Who would have thought that deoxyribonucleic acid would become such an en vogue topic with the British football public, traditionally so pre-occupied with their pre-match pint or hotter-than-the-sun mystery meat United pie?
Well, DNA is now part of the Old Trafford lexicon, with the most-recently published Stretford dictionary updated to also include the term gegenpress (but not quite heavy metal).
Those who purchased previous editions will remember the hype around the inclusion of the terms ‘process’, ‘transition’, ‘rebuild’ and the phrases ‘Ole’s at the wheel’, ‘Jose’s playing the way that United should’, ‘Louis van Gaal’s red army’ (I’m leaving out the ‘and white’ in tribute to the Dutch coach’s chanting) and ‘Come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s boys’. Depending on your preference, you might remember one of those more fondly than another.
And, of course, ‘the United way’, which has almost evolved into an ethereal quality, not a tangible process or product one can discuss the merits of, more a subjective thing like the meaning of life itself, with elements such as attractive football, young players in the team, and winning – oh, god, winning, the pursuit of winning at all costs – cited as the key three ingredients, with a fourth lesser but not insignificant component being a traditional shape like a 4-4-2.
Where it doesn’t exist in a palatable form with qualities easy to digest, we look for the easiest comparison. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had all the above, didn’t it?
And when a United team doesn’t have just one of the above, it’s easier to dismiss as not being the United way at all. If you say one manager was closer than another to replicating what your subjective opinion of the United way is, well, guess what my friends – you may well be a Top Red, guilty of thinking you’re superior.
“There have been changes in management – five managers since Sir Alex left,” Ralf Rangnick told the press on his first day at the club, “and therefore it was also difficult for the club to gain continuity in regard to signing new players and sticking to the DNA of the club and I think this is vital in modern football that you do that.”
Oh Ralf, what did you do? You used the D-phrase.
In order to teach, you must already know. In order to know, you have to learn. Is it fair to suggest that Rangnick, for all his experience and education, still has a little fine-tuning as far as United’s DNA is concerned?
Crucially, is it important that he does? Is it better that he doesn’t? Let’s have a look at the United way, as interpreted and implemented by each Manchester United post-war manager, and try to form a rational opinion.
If we are looking at the origins, we must start with the Godfather of Old Trafford, Sir Matt Busby. Without question it is universally agreed that when he agreed to take over at the club the vision he shared with James Gibson, Walter Crickmer and Louis Rocca was that United must build a team that played entertaining football comprised, as much as possible, of young men developed through the youth system at the club.
The key shape in football was a 3-2-5. The ‘2’ would be called wing-backs or half-backs or wing-halves, but they were essentially defensive midfielders, usually the key players in the team. The five – well, you had a two and a three, or a four and a one. Two wingers, two inside-forwards (the attacking midfielders) and a centre-forward.
The style of play was modelled on the Austrian and Hungarian teams coached by Hugo Meisl and Jimmy Hogan – the emphasis was on ball retention and team-work. Busby was heavily influenced by that and was delighted to learn that Jimmy Murphy was, too. Murphy was placed in charge of teaching this to the young players at the club with Busby refining the rough edges in the first team.
“What is this pattern of playing I keep going on about?” Busby asked in his book Soccer At The Top. “Only the naive would imagine that it is a drill to be followed by every Manchester United player. It is a pattern formed by the players and the staff, formed by individuals who are all different, and therefore the pattern over the years will gradually change. But only gradually.”
These patterns were present in Busby’s first great team of 1948 but when the ‘Babes’ started to integrate from the youth system into the first team at the ages of 18 or 19 (sometimes even younger) they were already showing the benefits of two or three years playing this way, and, crucially, playing alongside their team-mates and getting to know them.
It did not make for a completely comfortable transition at first – the adaptation to top flight football took a little time for even the likes of Duncan Edwards and David Pegg – but soon, the autonomy prevailed, and at the age of 21 and 22 the precocious Babes were beating the top teams in the country by scores of four and five, and impressing in Europe.
Entering continental competition had also been a vision of the internationalist Busby, who was keen to test his team against the world’s best, and had taken United on tours of North America and entered the youth team into the very early Blue Stars tournaments. The manager was keen for his side to be globally known – and that’s what they became.
United’s team in 1957 was close to perfect from the original vision, showing the benefit of a decade’s work – Harry Gregg and Tommy Taylor were the main stars who were signed, but Busby could (and did) field all-home grown XIs, and could even make eight or nine changes using the youth team and reserves and still achieve strong results.
One famous example came when Byrne, Edwards, Taylor and Blanchflower were all called up for international duty – Busby called up Bent, McGuinness, Whelan and gave a debut to Bobby Charlton, who scored twice against Charlton Athletic in a 4-2 win.
And yet, at the peak of the Babes’ prowess, consider this report from the Manchester Guardian : “One of the most important features of their production of players is that, for all the emphasis upon mastery of the elementary skills, there has been no move – as might have been understandable if not commendable – towards any form of stereotyped ‘Manchester United’ football. Each player has been encouraged to develop his particular gifts and urges to the advantage of the team, so that the dash of one, the shooting power of another, the speed of a third, the long passing of a fourth have been exploited in harness with the ranging of a fifth, the mobility of a sixth, the plodding steadiness of a seventh. Variety has been achieved without loss of balance, through mutual understanding of the game’s problems, upon which the players are encouraged to think for themselves. Most of the successful teams of post-war football have employed a particular style of play, such as the long-ball and straight wing-running of Wolverhampton Wanderers, the quick clearing and wedge forward-formation of Newcastle United, the close-passing of Tottenham Hotspur, the massed defence and breakaway method of Arsenal. There is, however, no characteristic Manchester United style.”
Two league titles were all the Babes would have to show for what was a – and what would have been an even greater – spell of domination in English football. In this era, domination was winning two league titles in a row. In 1958, at the time of Munich, even though United were chasing another league title, it is fair to say they were prioritising the European Cup and even the FA Cup following disappointment in the 1957 final.
Harry Gregg signed for a world-record fee for a goalkeeper. That followed Reg Allen, who had done the same a few years earlier. Gregg described being chosen to play alongside the Babes as joining ‘the Hollywood of football’.
Munich happened. The immediate on-pitch change to the strategy of the club was that Jimmy Murphy, in caretaker charge while Busby convalesced, used grief as a motivational tool. It was subtle, but prominent.
The youngsters who came into the side without the benefit of an extra year or two in the youth or reserve team gave everything they had, playing above what anyone reasonably expected of them to qualify for the FA Cup Final. Although United were defeated on the day, this was one of the most crucial periods in the club’s history, as it lay down a staple of the attitude that must be seen in the players.
Busby returned, and Murphy went back to look after the youth system. He promised to deliver another Youth Cup winning team.
In 1963, United returned to the FA Cup Final, and won their first major trophy since Munich. The balance of the team from players bought to players developed had been forced to change. Busby and Murphy weren’t getting any younger, and even though they were dedicated to replicating what they had done, it was clear they’d have to make some concessions to keep the club competitive.
The ’63 final team had four youth team players (five if you include Tony Dunne, as some people often do), still in the 3-2-5 formation.
In 1958, Brazil had won the World Cup playing a 4-2-4 shape, and this was increasingly adopted by teams around the world, with Viktor Maslov, the Russian coach, going even further and making it a 4-4-2 shape.
It would take the football world at large some time to catch up to that level of pragmatism. But with more teams reverting to four-man defences, Busby realised he had to adapt, and he did so in traditionally innovative fashion, although this is often-neglected due to most people associating the 1968 team with the end of the manager’s tenure more than they do the glory of the achievement.
Murphy had been good to his word and delivered another Youth Cup winning side. It included David Sadler, Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd, John Aston and George Best.
United won two more league titles. In 1968 Busby finally reached the European Cup Final. On paper, his team was a 4-3-3. But there were significant key figures in the side. Sadler, at centre-half, could easily move to play as a forward. Charlton, nominally in the midfield three, was a forward by trade. And there was Best, who played anywhere and everywhere.
Best went on record as saying he was never told how to play or where to play by Busby. “It was lovely,” he said, as well he might. Lovely for United too – this flexible system won the biggest trophy, with Best scoring the decisive goal, dancing around the goalkeeper to score in style.
“It was as though he was the Babes in spirit,” goalkeeper Alex Stepney (another world record goalkeeper signing) said.
The players – who insisted to a man they’d never spoken about Munich in the build-up – felt the emotion as they celebrated the win with family members of the deceased from Munich. The poignancy of it being ten years on from the disaster wasn’t lost on anyone – and Busby would later go on record as confessing that there ‘was room for sentiment in football’.
Five league titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup in 24 years – by today’s standards, people might say it wasn’t successful. But following Busby – as someone had to a few months later, when he announced his retirement – was to prove one of the biggest obstacles in United history.
Perhaps it wasn’t helped by the fact Busby himself laid out his perfect vision for what a manager of Manchester United should be.
“I shall have some say in whom my successor shall be and I have very definite ideas on the subject,” Busby said. “He must be:- 1 – Young, in is early 30’s, up to the absolute age of 45. 2 – He must have experience because Manchester United are not in a position to experiment. 3 – He must be a manager who has proved himself to be a leader, who commands respect, and the players must know what he’s talking about. 4 – He must have the human touch. The advice he gives will have to be the best for the players, but, more important, the best for the club. 5 – He must NEVER, EVER, make a promise without ever being able to fulfil his words. There is a sixth quality which Manchester United now expect… the man chosen will have to be right in his decisions and though he will be given time to prove that he is right this is a final condition… until he is dreadfully wrong. And I hope my man will NEVER be dreadfully wrong. The man who takes on Manchester United has a difficult job. He must — and I repeat must with all possible emphasis — have success in terms of Championships or Cups, otherwise he is going to be deemed a failure. Frankly, it is not the sort of job that I might have taken on 30 years ago. So, we need a new face, we need new life in the club, we need new blood… And though in my opinion I’m not old, we need this complete transfusion to take the club even further. I knew the minute I offered my resignation from team managerial duties that I would be offered either a place on the board or that a post of general manager would be created. But I did not want to become a director. After 23 years of waking and living the life of Manchester United a directorship seemed to me to be a sort of vacuum. That I didn’t want. Eventually, if it is the wish of the then present board, then I shall join the board because Manchester United is my life. But between now and then I will work for United. My successor will have heartbreak, heartache, headache, success, and happiness in some order or other. But I promise him this — he will never have any interference from me. As this season ends, Matt Busby, who was knighted on behalf of some great boys past and present, is bowing out of football team management. From there on I shall be on the administrative side… and who knows? Maybe I will start being able to enjoy a game of Soccer again.”
The successor, chosen by Busby, was 31-year-old reserve team coach Wilf McGuinness, who as we can see did not fit much of the outgoing manager’s own criteria.
The more prominent thing to take from Busby’s mandate was the insistence that success must follow in the form of trophies, or they would ‘be deemed a failure’.
McGuinness did not have the control that Busby demanded. In fact, the only signing the club made during Wilf’s eighteen months in charge was Ian Ure, who was recommended and signed by Busby himself. Wilf, who had been on Alf Ramsey’s coaching staff at the 1966 World Cup, was never able to command the full respect of the likes of Charlton and Best.
He played a 4-2-4 shape, which occasionally became a 4-3-3 when the winger who wasn’t Best (usually Willie Morgan) would drop into the midfield three. Youngsters were given debuts – but they weren’t up to the standard of the veterans who were close to the end.
Results started to worsen. McGuinness needed a trophy – but lost in three semi-finals, the last of which signalled his fate. He was sacked in December 1970, with Busby standing in as caretaker until the end of the season.
The next man was Frank O’Farrell. O’Farrell came from Leicester and was part of the Cassettaris Cafe group of managers to come out of West Ham.
He kept a similar shape to McGuinness, and enjoyed a fine start with Best in mercurial form. This could be attributed to laws in the game changing to punish bad tackles more severely – but as referees became less vigilant, pitches became more muddy, Best was getting kicked everywhere again, United’s form dropped, and O’Farrell – who was still given a decent amount of money to spend, and most certainly made his own choices – was soon finding himself to be in a similar position to McGuinness.
O’Farrell’s biggest issue was commanding respect from the players – his own biggest achievement had been winning the second division with Leicester. And when form dropped, and criticism came, the manager literally disappeared according to the players – he didn’t take training and ‘was a stranger’ according to Paddy Crerand, who was now on the coaching staff.
He signed lower-division striker Ted MacDougall to replace the goals of Denis Law, this just weeks after he had dropped Bobby Charlton and was confronted by Matt Busby about it – at a club function, O’Farrell’s wife angrily told off Busby for interfering. Charlton regained his place.
With the transition of players, the 4-3-3 now had a different look – including Alan Gowling in the middle in place of Crerand. It would be fair to say craft had been replaced by height.
The captain was the least of the manager’s issues. George Best was struggling with various issues and O’Farrell put him on the transfer list after the player missed training. That week, United lost 5-0 at Crystal Palace – and O’Farrell was sacked, after he too had only eighteen months in charge.
He was replaced by Tommy Docherty, the ebullient Scotland manager. Docherty had been influenced by Jimmy Hogan during a brief spell together at Celtic, although this was never cited as a reason for his hiring at United.
Docherty started with a 4-3-3 which eventually became a flat 4-4-2 although this was predominantly due to the skillset of the players he inherited. He made a number of big signings. Scotland players Lou Macari, George Graham, Jim Holton and Alex Forsyth were signed.
The new manager was entrusted with the task of clearing out whatever he deemed to be deadwood. He was grateful that Bobby Charlton retired, but still showed how ruthless he could be with controversial and unpopular handling of Denis Law and George Best (who was brought back only to be moved on in very difficult circumstances).
It was a sign that the club had finally given a manager control of the dressing room, and with it came power – power that wasn’t even relinquished when the club were relegated in 1974. Docherty’s side played good football but were struggling in front of goal with the weight of expectation of having to replace the men before.
The young players who had suffered with low confidence now had time to discover if they were good enough under a manager with direction. The players Docherty had brought in knew that they could be settled. The Second Division provided a platform for United to win – the confidence kept building. They were promoted, and in the process, added Steve Coppell to the right hand side.
Almost as soon as they were back in the First Division, United signed Gordon Hill – and Coppell and Hill were direct wingers with different but complementary styles. Docherty had a 4-2-4 system with Sammy McIlroy and Gerry Daly, two players who could easily play in the front line (and often did) serving as the two central midfielders. Neither were renowned tacklers, but Docherty had them working under the philosophy of retrieving the ball as soon as possible and then moving forward as soon as possible.
The boss had also stumbled upon a central defence ‘by accident’. Martin Buchan, a classy but traditional centre-half was now partnered by Brian Greenhoff, who had played almost every position but was usually a ball-playing defensive midfielder. It was a bold move to play him in defence, but Docherty generously described him as ‘my Beckenbauer’, an example of just how attacking and high-energy his team had become.
It was by far the most thrilling iteration of a United side since the pre-Munich days, schooled on the same philosophy but implemented with very modern tactics. With Docherty such an overt Hogan disciple, he rarely spoke about his football philosophy, instead simply revelling in the stage he had to showcase his outgoing personality.
That personality came with a clash – in addition to the early departures, Docherty had also released Paddy Crerand from the staff and sold Willie Morgan, both of whom, like Law, were still very friendly with Busby. There was a division at Old Trafford, that much is fair to say, but Louis Edwards, the owner, was very fond of the manager.
Not so much that, when it was revealed Docherty was having an affair with the physio’s wife, he could keep him in post – so Docherty was sacked in the wake of having won an FA Cup with a team that had an average age of 24 (and included Alex Stepney and Jimmy Greenhoff bookending the team).
Incidentally, the FA Cup Final team featured Nicholl, Albiston, McIlroy, Greenhoff and McCreery, all of whom had come from the youth system – a healthy quota.
The 4-2-4 was much too cavalier for Dave Sexton – another West Ham graduate, who followed Docherty. Coppell and Hill were told to conform to a 4-4-2. It was easier for the former than the latter, and Hill was replaced by the workhorse Mickey Thomas. The Docherty-loyalists Brian Greenhoff and Stuart Pearson were replaced by the tall Leeds stars Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan.
The change in philosophy instantly frustrated supporters and was not successful on the pitch. An FA Cup Final and a second place finish were not deemed suitable progress. United earned a reputation for not scoring and drawing too many games.
Sexton had remained loyal to the club’s ideology of playing young players (and the club would benefit long term) but with no success or entertainment to show for it, as well as the manager being a dour contrast to Docherty’s liveliness, four years was deemed a long enough time in the job and he was sacked in 1981.
After trying but failing to land his first choice targets, Martin Edwards chose Ron Atkinson, the manager of a very entertaining West Brom team and a man with a media-friendly personality. Atkinson stated that his big objective was to restore United as a big name in continental football again, and, unbeknown to Edwards, he too was a Hogan disciple, having been taught by him at Aston Villa.
Due to the squad he inherited Atkinson played a 4-4-2 but he initially focused on strengthening the spine of the team and signed Bryan Robson and Remi Moses – this eventually morphed into the manager deciding on a diamond shape in midfield for a while, with Robson at the top.
This period almost coincided with a league title – United played their best football since the Docherty days, which were now seven years earlier, in the spring of 1984. They beat Arsenal and Barcelona but collapsed when Robson suffered an injury (a familiar story for this era).
That summer, Atkinson reverted to width – signing Strachan and Olsen to go more into a 4-2-4. United won the FA Cup (their second under ‘Big’ Ron) and won the next ten games of the following season playing some fantastic football – but injuries to Robson and others derailed the campaign and United managed to finish way out of a championship race.
Atkinson was sacked in November of 1986 having delivered on all fronts except a league title, which was now become dearly coveted after almost twenty years without one at the club, and in the face of Liverpool rewriting the rules on domestic domination.
Additionally, although Atkinson did play club developed players, and he did hire Eric Harrison who was to prove crucial to the future of United’s prospects, it is also fair to say that this manager benefitted largely from his inheritance – Duxbury, Whiteside and Hughes were all products of the Sexton system more than any other manager and Albiston was the sole survivor of the Docherty era. Without them, the club would not have fielded a single youth team player in the 85 final.
Then came Ferguson. We all know about what he did, right? Does it need further explanation? A hundred youth players given debuts over 26 years. Trophies galore – after a little patience. Dominance on a scale that surpassed anything Busby could have dreamed.
One European Cup delivered with four home grown starting players. A second with three in the team and five in the squad.
He delivered success on such an unprecedented scale that winning, in and of itself, moved into the dominant factor in the eyes of many. Winning was more important than playing well. Playing well was important, of course.
Ferguson was not influenced by Hogan – although he did admire Ferenc Puskas when he saw Real Madrid play at Hampden Park. He was not feared by the shadow cast by Busby – and openly sought both his, and Jimmy Murphy’s advice, sharing to this writer in 2016 that he had used Murphy’s particular path and fire to win as inspiration.
He played different systems – most predominantly 4-2-4 in the 94 team, 4-4-2 in the 99 team, a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 in 2008, and, on occasion, even a 4-3-3.
Compellingly, he had tried 4-3-3 systems in the mid-90s as he tried to get to grips with the great Juventus team, but eventually trusted in the quality of his players in their natural system and that yielded greater dividends. He also tried a 4-4-1-1 after signing Veron – only to again go back to 4-4-2.
Then came the cavalcade of recent changes, which I shall assume you’re all familiar enough with, but here is a TL;dr (ironic, right?) :
Moyes – 4-4-2, mostly. Youth players used. No success. Not a confident speaker to players or press. Gone within a year.
Van Gaal. 3-5-2. 4-1-2-1-2. 4-3-3. The first appointment of the post-Ferguson era, the first proper appointment of the Glazer/Woodward regime, and a clear diversion from anything that had ever been known at the club.
Total football was the popular style of the day. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and the Spanish side, were so dominant that one could see the sense in trying to modernise United’s style. Van Gaal had experience of implementing such regimes and came from the same school of Johan Cruyff, going all the way back to Rinus Michels, who was, incidentally, influenced by Hogan in his own methodology.
However, interpretation is key – and, like Michels (who had also influenced Sexton), Van Gaal’s version of it was more instruction and less instinct. More coaching and less individuality – one of the key facets of Busby’s master plan, and one of the common themes of every exciting and popular team ever since. Make no mistake, this was a big deviation from most of United’s history, possibly in line only with the Sexton hiring – the club were hiring someone renowned with a tactical strategy that only had a resemblance with the club’s identity in theory.
The experiment was a disaster. Many major players were alienated, most were sold, and though one trophy was delivered (with one youth team starter, and another from the bench who scored the winning goal), the football was by and large terrible.
What constituted success was now a multitude of different things. Success in the reasonable format of what to expect from a particular group of players. Success in the format of enjoyable football. Success in the vein of Alex Ferguson, which we can say is a trophy per season if not a league title per season. Success in the eyes of the Glazer family who now owned the club – which was seemingly defined by a critical factor of failing to qualify for the Champions League, which meant finishing outside the top four positions in the league.
Supporters were not resistant to the idea of a new system or new style. They just wanted to be entertained. They also wanted to win, and after three years, it seemed like this was a priority for the owners, so they hired Jose Mourinho – a man who had a track record of pragmatic football and a common occurrence of strong discontent towards the end of his tenures, but as close to a guarantee of success as you could get in football… (oh, this isn’t a TL;dr is it? Are you still r?)
Mourinho tried a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, both of his usual styles. He had instantly sought to add star power through the spine of his team but the defence needed critical investment and schooling if it was to match the miserly standards of his previous spells at Chelsea and Inter Milan. It couldn’t – so those formations became even more pragmatic.
Let’s return to education – Mourinho cited Bobby Robson as his mentor. It’s fair to say the two seemed to have different ways of how the game should be played on the pitch. Mourinho also spent much time with Van Gaal, and the pragmatism of the two styles was more easily identifiable.
The manager delivered two trophies, a League Cup and Europa League (which brought Champions League football), with supporters hoping that the strong first year would result in smarter investment and better football, though they would be happy with functional football so long as a title was delivered. It wasn’t – United were miles off the pace by December. It was clear things were not great.
Despite giving him a new contract in January 2018, the club sacked Mourinho before the end of the year, and although two trophies had been won, like Atkinson, they were not the trophies the club wanted. Unlike Atkinson, there hadn’t even been good football – and unlike Sexton, even without good football, there wasn’t even a good mood. Unlike O’Farrell, even without good football or a good mood, there wasn’t the prospect of youth team players coming through. Unlike McGuinness, even without all of the above, Mourinho’s unparalleled experience was not backed by the club owners to oversee a transition of players that was sorely needed.
The new contract was an indication that the club hadn’t made a long-term succession plan – as was the fact they hired Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to step in as caretaker. Solskjaer brought Mike Phelan, an immediate restoration of some of the experience that had been lost when Moyes oversaw a complete change of senior staff.
We’ve seen the reign, it’s fresh enough – there was an attempt throughout the club to re-invigorate the youth system at senior and foundation level. There was an attempt to play proactive, attacking football, which was more entertaining than any post-Ferguson successor but still reactive in big games. (Incidentally, the switch from proactive to reactive had happened in the switch from Van Gaal to Mourinho – the former had tried to control those games, and it was by and large successful, but United would dominate large periods of games without doing anything with it, as was perfectly exampled when Van Gaal’s United went to Mourinho’s Chelsea in the 15/16 season.)
Solskjaer was hired on a permanent basis after a string of successful results and performances. There was no hiding from the fact that everyone was hoping that Solskjaer’s education was from Ferguson and therefore it would translate – instead, history repeated itself, much like the McGuinness era.
Solskjaer went one step further – getting to a Cup Final, albeit losing, and finishing higher up the table. But he was unable to oversee a full squad transition to ascertain complete control and crucially there was rapidly decreasing confidence of what he would do if he had complete control – modern football sees sharper and more pronounced collapses of form, for some reason, and so Solskjaer had to be dismissed.
As the club continued to stress support for Solskjaer, there were frequent comments made about the stability that was back around United. An injection of that good deoxyribonucleic acid. It’s fair to say that some elements were successful – but the team were not good enough when it mattered to win things, and not just against the top teams.
The Norwegian had heavily favoured a 4-2-3-1, a modern shape, and there was nothing inherently wrong with that, or abrasive to the club’s history. Sometimes quality tells. It did, from the top to the bottom of the club.
With our history lesson coming to an end, let’s return to Rangnick’s comment – “it was also difficult for the club to gain continuity in regard to signing new players and sticking to the DNA of the club and I think this is vital in modern football that you do that.”
It is unlikely he has been debriefed on all of the above. But he is not wrong about the lack of continuity. Maybe Rangnick would be best served focusing on what he can bring, though, rather than what the club is renowned for.
It is as clear as it is coincidental that the most entertaining and successful periods in the club’s post-war history other than Busby and Ferguson came under Docherty and Atkinson, both Hogan disciples with a personal vision of how the game should be played rather than a loyalty to the tradition of the club they were joining.
Docherty’s midfielders had skilful pinchers of the ball as opposed to Atkinson’s more physical spine, but the basic principle of getting the ball as quickly as possible and attacking with it just as quickly were shared strategies.
In the recent pursuit of intellectualising football, it sometimes feel as though the basics of the game are convoluted in a way that creates a perception that they’re not easily understood – or that they’re easily misunderstood. It stands to reason that one of United’s bigger issues in recent years has been concentrating too heavily on this and how to marry it with the club’s history.
Not withstanding the core fundamentals of the club’s strategy – to entertain with young players, and to win – we must return to that eyewitness account of 1956. “There has been no move – as might have been understandable if not commendable – towards any form of stereotyped ‘Manchester United’ football.”
And to Busby himself : “What is this pattern of playing I keep going on about?…Only the naive would imagine that it is a drill to be followed by every Manchester United player.”
There’s no defined formation. United like to play with width and style – mostly style. It doesn’t have to be in a 4-2-4, or a 3-2-5.
Rangnick infamously adopts an ‘eight second rule’ in which his team must regain possession and a ten second rule where they must have a shot on goal with that possession. Sounds reassuringly familiar, doesn’t it?
Rangnick’s approach has been described as a ‘war on tiki-taka’ and if that doesn’t sound exciting enough, consider this comment from Fabio Da Silva, who was speaking about the 2011 Champions League Final and of course knows very well what it takes to play in an entertaining United team : “The frustration of playing against a team that plays tiki-taka is that in essence it is a negative tactic. It is not necessarily a dangerous tactic. The purpose of it is to wear the opposition down, and to make them lose the feeling of controlling the ball. My preference is for a game-plan with more excitement, more tackling. More fun. The principle purpose for keeping the ball in that approach is that by you having it, you are preventing the opposition from scoring. That isn’t what football is supposed to be about for me.”
United supporters can be very excited about Ralf Rangnick’s philosophy. There is no rule that says it has to follow the Hogan/Meisl method to be entertaining or even true to the identity. So long as it follows the core principles, that will be enough for it to be considered part of the club’s ‘DNA’.