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Rob Smyth has written one of the better Manchester United articles in recent memory today, an opus on the importance of United’s 3-2 second leg quarterfinal Champions League loss to Real Madrid in 2000. In it, he speaks to the common perception of Ferguson as a tactical know-nothing:

After 26 years you would think English football knows everything about Ferguson, yet despite regular reminders, such as the expert muzzling of Marouane Fellaini on Sunday, his position as one of the game’s keenest tacticians remains strangely unrecognised. Ferguson is sometimes patronised as somebody armed with a hairdryer and a chequebook, his success largely down to his genius for man-management and motivation, yet he has always been something of a chalkboard addict.

There are several striking elements here. First is the bold recognition in Ferguson’s dual-minded approach to the very alien demands of weekday night continental competition and weekend afternoon Premier League football.

Second though is Smyth’s acknowledgment of Ferguson’s considerable tactical prowess and propensity for adaptation. While Smyth puts it down to the English press’ deference to the classic “foreign intellectual” stereotype of continental managers, Ferguson himself has admitted in tiny dribs and drabs that he maintains a very self-conscious approach to what he says and does not say to the press.

That includes his infamous mind-games of course, but it also applies to his discussion of tactical preference. It’s notable that quotes from Ferguson himself barely feature in the story. In any case, Ferguson’s United have been a classic example of a team used to the Premier League crash-bang approach, trying to bridge to the more stubborn, intentional European style, one exemplified in 2000 by Real Madrid.