Cantona and Counters
This is the second of 25 blog posts devoted to Michael Cox’s The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines. In his second chapter, Cox focuses on Manchester United’s early success in the Premier League and particularly on the importance of their French superstar, Eric Cantona.
Cantona was the first foreign superstar in the Premier League–really, it’s first superstar of any kind. Cox discusses Cantona’s cultural impact, particularly his famous karate kick of an opposing supporter and his cryptic, pseudo-philosophical press conference following (20-1). But as Cox makes clear, “the crucial factor in Cantona’s image, however, was that he wasn’t simply different to every other Premier League player in terms of personality; he was also different to every other Premier League player in terms of footballing style” (21).
In its opening seasons, the Premier League was defined by high-speed attacks up the flanks, with wingers delivering crosses into target strikers for headed goals or knock-downs for their complementary supporting strikers or attacking midfielders to run onto. Defensively, teams sought to disrupt or defuse crosses in and, when possible, feed the ball immediately out to their own wingers to start the cycle again. This was the era of 4-4-2, at least in England, a potentially thrilling style for viewers that encouraged open, two-sided games.
Strange as it may seem today, the idea of a traditional number 10 playing through the middle and orchestrating things on the ground constituted a radical shift, even when deployed in a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1, as Sir Alex Ferguson used Cantona. With defenses set up to man-mark central strikers in anticipation of crosses inbound from the flanks, Cantona asked questions by dropping back into the space between the defensive and midfield lines, giving him room and time to orchestrate central attacks or to join as a late-arriving attacker in the box. Importantly, Cantona was also well-suited to the physical nature of Premier League play. No delicate flower, Cantona was not about to be pushed around or tackled into submission by British hard men.
Even with Cantona’s influence, however, Ferguson’s first great United side was fundamentally a counter-attacking force. As Cox notes, “subsequent United sides would become more cultured . . . but in Premier League terms, Ferguson’s 1993/94 team was perfectly suited to the week-in, week-out challenges of a division still based around physical football, with tough tackles, poor pitches, and 42 games” (33). You can see both the counter-attacking directness of the side and Cantona’s disruptive central influence in their late-season victory over 92-93 title rivals, Norwich City. Cox discusses this game at length (29-32), and it’s a shame that only a brief set of highlights have made it to youtube (though a significantly longer highlight from the reverse fixture is available and gives a fuller sense of both sides).
Norwich were surprise challengers straight from their 4-2 opening day win against Arsenal, and it was this dominant win in the final run-in that really sealed Manchester United’s first top-flight title in 26 years. Youtube does have a longer highlight from what Cox notes is the most famous victory in United’s title run-in, the come-from-behind home win against Sheffield Wednesday the week after the Norwich City game (29).
With the off-season addition of Roy Keane, United’s 93-94 side were even more dominant than their predecessors. Ironically, it’s much harder to find full matches from this side, but their FA Cup win against Chelsea that season, completing a domestic double, can be found in both extended highlight
and in a poor-quality video of the full match. It’s worth noting that Chelsea was the only team to beat United before March that season, doing so twice (33).
I’m including two more full matches from this era just to give those who want it a fuller sense of what this early United side–and the league that it played in–looked like. There are a number of other games available (away to Queens Park Rangers with Cantona out but a Wonderfull throwback Monday Night Football Keys and Gray broadcast; and their final home game of the season against Blackburn Rovers, having already clinched the title), but I’ve chosen two. First, this early season game against Liverpool, which in addition to being a fantastic game, shows what United looked like prior to Cantona’s arrival.
Second, a tightly fought Manchester derby from December, played at a slightly less frenetic pace than most of the other games that have achieved youtube immortality.
By comparison, it’s also worth taking a look at the best team and league in the world in 92-93. Though Fabio Capello’s Milan would be pipped by Olympique de Marseille in the final of the inaugural Champions League that year, they would go on to win it the following season and make a third consecutive final in 94-95. Still built around the Dutch trio assembled by Arrigo Sacchi, few would question that Milan was the dominant team of the early 90s, or that Serie A was the, ahem, premier league in European football. Watching this admittedly special early-season game against Lazio, what is most striking is how modern the football looks by comparison to Manchester United, and for Lazio as well as for Milan. This game underlines just how far behind the continential European elites England was at the start of the Premier League era.
That’s it for now. Back next week to discuss the lovable underdog challengers from 94-96.