Sir Alex Ferguson has worked wonders throughout his 25-year stint in the Manchester United hot-seat, during which time he has become one of the most highly regarded managers in history. Though nearly four decades have elapsed since he started his memorable career in the dugout with unfashionable Scottish outfit East Stirlingshire, the 70-year-old shows no signs of slowing down and is currently supervising yet another impressive domestic campaign.
Discussing a range of topics, including the Red Devils' latest Premier League title challenge, their shock UEFA Champions League exit, where they rank among the best sides in Europe and the club’s focus on youth, Ferguson sat down for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Sir Alex, how do you think your team’s been performing this season?
Sir Alex Ferguson: We’ve had our ups and downs and we’ve been unlucky with injuries. We’ve had a lot of them, which you don’t expect, and we’ve got people like Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher out for the whole season. You can replace your best players for a game or two, but you really notice the difference over a longer period, and that’s what’s happened to us. Even so, we’re fighting hard to win the Premiership again and there’s a lot of merit in that. Obviously I’m optimistic about our chances.
Has the team suffered because you’ve not been able to rotate players?
These days it’s very, very hard to use the same players for every match. The game’s so fast now that players suffer a lot more muscle fatigue and need more rest. You’re talking about players who run 13 or 14 kilometres every game – a lot more than in the past – and you have to keep your whole squad in the best possible shape.
There are two new title challengers in England this season. Do you think the Premier League is more competitive now?
There’s always been competition. The difference now is that instead of a big four, with us, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool a little further back, we’ve got a big six, with Tottenham, who’ve finally become competitive, and Manchester City, who’ve spent a lot of money. That’s made the path to the title a lot tougher.
Does Manchester United’s surprise UEFA Champions League exit still hurt?
It was a massive disappointment because my feeling is that if we’d gone through, we would have gone on to the final. For me the problem was the home game against Basel. We were 2-0 up and then missed four or five clear-cut chances. We ended up losing our concentration and though we managed to salvage a draw, it was a bad result for us. It left us having to go and get at least a point in the return game. And though we dominated the match, we didn’t score, and when that happens you don’t deserve to win.
Basel did cause you problems, though...
Yes, they did. The thing is you’ve always got to dictate the pace when you’re a big team like us. The sides competing in the Champions League now are much better on the break than they used to be. A few years back opponents would send two or three players into our half whenever they got on the ball, but now it’s five or six, and at pace too. I think that’s one of the biggest overall improvements we’ve seen in the game recently.
You came off second best in last year’s final against Barcelona. Is there anything you could have done differently that night?
I don’t regret anything we did because they were the better side. The first two goals were entirely avoidable and maybe with a bit of luck we could have won the game, but when the other team’s that bit better than you, then there’s not much you can do about it.
Do you think that Barcelona and Real Madrid are ahead of everyone at the moment?
I still think Barcelona are the best team in Europe, although Real Madrid are closing the gap on them. The lead they’ve got in the league shows that. They might be on the same level as them soon, but for the moment Barça have still got that magical ability to play a game that’s beyond everyone else. When [Lionel] Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are on song, they’re just unstoppable.
Your club has this remarkable ability to stay at the top despite spending very little on transfers. Is that a deliberate strategy?
We decided a few years ago to create a structure with young players, like Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Anderson, and we also knew we had some talented youngsters coming through the academy, like Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. All we’ve had to do since then is just build things around a few young players. With that as our strategy we’ve not had to spend huge amounts of money to stay competitive because we’ve already got the talent at home.
Do you feel then that despite the setback in Basel, Manchester United are still able to compete with the European elite?
Like I said, I feel we had the ability to go all the way to the final. Luck wasn’t on our side, but I think we’ve got the ambition to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and I don’t feel we’re that far away from them. I’m sure we’ll show that soon.
Part two of this interview will be published tomorrow.