It’s not that United have lost the ‘fear factor’, it’s that Southampton have no fear . . .
Too much is being made of Ferguson’s departure and not enough of a small but focused outfit
Southampton’s Dejan Lovren (right) and Jose Fonte after the final whistle at Old Trafford on Saturday. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
There was a familiar feeling of inevitability about the late goal at Old Trafford. The odd thing was that it was the away side who seemed destined to score. Despite his disappointment, David Moyes could not have begrudged Southampton their point.
Afterwards, Moyes had to deal with some irritating questions about whether the retirement of Alex Ferguson means Manchester United has lost their “fear factor”, whatever that is. Moyes suggested that the “fear factor” was something that emanated from the players rather than the manager, before dutifully praising Ferguson in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
It’s impossible to think of another example of a manager having to genuflect so much before the reputation of his predecessor. Genuine as Moyes’ respect for Ferguson must be, it must be galling to have to keep talking about him several months into the new job. Ferguson’s new autobiography is released later this week, which means that for the next few weeks every media outlet will be poring over the legend of Ferguson and the secrets of his success.
There has been speculation the book could further complicate an awkward situation for Moyes with revelations about the breakdown of Ferguson’s relationship with Wayne Rooney. Rooney has returned to form but has not signed an extension to his contract, which now has only 20 months to run. Will Ferguson gloss over the details to avoid causing problems for his successor?
The Rooney story is only one minor strand in what everyone hopes will be an extravaganza of valedictory score-settling. Ferguson should have interesting things to say about Roy Keane and Jose Mourinho, though perhaps not so much about Bebe.
Ferguson’s recent collaboration with academics from Harvard University suggested he is in the mood to analyse his own genius, so maybe there will be some useful tips for Moyes. What really went on in those Manchester United dressing rooms at half-time?
These days you only ever hear the word “sacrosanct” mentioned in connection with dressing rooms: their goings-on are cloaked in football omerta.
It’s curious that whenever something does leak out of a dressing room the effect is usually to make it sound like an arena of high farce: Roy Hodgson and his space monkey joke, Rafa Benitez devising a tactical system featuring 12 players to tackle the 3-0 half-time deficit in Istanbul, Tony Pulis’ towel falling from around his waist as he remonstrated with James Beattie. Maybe the real purpose of the omerta is to preserve the Wizard of Oz illusion that football’s millionaire insiders know something the rest of us don’t.
But getting back to the elusive “fear factor”. Moyes was correct that it was not something radiating from the person of Ferguson, though he certainly had something to do with it. But neither was it all down to the quality of Manchester United’s players. You also must consider the part played by the opponents, and their willingness to be cowed.
Moyes can be confident that most sides who come to Old Trafford will not come after his team like Southampton did.
Not your typical underdog
Southampton were underdogs who did not behave like underdogs. The chairmen of almost every other Premier League club must have been looking enviously at Mauricio Pochettino’s side and wondering why their own managers can’t seem to get their players to perform with such focus, energy and cohesion.
In a league where the managers are relentlessly overexposed, Pochettino remains a slightly enigmatic character, owing to his refusal so far to speak English in public. It is clear, however, that he has succeeded in capturing the imagination of his Southampton players. You could see that from the merciless chasing they gave Manchester United throughout the second half on Saturday.
It’s not easy to play the way Southampton do. There is nothing in football more demanding, physically and mentally, than pressing the opponent high up the pitch. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Southampton’s players walked off the pitch at Old Trafford exhausted. Pochettino’s success shows that players respond to a manager who offers them blood, toil, tears and sweat – at least until success makes them decadent.
Southampton are fourth in the table, having conceded three goals in eight league games. Eight games into last season they had conceded 24 goals. The signings of Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren have surely helped, but this is largely the same squad Nigel Adkins was working with this time last year.
One hopes the FAI are taking heed of what’s happening at Southampton. They’re punching above their weight thanks to a game plan that makes sense and a manager who has succeeded in instilling a sense of fearlessness and enterprise.