Scout Report- Yusuf Demir

The player under radar today is the one who Football Manager players must know inside out with a sure shot potential ability to become one of THE BEST on the game. But in real life, this ‘wonderkid’ is also making strides which has now attracted the attention of all European footballing superpowers to win his signature. We will take a deep dive to cover the up and coming Austrian Yusuf Demir.

Background

Yusuf Demir is a product of Rapid Vienna youth academy. In 2019, he signed his first professional contract with the club aged only 15. He made his first-team debut for Rapid in a 3-0 Austrian Bundesliga win over Admira Wacker Mödling on 14 December 2019. Yusuf is of Turkish descent, but he is a youth international for Austria. On 15 September 2020, Demir scored a goal for Rapid Wien in 1–2 defeat against KAA Gent in the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, at 17 years, 3 months and 13 days old, to become the youngest Austrian scorer since Gerd Wimmer in 1994, aged 17 years, 10 months and 27 days. He was the first name in the Guardian’s Next Generation: class of 2020 list, touted as Austrian ‘Messi’ by the panel of journalists who shortlisted him along with 59 other players around the world who have the potential to become one of the best in coming years.

(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Playing Style

Demir can play in a number of positions across the frontline due to his versatility. He is also very adept at playing as an attacking midfielder, predominantly when his side utilize the 4-2-3-1 formation. The youngster has been utilized as a creative number 10 in 40% of the games he has featured in throughout his career, whilst he has played in any position variation on the right flank  40% of the time, with the other 20% being positions from anywhere off the left and even as a deep lying midfielder, dictating the gameplay from deeper areas of the midfield. However, this season, Rapid Vienna’s manager Dietmar Kühbauer has preferred to play this prodigy as an attacking midfielder mainly as it gets the best out of the 17-year-old, featuring in total of 22 games this season, quite a good number of games under the belt for a kid of his age at senior level. The most notable aspect is that Demir still prefers to operate slightly off to the right and in the right half space so that he can cut inside on his preferred left foot, which is where the youngster can be most dangerous.

Yusuf Demir’s heat map for 2020-21 season in Austrian Bundesliga

Demir’s all-round play is very impressive. He has a brilliant balance and pace along with exquisite technique and ball control for a player of his age. The teenager has been given quite a free role in the Wien side when he plays for them, especially as an attacking midfielder. This is reflected in his dribbling stats which put him among top 5 of Austrian Bundesliga with 10.62 dribbles per 90 minutes out of which he is completing 5.26 dribbles per 90, roughly completing 1 dribble out of 2 attempts. When in a 1v1 situation against an opponent, Demir’s natural instinct is to try and get himself into a central position which is where he is most dangerous on a football pitch. He does this by using body feints and a drop of the shoulder, combined with rapid changes of direction to ease past opponents. Demir’s preferred movement is from outside to inside on the right-flank as he can use his left-foot in the central areas providing he gets by his challengers.

Cutting in and trying to find space to hold the ball

A text book move for Demir when playing for his club or country is to look to receive the ball between the lines with his back turned to the goal. Receiving his back turned to goal allows him to receive the ball on the half-turn and drive forward with the ball at defending players and combine it with his brilliant balance, agility and low center of gravity to beat the defenders with ease. From the above image, you can see that Demir has dropped into the space between the opposition’s line of pressure and midfield in order to receive the ball to his feet. By dropping deep, he has given his backline an extra option to deliver a line-breaking pass and exploit the space created by Demir with his off the ball movement. From here, the Austrian likes to receive the ball on the half-turn on his backfoot and drive forward, attacking onrushing players in 1v1 and sometimes even 2v1 duels. One of the most impressive stats from the teenager is his offensive duels per 90. Demir currently has the highest number of average offensive duels attempted per 90 in the league with 20.6 offensive duels per 90 minutes.

Dropping deep to hold up the ball and eventually free up space for others

Whilst he likes to drop very deep at times in front of the opposition’s midfield, his preferred area on the pitch to operate in is between the lines of the backline and midfield line, which allows him to put his attacking instincts to better use than in deeper areas. Demir generally opts to receive the ball in the right half-space, try to cut in with his stronger left foot and provide ample space for marauding fullback to stretch the opposition’s defense and provide overlaps for better crossing angles. Receiving in the right half space in between the lines allows him to have space to take the ball on the half-turn – as he loves to do – and drive inside before hitting curling shots outside the box. This only mainly applies when Demir is deployed as a number 10 or a right-sided player but since he has been used in these areas 80% of the time, receiving in between the lines in the right half-space is a very important part of the 17-year-old’s overall game.

Yusuf Demir’s Shot and Goal Creation Action Analysis

In terms of creative ability, his best comes from the left flank. The reason for this is because he excels at getting into the left half-space and cutting the ball backwards. As Demir is a left footer, pulling the ball across the box is more natural for him on the left side of the pitch. This is an example of an excellent chance created by Demir in the assist zone on the left side of the box. He receives the ball in the left half space again and drives towards the by-line. By being naturally left-footed, he is more suited to putting the ball across the box in these situations as opposed to the right side where he needs to cut back onto his stronger foot. Playing as a number 10 also gives him the freedom to roam into these types of positions at times to create as well as drifting towards the right – his preferred side.

Yusuf Demir trying to cross the ball into the 12 yard box with his stronger left foot

Demir is also well able to carve a defence open when the opportunity arrives as he has quite an innate ability of playing through gaps in an opposition’s defence to find running teammates. The Austrian’s creative stats are very solid for a player of his age Demir has averaged 0.71 key passes per 90 in all competitions and also currently averages 0.33 expected assists (xA) per 90 for current calender year.

Yusuf Demir attempting a line breaking pass to marauding winger

Conclusion

For a 17-year old teenage footballer, Yusuf Demir’s game is very mature and there is a reason that all of Europe is extensively scouting him, ever since he has broken into Rapid Vienna’s first team. Teams like Manchester United and Juventus have had scouted him in the past but their interest has been rekindled with his recent performances. On one hand, it is quite natural to give into the temptation when Europe’s most prestigious clubs are chasing for your signature but Yusuf is in that age category where experience at first team level without any added pressure is crucial for development, both physically and mentally. Players of his age group must strive for a healthy competitive environment.

Ideally, he should stay in Rapid Vienna and try to become a regular first team player in coming years, try to break the domestic domination of RB Salzburg and also help his hometown club to make a deeper run in Europa League and then take it one step ahead by switching to a side fighting for European places in Germany who also don’t hesitate to play younger players (preferably Borussia Dortmund or Borussia Monchengladbach since these 2 clubs can do with a player of his quality given the tactical setup they use complements his strengths). Once, he is mature enough, both physically and mentally- he can easily take the challenge to make a name for himself at the grand stage, both at club level and international level.

Yusuf Demir has the potential to become one of the all time greats for not only Austria but one of the all time greats of upcoming generation of footballers. But, with talent, you always need hardwork, dedication and the most important thing- Patience.  

(Photo by Vincent Mignott/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club. 

 

(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Background

Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year. 

The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.

Playing Style 

Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan.  The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s heat map for the season 2019-20

The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.

Defensive Aspect

Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire). 

Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.

The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.

This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.

Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.

This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.

Conclusion

In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10  matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors: 

  • The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him. 
  • Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.  
  • Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix. 

Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

If you’re wondering whether it would be right or wrong to call Manchester United’s ongoing season a good one, then you’re not alone. It has been an exciting for the fans of the red devils but it’s still hard to place any name tags like ‘successful’ or ‘improved’ on it yet. A positive run in the league that sees the club in a so-called “title race” has been sandwiched the disappointing Champions League group stage exit and recent Carabao Cup semi-final loss to City. A very different season of football which started with no pre-season break, is filled with fixture congestion issues and still hasn’t been immune to repeated COVID contractions and player fitness issues, makes it hard to assess whether United are actually having a good season or not. We try to break through the confusion using our greatest weapon – data. Below are a few detailed data visualizations of some of the underlying numbers that can indicate how the red devils are performing this season and who the stand-out players are.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

The first viz highlights the Premier League teams who are over-performing on their expected goals like Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and those who are under-performing with respect to their goals scored like Sheffield United and Burnley. All stats used are per 90 minute stats. United and Liverpool have not only been scoring high but also more than expected. This kind of slight over-performance is sustainable and expected for a top team challenging for titles since they would boast of players with the ability to over-perform and score from unexpected situations as well. It reads well for United fans who are trying to understand if this type of performance in the league is sustainable.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, MUFC in all comps 20/21]

The next logical question will be which United players are over-performing and under-performing on expected goals. This viz highlights exactly that. The players over-performing on xG are Rashford and Bruno. Rashford’s xG in the game against Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford was just 0.1 whereas his goal against Brighton at home was a 0.3 xG chance. Bruno’s double against Everton at Goodison park had a combined xG of just 0.2.
Worryingly, Anthony Martial has a negative G-xG differential. His blank against PSG at Old Trafford accrued 0.9 xG while he failed to scored at West Bromwich Albion even with an xG of 0.8. Martial has had a reputation of over-performing on his expected goals metric, the best of which United fans witnessed in the 19/20 season where he scored 17 goals in the league with an xG of 10.9 only. Greenwood has also been underwhelming so far with just 3 goals this season after having scored 17 in all competitions in 19/20. If those two can start finishing like their usual selves and support Rashford and Bruno in attack, United fans can expect even better attacking output from the team in the remainder of the season.

 

 [Progressive passes vs Progressive Distance,MUFC 20/21]

This viz maps progressive passes per 90 against progressive distance of thoses per 90 minutues. Alex Telles’ consistently aggressive crossing helps him top progressive distance while Bruno regularly looking for line-breaking passes and assists helps him top number of progressive passes. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw and United’s Centre-Backs ensure high progression even with lesser number of progressive passes. Donny Van De Beek and the forwards prefer less progressive passing.

 

[Pressures per 90 vs Pressure success %, MUFC all comps 20/21]

This viz gives a good indication of United’s pressing strategy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It highlights how Bruno Fernandes and Fred are press-hungry at the cost of success % while Paul Pogba & Scott McTominay maintain a good balance. Luke Shaw and the centre-Backs prioritize success. It gives a general indication that the attackers don’t press too high, while Bruno and Fred have complete license to go overboard to win back possession and Pogba, McTominay Matic are expected to strike a controlled approach. The defence opts for safety over high pressing numbers. In short, Ole prefers winning the midfield battle the most.

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

This viz highlights player movements with the ball. Nemanja Matic stands out on both the number of carries per 90 and progression towards goal while Marcus Rashford and Daniel James boast high progression even with less number of carries.

[MUFC Goals & Expected goals Trend in EPL 20/21]

Last but not the least, we take a look at the game-by-game trend of United’s expected goals and actual goals scored in the league so far. It’s clear that the red devils didn’t create enough against top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and weren’t good value for the win in both games. United should have scored at least one goal in the drab 0-0 draw against neighbors Manchester City. But the team showed great spirit in over-performing on xG to clinch wins against West Ham and Sheffield United even when the team wasn’t creative enough which shows a winning quality lacking in recent United sides against such clubs in the league.

In summary, much of the underlying numbers have indicated clear progress from last season and a genuine forward-thinking approach from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer which have rewarded him with good attacking displays and an unexpected title challenge in the league. The worries have been towards the defensive end where United have let in some goals cheaply often owing to set-pieces. Doubts also remain of United’s performance in big games this season after having done wonderfully well last season in such games. The last worry seems to be over-reliance on a few players. Days in which Bruno and Rashford are shut down result in poor attacking displays like against City in the Carabao cup. Ole will be looking for more from the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba towards the latter of the season. Who knows, if the missing members step up and things go his way, Ole might be the first United manager post-SAF to make a genuine push for a league title towards the end of the season. As of now, United fans should take solace in knowing that the underlying numbers support the narrative of improvement from last season and they should expect more points in the league at the very least.

Scout Report- Facundo Medina

According to RMC Sport Correspondent Sacha Tavolieri, Facundo Medina is drawing interest from Manchester United who have been scouting for potential targets to bolster their Centre Back department. Facundo Medina has attracted the attention of English giants with his stellar performance with French side RC Lens. The report further states that while Manchester United have registered an interest in Medina, he is among a number of names on their shortlist and is not their main target as at the present moment. 

In this scout report, we will look at how he has fared in his career and if he can sustain his stellar output in a better side. 

(Photo by Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

Player Profile

Facundo Medina is a left footed centre-back and equally capable of playing as a left back. Born in Buenos Aires, he joined his boyhood club River Plate as a youngster, rising through the ranks over the years and breaking into the reserves team in 2017. He, then got called up to first team too but failed to make an appearance for the club. Soon, fellow Argentina Primera Division side Talleres came calling for him. Getting consistent first team opportunities at first team level, Medina started growing as a player and his talent slowly started attracting attention of some European sides- mainly from France with OM, OL sending their scouts to watch him on a number of occasions. But it was Ligue 1 newcomers RC Lens who snapped him up before the start of 2020-21 season, in a deal worth 3.15 million euros. Him along with young French Defender Loic Bade make up the crux of defence which is one of the best statistically in Ligue 1 this season. This has catapulted the newcomers to 7th place in the Ligue 1 table, level on points with AS Monaco with a game in hand- an unexpected fight for European Competition spots.

(Photo by Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

Playing Style 

Medina’s defending is different from most of the centre-backs in the league. He possesses natural quickness which allows him to make risky decisions at times. Along with his aggressive style of play, he tends to apply a lot of ‘pressures’ and contest for duels with wingers/strikers of the opposition. His agility and speed compensate for his aggressive style of play, but not to the full extent. When he puts pressure on the opponent, it becomes vital that he must have the right body positioning to limit the passing angles through which the opposition can dictate the game. This proactive style of defending requires great spatial awareness and quick decision-making because every mistake might be costly. The centre-back needs to read the game well, limiting the passing options and the opportunity for an attacker to turn and change direction.

Credits: Wyscout

Credits: Fbref/Statsbomb

Medina’s mobility and awareness of where the next pass might be played become the key components when it comes to interceptions. Facundo averages 1.2 interceptions and 12.5 recoveries per 90 mins in Ligue 1 this season. Getting in the way of the attackers creates a lot of trouble for the opposition and provides Lens with an opportunity to start a counter attack, in which he plays a vital part. His forward passes break opposition defensive lines and help his teammates create opportunities within a couple of passes. He can release the attackers with a pinpoint pass. He averages 6.5 progressive passes per 90 minutes and has covered a distance upwards of 180 yards per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season.

Credits: Fbref/Statsbomb

Credits: Fbref/Statsbomb

At the age of 21, Medina already has the kind of dominating presence you would expect from an experienced and commanding centre-ack. Despite being only 5’11’’, he has a great jump and takes off the ground really well, which helps him tremendously in aerial duels. Along with his aggressive playing style, he is adept at contesting and winning ground duels too. He boasts a rate of 61% when it comes to winning aerial duels and 70% rate when it comes to winning tackles, one of the highest in the league. He likes to gain some advantage over his opponent by getting in front of him. His agility and balance allow him to coordinate himself in this manner. His anticipation and reading of the game help him to prevent through balls, passes into penalty area or crosses, may it be from Centre Back or Left Back. He is getting a consistent amount of playing time at a fairly good level in Europe too, which has attracted attention of even better clubs.

Credits: Fbref/Statsbomb

Conclusion

Facundo Medina is still very inexperienced at the top level. His aggressive playing style can easily leave the defence wide open, thus making him a more system specific player at the moment. But these things can be worked upon since he is still young. For a centre-back with an aggressive style of play, blessed with quickness, agility and good positional awareness, Facundo Medina promises to become an asset for any team if groomed well. Such a playing style is an embodiment of the modern-day Centre Back. This playing style is what has been missing in United’s current CB roster. This is the reason the red devils have been scouting players of similar style with scouts sent on assignments to Portugal to watch Sporting Braga’s David Carmo in past months. 

With BBC Sport Correspondent Simon Stone also breaking the news that United is sporadically looking for such low-risk high reward buys, it shows that there has been a change of direction at the club when it comes to transfer dealings.

Percentile rank (Scope is Ligue 1 defenders with 8+ appearances)

The path to the perch, Part 2: 1992-1999

We continue our series following Sir Alex Ferguson’s journey in bringing Manchester United back to the top with the second leg of this 3-part series. We recount the years from his first title at the club to possibly the greatest moment of his career in 1999.

March to the first titles

As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team. After a shortage of goals in the second half of the 1991-92 season cost United the league title, Ferguson was intent on signing a new striker. His key target was Southampton striker Alan Shearer, but he lost out to a newly promoted Blackburn Rovers side managed by Kenny Dalglish, who had managed Liverpool to three league titles and was backed by the millions of steel baron Jack Walker to bring similar success to the resurgent Lancashire club. Ferguson then switched his attention to Dion Dublin, the 23-year-old striker who had excelled in the lower divisions with Cambridge United. Dublin completed a £1 million move to Old Trafford to become United’s only summer season signing.

The first victory of the 1992-93 league season came only in the fourth game when a late goal by Dublin provided a 1–0 win at Southampton, but Dublin then broke his leg in the next game against Crystal Palace and was sidelined for six months. By late October United had endured a run of five successive draws and the all too familiar goal shortage was attributed to this once again. United sat at 10th place in the league by November 1992, with one of the lowest goal tallies in the division. United were linked with moves for some of the most highly rated strikers in the English league, including Brian Deane and David Hirst, but on 26 November 1992 United made a £1.1 million move for French striker Eric Cantona, who had helped Leeds United win the previous season’s league title. The arrival of Cantona transformed United, and by the turn of 1993 they were looking like title contenders again. Despite challenges from Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and surprise contenders Norwich City, United went on a storming run during the final weeks of the season to win the title by a 10-point margin and end their 26-year wait (the last title being under Sir Matt Busby in 1967).

United broke the English transfer fee record over the summer of 1993 by paying relegated Nottingham Forest £3.75 million for Irish midfielder Roy Keane. United started the following season beating Arsenal on penalties in the FA Charity Shield. They led the Premier League at the end of August, a lead they maintained all season. By the end of October, they were 11 points ahead and their lead peaked at 16 points in the new year. Despite a second round exit from the UEFA Champions League, United had their sights set on a unique domestic treble. In March 1994, United dropped points against Arsenal and bottom-of-the-table Swindon Town, in which Cantona was sent off in both games and subsequently received a five-match suspension. They then lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa and nearly went out of the FA Cup in the semi-final at Wembley, before Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser to force a Maine Road replay, which United won 4–1. An upturn in results soon followed, and United clinched their title on 1 May 1994 when they won 2–1 at Ipswich Town. In the 1994 FA Cup Final, it was goalless at half time but two Cantona penalties and subsequent goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United a comprehensive 4–0 win over Chelsea. Cantona finished the season with 25 goals in all competitions and was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Other players to impress during this campaign included Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United celebrates in the dressing room with the Premiership Trophy after becoming FA Carling Premiership Winners in the 1993-94 season at Old Trafford on May 8, 1994. Manchester United 0 Coventry City 0 (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“You can’t win anything with kids”

Ferguson felt that his squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the Double, and made only one signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2 million for defender David May. The 1994–95 season saw United rarely out of the headlines. On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had taunted him with anti-French racist abuse. Cantona was suspended by the club for the rest of the season, a ban which the FA extended until the end of September. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury. 1994–95 also saw the debuts of promising young players Paul Scholes and Phil Neville. Scholes was particularly impressive, scoring five goals in 17 games. Having made a handful of appearances between them in the previous two seasons, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt all made more regular appearances for United during 1994–95.

United broke the English transfer record again on 10 January 1995 by paying £7 million for Newcastle United’s free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Mark Hughes. United almost made it three league titles in a row, but just couldn’t get the better of a West Ham side who held them to a 1–1 draw in East London on the final day of the season. Blackburn, led by Kenny Dalglish, were crowned ­champions. The FA Cup also slipped out of United’s grasp when they lost 1–0 to unfancied Everton in the final.

 

 Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs walks dejectedly off the Wembley pitch after his team lost in the Cup Final, watched by manager Alex Ferguson (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

“Have you taken your eye off the ball?” asked Professor Sir Roland Smith, after Fergie had been summoned to the chairman’s Isle of Man home to discuss his request for a six-year deal. Smith’s suggestion that Ferguson should come back next year was not what the 54-year-old was hoping for. And chief executive Martin ­Edwards added insult to injury by warning Ferguson there would be no cushy boardroom job for him at the end of his tenure. “We don’t want a repeat of the Matt Busby syndrome,” Edwards is reported to have said. It is fair to say that Ferguson was not in a good place. His bid to become the first manager to defend the Double had ended in failure. 

In the desolate dressing room at Wembley, Ferguson warned that any players who had let their team-mates down would not be around much longer. The ­manager shocked his board of directors by announcing that he planned to sell Paul Ince. The England midfielder might have been at the top of his game, but Ferguson felt he had become too big for his boots. Ince had christened himself ‘The Guv’nor’. His nickname was even stitched into his ­Predator boots. As Ferguson explained in his ­autobiography, “I had observed Paul closely for the past five months and decided his attitude and performances had ­altered to a degree that I could not tolerate. This Guv’nor thing should have been left in his toy box.” Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £6million and fan favourites Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were to follow through the exit door. Ferguson was on holiday in the United States when he was told that Hughes had decided not to sign a new contract and had joined Chelsea instead.

United had lost three key players, and the club’s directors weren’t the only ones who felt Ferguson had lost the plot. When the opening game of the season was lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared United would win nothing with kids, thousands of fans voted in a poll run by the Manchester Evening News asking whether Ferguson should be sacked. The pressure mounted on Ferguson as the new season began without a major signing, with Ferguson instead putting his faith in young members of the squad such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This was seen as a big gamble, especially as the likes of Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal had spent heavily, but Ferguson stuck to his decision. He mentioned in his autobiography, “It was clear I now had youngsters equipped to play at the highest level.” In September 1994, when United travelled to Port Vale in the League Cup, ­Ferguson unleashed the rest of the club’s 1992 FA Youth Cup winners. Ferguson recalled: “After that night at Port Vale there were ­protests in the House of Commons. One woman MP said I should be banned for life for not playing my strongest team when people had paid their £10 to get in.” United prevailed 2-1 at Vale Park, thanks to two goals by Scholes.

Aside from a New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, United regained their winning touch after Christmas and reached the top of the Premier League in mid-March. Cantona was instrumental in many victories, and United remained firmly in control at the top and sealed the title on the last day of the season with a 3–0 win at Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. A week later, Manchester United beat Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the Double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995–96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted FWA Footballer of the Year by football journalists and was made team captain following the departure of Steve Bruce to Birmingham City.  Ferguson once again crossed the Irish Sea to speak to Professor Sir Roland Smith.

 

 Eric Cantona and manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United with the FA Cup and Premiership Trophy at Victoria Station, Manchester on May 12, 1996 after completing The Double. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“Football, bloody hell”

In the summer of 1996, United once again tried to sign Alan Shearer, but were beaten to his signature by Newcastle United for a then world record fee of £15 million. A new striker did arrive at Old Trafford that summer – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a little-known 23-year-old Norwegian striker. Another Norwegian, defender Ronny Johnsen, was also signed to fill the gap left by veteran Steve Bruce’s departure. Manchester United won their fourth league title in five seasons in 1996–97, helped by 18 goals from Solskjær. Hopes of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1968 were dashed, however, as they were defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona announced his shock retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. He was replaced by England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5 million signing from Tottenham.

A new adversary loomed in the form of Arsenal and their new boss Arsene Wenger. Although the pair would often have a fiery relationship in the press, Ferguson was full of praise for the Frenchman guiding the Gunners to the 1997-98 title, stating: “I think it’s good for my young players to lose on this occasion.” Shortly after this disappointment, Ferguson broke the club’s transfer record twice by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa.

Ferguson’s words would ring true as in the following 1998-99 season United rose to the occasion and gained a reputation for not conceding defeat even in what seemed the most hopeless of circumstances, winning and drawing several matches with late goals. Ferguson himself called it ‘Squeaky Bum time’. Some of their more notable comebacks were the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, which Liverpool led from the third to the 85th minute, both legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, won by a Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time, forced by a last-gasp Peter Schmeichel penalty save in the last of his eight seasons at the club. However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2–1 win in stoppage time. After the game, Ferguson uttered one of his most famous phrases: “Football, bloody hell.” United lost just five times in the entire season; three times in the league, the Charity Shield at the start of the season, and the League Cup quarter-final to eventual winners, Tottenham Hotspur. They defeated every other Premier League team at least once in all competitions and were undefeated in the Champions League.

Fans and writers regard the treble haul as manager Alex Ferguson’s finest hour, although he dismissed that assertion in later years. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Manchester to welcome the team as the season drew to a close. In recognition of his achievements Ferguson was awarded a knighthood, and handed the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in November 1999. By the end of the season, Manchester United had become the world’s richest football club and the most valuable sporting brand worldwide. Sir Alex Ferguson had well and truly converted United into a global force.

 

 Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Jaap Stam, Jonathan Greening, Andy Cole, David Beckham, David May, Alex Ferguson head coach, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville celebrate his victory with the trophy during the UEFA Champions league final match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich on May 26, 1999 in Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain. (photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)