet still reigned victorious in Europe twice. You can see the pull of the opposing argument.
Should a club of Manchester United's stature, with the supposed best manager in history at the helm, have won more than two European titles? I believe it is clear that Ferguson really should have done better on the continental stage.
However, I am not suggesting he is not the greatest manager of all-time. That is a whole other debate. I believe he has to be right up there but his European record is a chink in his armour compared to others.
Domestically he was the master and his man management as well as motivational skills alongside his ability to continuously rebuild squads without an absolute fortune to spend, should be highly admired.
But I'll stick to my guns. Now I have to prepare myself and wait for the tirade of abuse to hit me. Bring it on I say!