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Will Ferguson Fix What Ails Man U?

England’s most famous and passionate rivalry will be reignited this weekend when Liverpool hosts Manchester United. It is the contest between England’s two most successful teams, both of whom play in red and are coached by retired Scottish soccer players.

But these coaches aren’t ordinary retirees who spend their time putting on weight, talking on TV, and failing at pretty much everything they try. When their professional careers drew to a close, neither man chose to emulate Diego Maradona.

Kenny Dalglish is a legend at Liverpool. Not only the best player in the club’s history, Dalglish coached one of the greatest Liverpool sides in history - and played on it at the same time. 

Sir Alex Ferguson’s numerous achievements at Manchester United arguably make him history’s most successful soccer coach. Everything at the current setup was built by him, from the careers of the players in the locker room to the fear that Manchester United inspires in all of its opponents.

It’s unfair to call Ferguson the manager of Manchester United. Manchester United is Ferguson’s team. Ferguson is now in his 26th year at the club. His tenure started before most of his players were born. Today, most managers are nomadic and rarely stay at major teams for more than three years.

Bela Guttmann, one of the masterful managers of the twentieth century, argued that “the third season is fatal.” Guttmann would know, as only once in a four- decade coaching career did he keep a job for those fatal three years.

Guttmann, whose career ended in the 1970s, coached in Brazil, Argentina, and more than half a dozen European nations. He believed that if he stayed in one place for too long, opponents would figure out how to beat him. To some extent, this seems to be true. Few teams can dominate for more than three years.

Barcelona’s dominance must eventually end. After all, to the uneducated observer, the team’s tactics may seem simple. Just keep passing the ball until your opponents get tired out and then score. Tiki-taka, as they say. If you can say it in four syllables it can’t be too hard. How long should it take for a team with the financial resources of Real Madrid to end Barcelona’s dominance?

History will decide whether Barcelona will prove Guttmann’s Rule. But History has already indicated that Ferguson upended it. He was always ahead of the game. No matter how badly the Red Devils played, no matter how inferior they seemed, they would win.

And yet today’s Red Devils are not those of old. Manchester United is unrecognizable to those who know it best. Bowing out of the Champions League after finishing behind Benfica and Basle was disgraceful. Sitting second in the Premier League behind Manchester City, neighbors who for long plied their trade in the lower decks, is embarrassing. Standards are slipping, to say the least.

Instead of Sir Alex Ferguson, who saw great footballers before the world could appreciate their splendor, we see Ferguson the irrelevant player on the transfer market, the one who doesn’t get what he wants.

Once upon a time the Red Devils were famed for their midfield creativity. Theirs was a shirt that had been passed down by Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and George Best. David Beckham continued the tradition before passing it on to Roy Keane and then Cristiano Ronaldo.

Today, Manchester United has been out-glamored by Barcelona and its dizzying passes. Has Pep Guardiola unseated Ferguson as the world’s top manager? Is Ferguson’s 26th year fatal? With every sub-standard result, fans hope that this isn’t true. They want to believe in a team that in the old days conquered everything that lay before it. But what is there to believe in?

Where is the next Ronaldo? Where is the next Bobby Charlton? Where is the Manchester United we once knew? Are the old days gone forever? What is there to hope for?

All that can be hoped for is Ferguson at his best. He has faced adversity and overcome turmoil. If anyone can solve Manchester United’s problems, he can, and he most likely will.

But on Saturday he will confront Liverpool, a team led by one of its own legends. Liverpool, which has not won the Premier League in over 20 years. Liverpool, which forever lies in the shadow of its past. This is a make or break moment for Manchester United. Are these choppy waters on the river to glory? Or is the current decline evidence that Manchester United’s success must be buried next to Liverpool’s in the graveyard of History?

So many questions must be asked of the current team. But only one man can answer them. And that man is Sir Alex Ferguson, no ordinary retired soccer player.

Theodore Furchtgott is a RealClearSports soccer columnist. He can be reached at Theodore.Furchtgott@gmail.com.

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