Manchester United isn't merely a football team nowadays, it's a brand that spans the globe and is about as synonymous to football as Coke is to fizzy drinks.
If you ask a person to name a football team, I can pretty much guarantee that the first name off their lips will be "Manchester United", and that's pretty much a testament to the immense pull of gravity that brand United possess. This iconic status on the world stage didn't come through chance alone though. It came through years of success, good management, good implementation of an all-round footballing philosophy and a great youth academy that's still plucking the best of the rest from around the world.
So what makes a great title winning Manchester United team? It's hard to get into the mind of the great Alex Ferguson, but every united team I've ever watched has always primarily consisted of a good, solid goalkeeper at the back (Schemichel, Van Der Sar), a tough "hard as nails" defender (Vidic, Bruce) beside a more classier counterpart (Rio Ferdinand).
In central midfielder, there's practically always been a good pairing between your hard-working, no nonsense midfielder (Roy Keane, Darren Fletcher) and a player that's great and comfortable at distributing the ball under pressure (Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick). This part of the pitch is what's integral to making or breaking a team in my opinion. You need your hard battling midfielder to assist in defense and break up play, but you also need a good distributor to act as an "anchor point" for both the defense and attack. Take care of this part, and the rest will sort itself out.
Up front and on the wings there's always been a great goal scoring talisman to lead the way (Rooney, Cantona, Van Nistelroy) and a pair of fast, pacy and intelligent wingers to provide service (Giggs, Ronaldo). But when you're a team like Manchester United, it's pretty easy to buy flair. It's the other parts (most notably central midfield and defense) where you need to find an elegant balance in order to really make things click.
This is all just a matter of my opinion really. I don't have a thorough knowledge of the inner workings of Ferguson's tactical brain and I've merely drawn up this conclusion from years of watching united team after united team win practically every trophy imaginable.
Now that we've got that general and purely subjective analysis of what makes a good United team out of the way, I'm going to leave you with an article by the English newspaper The Guardian that goes into more detail on Manchester United's day-to-day training regime then I ever could. It makes for a great read, and should give you some great insight on how to thoroughly drill and train a team on a week-by-week basis. There's also a few drills mentioned, including one of my personal favorites called "the box" where a 2 versus 2 match is played within a small, compact box and the object of the game is to keep the ball through one touch passing between you and your team mate. This not only increases your reaction times and touch but also dramatically increases your peripheral awareness whilst playing under pressure.
So there you have it. If you're looking for a more general analysis on how to drill a team in a number of disciplines (counter attacking, defending etc), head over to my previous post "How to Play Like Arsenal" where there's an extensive list of drills at the bottom of the article.
"The training session is based on what we call the integration concept," says Queiroz. "All things are related to the preparation of the players. The technical, tactical and fitness aspects, everything together is in an integrated system. The most important thing is that before training we understand the needs of each player in each position and we know the needs of the team, so we can make the right decisions. We create and combine the right harmony between the preparation of the individual and that of the team."
"Everything the player does on the pitch has different impacts in the performance of the team," says Queiroz. "If you run and shoot, then there's the technical impact, the fitness impact, an emotional and mental impact. Human beings aren't split into different areas; we work through a complex system. My job is just to create the right harmony and make the right decisions in terms of preparation - which drills to do when, how many hours of training to do on each day of the week, etc."
Strudwick arrived at Old Trafford in August 2007 from Blackburn Rovers and he keeps the players' fitness ticking over.
"The training programme for the week, otherwise known as the microcycle, is determined by the amount of games we have in a week," says Strudwick. "The day after a game, often Sunday, will usually be a rest day for everyone or a recovery day for those who have played. The first three days of the following week - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - involve a lot of hard work on the players' part. In terms of fitness training, the squad will spend some time in the gym working on building up their strength on the Monday. The following day they will focus on aerobic work to help increase their endurance and on the third day they will spend time on speed work.
"We then start to reduce the physical pressure and intensity on the players in order to help them start preparing themselves for the game on the Saturday. We will also look at some injury prevention methods. The day before a match the players will take part in a standard training session, which lasts no longer than an hour. We try to make everything short and sharp and to help improve the neuromuscular activity so the players are ready."
The mastermind behind the technical aspect of United's training sessions is Queiroz. The Portuguese is well aware of the importance of practice.
"There is no perfection in football. There are always points, not always from the individual point of view, sometimes from the collective one, that have room to improve. We can do that with smart work and if everybody's ready to accept their mistakes, the things that they're not doing right and the areas we should improve."
Having eased the players into the session with "boxes", their light-hearted drill of choice, Queiroz and Phelan then prefer to focus on more serious matters.
"After boxes we do a little bit of function work, focusing on possession and team shape for the build-up to the next game," says Darren Fletcher. "Training does vary - there are different shooting and tactical exercises we do and on certain days of the week there will be specific training drills geared towards positions. The midfielders will work on threading passes through the defence. It'll be four against four. The attacking quartet will aim to get the ball through the gaps, while the other team will work on staying together as a unit."
"We have certain things that seem to be laid down in stone," says Phelan. "In the first part of training we like to let the players enjoy themselves, just getting the balls out, knocking them about and playing little possession games. Then we move on to the main hub of the session, whatever we want to get in them for the next game or something that didn't happen in the last game. We build up the session that way."
The coaching staff factor in preparatory drills to combat upcoming opponents - although typically only a small amount.
"It depends on the game or the situation we find ourselves in," says Phelan. "We'll probably do one session on preparation for the opponents because games come so thick and fast it's difficult to do team training on the next game."
The final drill in training is usually a match of between seven and 10 a side, depending on how bare or crowded the treatment room is looking. "Some of us will swap positions during five-a-side games - the defenders might play up front and vice versa," says Fletcher. "Rio fancies himself in the free role behind the striker, while goalkeeper Tom Heaton surprised us on one occasion when he played outfield as he went and scored a hat-trick."
The players are prone to moments of mischief. "You have to have your wits about you when Scholesy and Wazza [Wayne Rooney] are around," says Fletcher. "All the balls that are dotted around the edge of the pitch will suddenly start flying past you. You can never relax during that period."
Rooney remains committed to the pursuit of hyper-fitness, however, staying true to the old "no pain, no gain" maxim.
"You've got to do the work to get the best out of yourself in the games," he says. "You've got to be fit and I think now with the games getting quicker you've got to be able to run for 90 minutes. Whether it's high intensity or endurance you've got to do it and the only way you can do that for 90 minutes is by doing it in training through the week."
Whereas a player might have possession for a few minutes during a match, they have the most intense contact with the ball during training sessions. This is the time when those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Carrington will be privy to the players' repertoire of tricks.
"The older players in the latter stages of their careers have the skills, and the good thing is that you don't have to tell them when and where to use them," says Meulensteen. "They have the experience to know that, it's just whether they're comfortable with certain moves. With the young kids we give them all the optional moves and let them practise until they get to a point where they are naturally more comfortable with one or two. With the first-team players you can look at them, let them do them and then quickly rule most of them out, get them to concentrate on specific ones they are comfortable with.
"You can be very specific then. That's the core and what it will do is add something to the game where players look to have so much time on the ball, simply because they've found the right balance between popping the ball about nice and quickly and suddenly using a disguised piece of skill. Disguise is nothing else than making your opponent think you're going one way then, as soon as you've committed him, going the other.
"When you have that, that's when you get teams who look like they can't be caught. It's not just skill, though; personality and attitude carries the skill. That's part of the development too and that's a bit harder with the older players. They're more calculated, that's why sometimes they get caught in two minds and you can see it when they're playing. It's not a problem, you just encourage them not to get caught up in their mind. That's because they missed the chance to develop these things earlier on in their careers."
Ticking the right boxes: Ferdinand's favourite
The first 15 minutes of training are spent on spinning bikes. The players get the blood pumping through their legs inside the wooden-sprung training hall before filtering out on to the first-team training pitch. Once outside, the first drill is usually one of the players' favourites: "boxes".
The squad is split into a junior and senior group and then two members of each group are enclosed by the rest, rather predictably in a box shape. The duo's aim is to win the ball, while the remainder must keep it from them with one-touch passing.
"I love going out and doing boxes - it's the best part about training," says Rio Ferdinand. "I think 90% of the lads would agree. If Carlos changes the training session around and tells us we're not doing boxes, I go bananas. I need to do a box to start the day off on a good vibe.
"Scholesy is probably the best at boxes. His awareness and touch is always spot-on. I was shocking in my first season at the club. I felt more pressure in that box than I did walking out at Old Trafford. After the first year I got used to it and I'd say I'm all right at it now."
"Scholesy and Giggsy are probably the best at boxes," adds Darren Fletcher. "They've been at the club for such a long time, so they've got the experience of doing it every day for years - they know the ins and outs of it. When you go into their box, which is the older box, it really is a step up and the play is a lot quicker. It's a good exercise, there is a lot of mickey-taking mainly because all the lads will try and nutmeg each other. We get some great little passing routines going and we've got up to around 30 passes in the past."