Ferguson is wrong

Ferguson is wrong
March 21, 2009 Paul Tomkins

Thankfully, most media outlets seem to have seen the massive inaccuracy in Alex Ferguson’s figures relating to Liverpool’s spending.

That he should even choose to come out with such figures in the first place is interesting, given his rather undignified reaction to Rafa’s ‘fact’ press conference a couple of months back. 

I’m also still smiling over his ‘we were the better side’ comments following their total humiliation last week, which every neutral I’ve spoken to found hilarious. That United played so well was obviously the reason Old Trafford was so empty in the last 10 minutes. He’s also had a pop by excluding Rafa’s name from the best managers in the league, which seems a bit childish for a pensioner. 

You can’t argue with Ferguson’s success as a manager, but you can with some of the things he says.

This season may be a learning curve for Liverpool, with the league United’s to lose even before their two main rivals were drawn against each other in the Champions League (which yet means the  teams aspiring to catch United play each other in titanic, exhausting battles, as seen with Chelsea and Arsenal facing Liverpool last season while United get the easy draw.)

But the United manager is clearly worried, particularly as stability has been put in place at Anfield regarding the manager’s future.

That the United manager should already be talking about Liverpool’s future spending is fascinating. Why do so, unless he’s worried? 

Ferguson talks about the young players United have signed, and bizarrely says that Rafa, a man who started out in youth development, does things differently. 

Perhaps Torres, Reina, Alonso, Mascherano, Agger, Lucas, Babel and Skrtel weren’t all young players – aged 20-23 – when Rafa signed them after all, and all the teenage talent brought to the club, including Insua, Nemeth, Pacheco, Plessis and Ngog, is just a mirage?

How many players in their 30s has Rafa brought to the club? I can’t think of one before or after Pellegrino, at 33, in 2005. Nor one as old as Henrik Larsson or Edwin van der Sar.

Robbie Keane was the oldest major signing Benítez has made, and perhaps the fact that he turns 29 this summer was why he was shipped out so quickly; at that age, if it doesn’t look like it’s working, you can’t bide your time, particularly if a good offer comes in before the age-related depreciation takes place. Berbatov is roughly the same age as Keane.

But the major flaw in Ferguson’s argument is the fact that he already had half of his squad in place in 2004 when Rafa arrived. 

He hasn’t needed to rebuild an entire squad from scratch, merely add the £15m-£30m adornments. Rafa has clearly had to deal in quantity to cover all positions, but Ferguson has had the luxury of looking solely at quality.

After all, in 2003 United were champions, and Liverpool 5th! When Rafa arrived, United had dropped to 3rd, but still a whopping 15 points ahead of a very average Liverpool side.

So the two situations are poles apart. Ferguson had already spent big on players like Rio Ferdinand before Rafa pitched up. 

He already had the players who emerged because of his youth system, which took almost seven years to bear fruit beyond one player (Giggs emerged in year five). Benítez would only be at that stage in 2011.

Indeed, if you add together every single player Rafa has bought (and there have been around 60, many of whom were mere kids), it still does not reach the total cost of United’s current squad. 

Even if you also add the cost of those players Rafa inherited who are still at the club (and there are just three), it still does not reach the total cost of United’s current squad. 

Including players out on loan (but not the full Tevez fee due this summer), United’s squad costs over £215m, compared with Liverpool’s £134m. 

Let me remind you of what I said a few weeks back:

“Unless Ferguson is banned from fielding players like Ferdinand and Ronaldo (which would be illogical), or forced to start from scratch in 2004 (again illogical), it is not a fair comparison, is it? – I mean, come on, use your brain for a second here.”

Benítez is trying to overturn an established superpower, one that still has a dozen-or-so players who predate his arrival in England. Rafa has just three who were good enough and young enough to endure (not that Hyypia was young, but like Giggs he is evergreen). 

As well as buy players, Rafa has had to change the culture of the club to fit in with his ideas, as all managers do; Ferguson did that 20 years ago. It’s why it took him so long to win the title, as you cannot change things overnight.

Unless Benítez was going to try and compete for honours with the likes of Diao, Cheyrou, and Diouf, or players like Smicer, Dudek, Hamann and Henchoz, who are now all in their mid-30s (and therefore had a very short shelf-life), or injury-prone stars like Harry Kewell, Liverpool needed a fairly complete overhaul. 

Particularly as Owen and Heskey had left, and Djibril Cissé was about to arrive, all of which had been pretty much decided before Rafa took the job. (Also, including Cissé as a Benítez signing only further skews the figures.)

So the inaccuracies are clear for all to see. But let’s switch things a little.

How did Ferguson overtake Liverpool? The situation was very similar to that now, even if it was a long time ago now. 

Remember, both Ferguson and Benítez arrived aged 44, and inherited squads that had averaged 4th over the previous four seasons, and finished 4th the season before they arrived. All the fours, then!

Each had a massive burden of expectation, brought about by a desperately long wait for the title.

Alex Ferguson’s average league position in his first five seasons at United was 8.6 (11th, 2nd, 11th, 13th, and 6th). Benítez’s, if Liverpool finish only 3rd this season, will be 3.6.

But Ferguson faced in Liverpool in the ‘80s an established team with a top-class manager. He couldn’t get close to Dalglish during their time in the respective dugouts.

Ferguson spent more money between 1986 and February 1991 (£12.8m gross, £9.87m net) than Dalglish managed in his six seasons (£12.5m gross, but only £5.77m net), but got nowhere near to toppling the Reds in that time. 

So United’s net spend was virtually twice that of Liverpool, and yet Ferguson still didn’t trouble Dalglish. The money Ferguson spent wisely in the late ‘80s on players like Ince, Pallister, Hughes and Bruce took four years to have any effect on the league title. This is only Torres and Mascherano’s second season.

So why did Ferguson spend so much more than Dalglish?  

Well, Dalglish (like Ferguson in 2004) had a lot of his squad already in place. 

Grobbelaar, Hansen, McMahon, Whelan and Nicol all spanned the entire period when Dalglish and Ferguson managed the two English superpowers. 

(Liverpool raised £3.2m from selling Ian Rush in 1987, but the Reds also spend almost as much to bring him back a year later.)

Those men formed the heart of Dalglish’s Liverpool. 

They were five players who didn’t need to be signed between 1986 and 1991; the kind of quality that could cost a king’s ransom if they hadn’t already been snapped up before at the top of their powers. 

Ian Rush, the sixth name, also had a Liverpool connection which meant that although he needed to be re-signed, it was a relatively easy deal because of his time at Anfield.

Of course, Rush’s initial departure led to the greatest influx of talent seen under Dalglish: the wonderful quartet of Aldridge, Beardsley, Barnes and Houghton. So Dalglish was partly ‘blessed’ in that Rush, whom he inherited, at least raised enough money to rebuild the attack upon his transfer.

Ferguson has enjoyed similar bonuses more recently: selling his best players for big fees as they approached their 30s (such as Stam, Beckham and Van Nistelrooy). Such sales now help keep Ferguson’s net spend down, but in his first five years he couldn’t get such impressive sums for Ron Atkinson’s flops. So his net spend was very high for the times.

Again, make the comparison with Benítez and the likes of Diao and Cheyrou, who raised nothing.

Benítez never had such a luxury. Owen’s value wasn’t great due to his contract situation, leaving £10m less coming in. The only seriously saleable asset was Steven Gerrard, but thankfully a move to Chelsea never came to pass. 

The biggest profits Rafa has made have been on players he himself bought: Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko. Of course, he hasn’t been in the job long enough to sell his real gems, in the way Ferguson and Wenger (with Henry and Vieira) have picked the perfect time to cash in on world-class players aged 29/30/31. 

If Rafa wanted to sell Torres he could make a massive profit, but thankfully the striker still has five years before he even reaches 30. So it’s not relevant. Ideally, Torres would score loads of goals, win Liverpool titles, and return to his beloved Atletico no earlier than 2014 for a big fee.

Therefore you cannot ignore the way Ferguson overcame Liverpool – not by spending more, but by spending twice the amount. And even then, it took the aftermath of Hillsborough, and the effect on Kenny Dalglish’s health, to open the door.

(Of course, when Liverpool spent big under Graeme Souness, to try and get Liverpool back to the summit, it went pear-shaped. But that’s because Souness, aside from Rob Jones, didn’t buy players of the quality Ferguson took to Old Trafford, or of the quality of players like Reina, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso, Skrtel, Agger, et al.)

So there you have it. It took the resignation of Dalglish to open the way for Ferguson, who had spent twice as much money but only averaged 9th place between 1986 and 1991. No wonder United fans wanted him out in 1990. But it just goes to show how difficult it is to overtake a side that already has the momentum, but that the best managers get there in the end.

If Ferguson is thinking back to how he did so, then no wonder he’s feeling worried.

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