Comparing The Incomparable: On Sir Alex Ferguson & MLS Ranks

Time to hit the road...

Time to hit the road…

Will Parchman takes a look at which MLS coaches got Ferg in them.

Alex Ferguson retired. Newsflash, Rick Reilly-style!.

Another bit for the ticker: Word is he was a good manager.

Sickly good.

There are the 38 trophies in 26 years at Manchester United–as crickets chirp at the Emirates–and his record both in Europe and in domestic competitions stands head and shoulders above any club manager in European history. But why?

It seems paradoxical at first that a single aging man should have such an otherworldly impact on a game that does not directly involve him, doesn’t it? Draw up all the tactical blueprints you like, but in the end the man on the touchline has nothing to do with their physical implementation. Sir Alex hasn’t scored a goal in a competitive game in 39 years. It’s clear that certain coaches are better than others, but logically, why is Fergie is far an outlier from the standard deviation?

And yet there is obviously something special about Ferguson and the small guild of elite coaches he heads. Four key traits came to define Ferguson’s coaching career, which MLS coaches best emblematize them?

Disclaimer: There are multiple right answers here. These are merely mine.

Without further ado, the four idiosyncrasies that undergirded Fergie’s unbelievable coaching career, which is burning toward its glorious conclusion.

Eccentric disciplinarian

The best coaches are odd birds. They stamp into losing press conferences and push fire out of their nostrils. I’ve interviewed them. They are not pleasant. At other times they clop into winning press conferences and walk that minuscule tightrope swinging over the pit of restlessness that swallows up their free thoughts. I’ve been in the room for those interviews, too. The coach’s temporary satisfaction is quickly subsumed by distraction. The chalk is already flying into furious motion even as his striker bundles in a goal for a 4-0 lead with 20 minutes left. The next game is already a topic of discussion.

What I’m saying is the best coaches are not like you and I. We don’t really understand them. They say odd things to the press, spewing forth an indignant, righteous anger based on vague, often entirely invented slights. I’m not sure anyone was a better, more successful eccentric than Sir Alex. He was unlike a horde of others in the disciplinarian mold in this respect because he was always approachable. Meet him out of his black sideline peacoat when the gum wasn’t squished between his molars and the visage is distinctly pedestrian slightly more reverent perhaps.

But he’s not. He lambasted players who weren’t in shape. Early in his career, he developed the nickname “Furious Fergie.” He kicked over tea urns when his teams were losing. He manipulated the press for his own gains. He once swung through on a cleat that hit David Beckham just above the eyebrow in the Manchester United locker room. He petulantly recalled loans, criticized match officials and still holds a grudge against Gordon Strachan two decades after he snubbed Aberdeen for Cologne. Again, this is not a normal man. In some respects, he’s not a well-adjusted man either. Perhaps retirement and guarding his lawn suits him.

"I swear to g*d I'll headbutt you..."

“I swear to g*d I’ll headbutt you…”

But for our purposes here, this is a good thing. These eccentricities federated him with his players. The ones who didn’t acquiesce were either eventually folded into the system or jettisoned. An endless rotation of willing bodies was then put in their place (many of whom came from the scouting network he so meticulously pruned). Alex Ferguson is many things, but he is a man endlessly sure of what he wanted, what works and how to meet those ends.

MLS’ closest facsimile? Jason Kreis.

The RSL head man is perhaps a bit less lyrical than Fergie, but his iron jaw, excellent eye for talent and unwavering resolve make him MLS’s most accomplished eccentric disciplinarian. His terse press conferences and inability to appear satisfied are hallmarks. I pity the fool who dogs it on Kreis’s watch.

Continuity and Simplicity

Jose Mourinho has often been hailed as the best manager in the world over the past decade. By at least some metrics, those folks may well be correct.

But how settled can you be as a player when your manager has an eye on the door before he arrives? Mourinho and those like him are compelled by the challenge of the thing. When the challenge pales, the chariot awaits. This has kneecapped more than one club. Inter Milan are still figuring out a way forward.

The effect is more than just psychological.

Coaches (or good ones, anyway) have systems. They have an approach to the game they champion, a way of life that filters from the tactics on the field to the environment at the ground. Ferguson didn’t always run a 4-4-2, but the mainframe was steady, the expectations never wavered and the players were never confused. When AVB got to Chelsea, he alienated the veteran core by trying to cram a youth revival down the club’s throat. It didn’t take, and the players won the standoff. In light of the news, Ferguson had to fire up a smoldering cigar in some dimly lit library, laughing knowingly as the flame’s embers reflected off his fleet of trophies. Ryan Giggs was in his thoughts somewhere.

“Why you….”

It’s important to understand that some of this (and sometimes a great deal of it) is out of the coach’s hands. Abromovich might’ve fired Fergie halfway into his second season at United. But even at a place where the stakes became increasingly higher, Ferguson never gave his owners reason to doubt for long. Any hiccups were almost immediately followed by lavish success. It cannot be understated how unbelievably difficult and taxing this had to be when spread over a quarter century.

When those systems change, when that expectation becomes radically inconsistent with the culture of the club, players mutiny and ownership stamps its feet. Fergie’s success and brutal honestly created a culture of understanding at the club. He wasn’t one to string you along. If he liked you, you knew. If you screwed your chance, you were gone.

"...little sh*t!"

“…little sh*t!”

In the end, Fergie’s mind games were almost entirely with external forces. If you were his player, you were under his cloak. The only unforgivable sins by good players were lack of effort and denunciation of the team. The players could see through everything else because Fergie wanted them to.

MLS’ closest facsimile? Dom Kinnear. He’s coached in two cities but with a single franchise, moving to Houston with San Jose in 2005. He’s fiercely protective of his players (see his rant earlier this year on FCD’s “diving”) and is brutally honest. Having sat in on his pressers, he has both the ability to disarm with his wit and cut through BS with an incisive eye. He can also pile onto it when it suits him. And players can trust that he won’t bolt at the first (or maybe last) opportunity.

“A shrewd eye for mixing young, aged, new and old players”

There are as many ways to approach the transfer market and the scouting circus as there are minutes in a day. The emergent 21st century theory is the Scattershot, whereby big clubs throw cash at whatever hot thing is out there and pile as many of them onto a team as possible. Chemistry, attractive soccer and sense be damned. Even with impressive financiers at his back, Alex Ferguson did it differently. Which perhaps makes it all the more impressive.

Why did you have to include a picture of Ferguson in shorts?

Why did you have to include a picture of Ferguson in shorts?

The 1995-96 season provides the simplest example. The initial headlines went to the transfer fees paid to Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and Roy Keane over the previous three years, but it was the youth movement led by the Neville brothers, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes that helped lead United to the league title that year.

Ryan Giggs was already installed by this time, making for a young, malleable group of youngsters who knew each other, knew Ferguson’s wiles and would run through a brick wall for the club. Every player who was added to that mixer was either spat out automatically by its own design or was dealt with swiftly by Ferguson himself. So it was easy, then, when someone like Dwight Yorke fell out of the team lockstep to snip him loose.

Ferguson and his scouting staff were not perfect. They paid more than $7M for Bebe and shelled out (got swindle?) an incredible $28M for Veron. But when glancing back at his history during the silly season, there was typically very little silliness abounding at all.

MLS’ closest facsimile? Peter Vermes. Few are better talent evaluators, and nobody in the league is a better judge of team chemistry. Since he was appointed technical director in 2006 (and then head coach in 2009), he’s helped reel in guys like Roger Espinosa, Claudio Bieler, Graham Zusi and Aurelien Collin while maintaining an excellent draft standard and an attitude at the club that’s tough to top. It’s tougher to compare apples to apples here since coaches are more limited in who they can sign in MLS, but Vermes has proven himself to be one of the best.

The ‘Wow Factor’

This didn’t develop in full until later in Alex Ferguson’s career at United (perhaps not fully until after the treble season of 1999), but Sir Alex always had an aura about him. Talk to anyone who met the man and he was so devilishly charming that you nearly forgot he was a living legend. But you never could. You’d crane your neck because somebody caught a glimpse of the man and you couldn’t miss it. The man with the knighthood, who’d wrangled Cantona and unleashed Keane and lifted trophies until his triceps screamed.

Aberdeen fans knew it before United fans did. It’s just that something indescribable that clings to people who’ve been in tight spots and gotten out with just their wiles and uncanny skill nobody else on earth possesses. You want to know what it is, this quality. You want to be near it.

"What did he...slip on a banana peel?" "No, no...he's wearing Diego Forlan's cleats!" HAHAHA!"

“What did he…slip on a banana peel?” “No, no…he’s wearing Diego Forlan’s cleats!” HAHAHA!”

It isn’t just fans who find themselves caught up in the aura. Just hours after Ferguson’s retirement went viral, Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted “Thanks for everything, boss,” with a picture of a young, precocious-looking Ronaldo next to Ferguson assuming that typical attack dog stance in the midst of the press. A player hears Manchester United and they think titles. They hear Alex Ferguson and they think of the reason why. Playing for Ferguson is a cultish event of its own, replete with a sort of soccer genuflection that can only occur internally in the presence of greatness. Look at it this way. A bronze statue of Ferguson went up outside Old Trafford last year. While he was still coaching. This needs no further explanation.

MLS’ closest facsimile? Bruce Arena. The undisputed dean of MLS coaches. Nobody has done more than Arena, and he has the honest flippancy to prove it. He has the cache of coaching the first MLS Cup winner, dealt (at times grimly) with the Beckham Experiment and the Donovan absence in equal measure, coached in two World Cups, groomed his predecessor to coach in yet another, and sports an MLS winning percentage north of 50. If any MLS coach is instantly recognizable in an airport, Arena is the guy. Does he have the same groupie status as Ferguson? Of course not. But Arena is the MLS Fergie. Think about it.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2013/05/13 at 2:32 PM

    I dunno, I think Arena is by far the closest comparison to Ferguson. He’s the biggest winner in MLS, has a style that mixes physicality with creative players, has done a lot for young American players, and inexplicably loves some bad American players for no apparent reason. (Just as Ferguson had an over-affection for some hackish Brit players, e.g. Fletcher, that dude who injured Stu Holden whose name slips my name, etc.)

    If I’m continuing the analogies phase, I have Porter as AVB and Chelis as Ian Holloway.

    Reply

  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2013/05/13 at 3:53 PM

    I think Arena’s the easiest and best comparison to date.

    I think you’ve got Jason Kreis as Wenger too if you really think about it.

    Reply

  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2013/05/13 at 3:54 PM

    This is the Diego Forlan story that’s alluded to in the caption to the last image above: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2009/sep/14/diego-forlan-alex-ferguson-studs

    Reply

  4. For me (and a massive disclaimer here that I am indeed a Dynamo fan), the most like for like comparisson for Sir Alex has always been Kinnear. In no way is that me trying to take away from Arena, but even if we’re going off of your four traits, Dom still hits more of those than Arena.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t ever call Arena an eccentric disciplinarian. IMO Dom’s right on the fence of that especially “The ones who didn’t acquiesce were either eventually folded into the system or jettisoned” and “He was unlike a horde of others in the disciplinarian mold in this respect because he was always approachable”. I for one have always thought of Dom as a disciplinarian (not so much eccentric), but he also seems to be very approachable, and I shouldn’t really have to address the first quote, as the Dynamo has always been a tight knit locker room.

    I do think that Arena deserves some credit for continuity and simplicity, in the way his teams play, but if tenure of office is the tiebreaker, Dom still takes that bullet as the only one of any of these coaches to have had a need to rebuild, then successfully rebuilt in a year (not to mention the fact that he’s the longest tenured MLS coach).

    The next bullet, for mixing young and old, is probably where my bias comes in the most as I can’t state why, but I feel as if Dom’s done a decent job with that. However in all honesty Arena has, right now, the most fruitful academy along with some of the oldest vets.

    And then that leaves the “wow” factor, which first of all no MLS manager has. In terms of players to have gone through his teams, Arena has this bullet on lock-down. Arena is also probably the most respected American coach right now (and for good reason considering the number of MLS Cups he’s won or lack of times he hasnt won MLS Cup). However within Dynamo fans there’s definitely an aura about Dom. I’ve certainly never heard of other teams’ fans saying “In Bruce/Jason/Peter we trust.”

    So that was just (what was supposed to be) my short two cents. Maybe I just think that Dom’s amount of time with the club or his hard-nosed philosophy is what sets him apart as the most like Sir Alex. Or perhaps I’ve just lost all ability to be subjective.

    Reply

  5. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/05/14 at 1:25 AM

    For me, the wow factor came in 1995. Having just lost the Title to Blackburn Rovers, Sir Alex sold Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis – and did not buy any notable replacements. Instead, he promoted Beckham, Butt, Neville G, Neville P and Scholes from the Class of ’92 – which prompted the now famous Hansen line, “you can’t win anything with kids”. We all know what happened over the next *decade*…

    Reply

  6. Posted by joe on 2013/05/14 at 7:52 AM

    One of these EPL teams is going to break the seal sooner rather than later. Arena being the obvious, but any of the 4 would do well in the right circumstance. Hello Everton?

    Reply

  7. Posted by KickinNames... on 2013/05/15 at 11:46 AM

    None. And I despise Ferguson. To seriously invoke Dom Kinnear or Kreis or any of the MLS managers in the same sentence is a stretch at best and at worst is disrespectful to the legacy of a man who has created a dynastic squad who managed each game, no matter the import, as if all the world was on the line. Not every topic in world soccer can be “MLS-ified” I’m afraid. Lot’s more valuable happening in football to discuss here in my opinion.

    Reply

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