Hello, and welcome back to another Weekly Tactical. I, Ryan, must apologise for the absence of Weekly tactical pieces over the last couple of weeks, but I do aim to return to writing on a regular basis as I intended at the beginning of this year!
Without further ado.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Erik ten Hag have been reported to share a really good relationship since the latter’s appointment as manager of Manchester United, whilst the former was there to see United win both the League Cup Final, and as United came back from behind to knock West Ham United out of the FA Cup.
Following comments made by Sir Alex following United winning their first piece of silverware in six years, journalist Carl Anka, who covers Manchester United for The Athletic, began an interesting conversation on Twitter, by pondering on what current Premier League talents would Sir Alex have tried to sign.
The topic was so interesting, at least to The Conventional Playmaker, that it was thought to be worth responding to Anka’s hypothetical in more detail.
Firstly, what is being considered is the sort of players that United do perhaps need to sign this summer and trying to fill those requirements in a way that Sir Alex may have, and the sorts of players that Sir Alex signed during his time as manager of United, and deciding on players that are at least in some way similar to those.
United are in need of adding quality depth to their midfield and attack. Even if United would be unable to afford them, two players that immediately spring to mind are Harry Kane and Declan Rice. Kane, a pedigree goal scorer also capable of creating chances when dropping into deeper spaces, and Rice, a midfielder who can win back the ball as well as he can carry it forward out of dangerous situations and then ignite attacks for his side, are two players who would take a side from one level to the next.
Could Kane’s comfortability on the ball and combinations with teammates justify a comparison to Eric Cantona, or even Teddy Sheringham, whom United signed from Spurs? And if United were to play two in midfield, as they did so often under Sir Alex, Rice’s box-to-box approach, whilst also being able to recover well in defensive transitions, would go hand in hand with that.
Regardless, both Kane, and Rice, bring better results from those around them for Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham respectively. They may or may not be true exact profiles that United need, but they are definitely two excellent players, and it is arguable that if he was manager today, or if both played two decades ago, Sir Alex would have tried to sign both.
This seamlessly links to how if Sir Alex did sign a player from another Premier League side, that player was often English, too.
Here are some examples:
The range shown in the visual above suggests that whilst Sir Alex was manager, United identified players from other clubs that would not only strengthen his side, but suited the plans he had. Teddy Sheringham, for example, was a direct replacement for Cantona following the Frenchman’s retirement in 1997. Wayne Rooney, on the other hand, was a precocious, teenaged talent and immediately became a key player, but was also a long-term investment, as Sir Alex looked to the future.
Sir Alex’s United sides over the years often had regular scorers from both midfield and attack, and this season, Leicester City’s James Maddison already has 9 Premier League goals to his name. An attacking midfielder who can also occupy an inside forward role, Maddison’s technical qualities, and creativity would have perhaps been appreciated by Sir Alex. In his final season as manger of United, Sir Alex often adopted a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney deployed as a no.10. Maddison would have been adept in such a role, though may well have been tried out wide, much like Shinji Kagawa. But of the two, Maddison would suit a wider role better.
Maddison is also a regular taker of set-pieces, as are Newcastle United right-back Kieran Trippier, and Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse. In the case of Trippier, Trippier would draw comparisons to Dennis Irwin, who himself took free-kicks and penalties. Trippier boasts 3.13 chances created per 90, whist Ward-Prowse has also completed a respectable 2.13 per 90, and those numbers have been supported by their competence from free-kicks and corner kicks.
Jarrod Bowen has only scored 4 league goals so far this season. But he is still the top scorer for a West Ham side which has struggled to score goals West Ham’s underlying defensive numbers suggest that they should be further away from the relegation zone than they currently are (as of 2/3/23), but it is the lack of clear cut chances being converted that has held them back, as it did in their FA Cup defeat to Manchester United. Bowen is an inverted winger, and as well as being a threat when with space to shoot from the edge of the penalty-area, is also a threat in counter-attacking moves, which much of United’s success under Sir Alex across specific periods was built on.
Another winger Sir Alex would possibly have been keen to acquire is Anthony Gordon. Gordon recently secured a big move to Newcastle, and although there were eyebrows raised over the manner in which Gordon departed from Everton, he has a profile which can be harnessed; can play on either flank, a good ball-carrier, an eye for a pass. This may have been something Sir Alex would have taken a gamble with.
Perhaps a winger that plays on the side that matches their stronger foot, too; Leeds United’s Jack Harrison, to name one. Antonio Valencia, perhaps one of the most one-footed players in the history of football, was in effect a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, when he was signed from Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009. But as United’s right-winger, he provided a great deal of raw speed, and plenty of crosses, before eventually being converted into a right-back.
Wingers aside, Nathan Collins’ assuredness both on and off the ball from a central defensive position for Wolverhampton Wanderers would presumably not go unnoticed.
Moving on from English talent, another centre-forward that would have possibly piqued the interest of United’s former manager, Aleksandar Mitrovic. Fulham’s no.9 offers physicality, hold up play, and a regular stream of goals, most of which in the 18-yard box. Although not the fox-in-the-box type that Ruud van Nistelrooy was, Mitrovic would also be effective at making the most of deliveries from wingers and full-backs. Sir Alex was known to be adaptable with how an array of his United sides set up, but one consistency was having a forward that could be in the box in the right place at the right time, regardless of the attackers specific profile.
When United did make signings during Sir Alex’s time as manager, there was a blend between buying players from the Premier League, but also buying talent, both promising and established, from abroad. Bold deals were agreed to sign the likes of centre-back Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven, and playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron from Lazio.
Though these sorts of deals were not lacking when recruiting on home soil, either. Now and again, United would raid rival clubs in order to make marquee signings that would prove to be catalysts in United’s aims for success. Eric Cantona and Robin van Persie were both heavily impactful signings, leading to league titles straight away. Cantona’s role at United also played its part in changing the footballing landscape in England during the Premier League’s formative years.
In which case, it would not be completely out of the equation to suggest Ferguson would have tried to lure key players from fellow title challengers for sides today. Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, and Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Cristian Romero have the quality that United would crave.
Mahrez, albeit being a left-footed winger who plays on the right, is very good at attacking one-against-one on the outside of the flank, and either crossing, or reaching the edge of the line and playing a cut back to be met by a teammate inside the box. Perhaps if Mahrez was a few years younger would the idea be even more viable.
As for Romero, he was an integral part of the Argentina side which secured its names in the history books after winning the 2022 World Cup. Romero is tenacious, strong in the tackle, and can slot into either a back three or four system, if playing under Sir Alex, he would have more likely featured in a back four.
To summarise, Anka’s initial tweet led to a lot of thinking that eventually found itself formulated into this very piece. The focus on English talent is arguably elegant given there trend of signing that United made from fellow English clubs whilst Sir Alex was in charge. But it is certain that there are varying avenues of thinking as to what the legendary manager would exactly do, some of which were covered here. Therefore, names that were not mentioned here may have been apparent to others.