Sir Alex Ferguson will manage for the last time on Sunday in an otherwise meaningless match at West Bromwich Albion. It's an anticlimactic end to a career that spanned four decades, but it's also a fitting one, since Manchester United wrapped up the title a month ago.
In his time at Old Trafford, the 71-year-old has won the league 13 times. He's won the Champions League twice, the FA Cup five times, and the League Cup four times en route to 38 trophies in 26 seasons as the United boss. After the West Brom match, Ferguson will say his goodbyes, step down as manager, and spend the rest of his days peering down from the box in the sky. (That's not a metaphor for death. He's going to stay with the club as a director.)
For anyone under 35 years old, it's hard to remember that United were once just a decent little club in the north of England. They've since become the gold standard in all of sports, and it's hard to understate how much of that is Fergie. Following the 1999 season, when United became the first team in English history to win the Treble—the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup—the Scottish manager was knighted. The queen, it turns out, understood two simple facts: that managing a top-flight soccer team is really, really, difficult, and to manage the same team so successfully for so long borders on the impossible.
To understand what it means to manage one of the world's top soccer teams, it's important to first understand who he's working with. These are young men, the absolute best at the world's most popular, most fanatical game. Some, like Wayne Rooney, are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly. The most banal comings and goings of their private lives are chronicled by news outlets on a daily basis, and people actually read it. Their names and faces are more recognizable worldwide than most of American sports' biggest stars. Hundreds of millions of people pray in thousands of languages for their success, or their failure, or their injury, or their death.
Paradoxically, these same players are bought and sold, like cattle, from their boyhood teams to domestic rivals, from their country of birth to faraway lands. Before even stepping foot on the pitch, a manager's job is to turn these confused, cocksure young men into cogs. You have to inspire loyalty in mercenaries. You have to discipline, teach, humble, and embolden them, and ultimately, you have to bend these men to your will.
Ferguson was the best at this. Over the years, he's had to juggle the most gifted and most eccentric and most outrageous players, like Peter Schmeichel and Jaap Stam and Denis Irwin and David Beckham and Roy Keane and Andy Cole and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo and, of course, this guy:
And he won with these players, all the time, because he's a disciplinarian. He's not cruel, but he is a mean fucker. He's been a "frightening bastard" since his first managing gig 39 years ago at East Stirlingshire, in the third tier of the Scottish pyramid. Everyone loves the idea of a "player's coach." And even though Ferguson is renowned for spending every waking moment with his players, from the youngest to the most seasoned, Ferguson is not a player's coach. He micromanages almost every aspect of his club, and benches or falls out with players who crossed him, no matter how talented.
Because he runs the club this way, the unified, obedient, almost spartan Manchester United is an extension of Ferguson on the pitch. The 90-plus minutes we see is just the physical realization of his planning.
Actual in-game manipulation doesn't exist in soccer as it does in American sports. Halftime is the only scheduled stoppage. Aside from dead ball situations like fouls and corner kicks, there are no plays. There are no timeouts. So where coaches in sports like football and basketball have countless opportunities to reset and and adjust and substitute and otherwise affect the game, soccer managers have but a few: the preparation for a match, switching formations or swapping positions during play, making holistic tweaks at halftime, and three substitutions.
Because goals in soccer are so precious, each adjustment holds that much more weight and importance. What a manager is tasked with doing—winning a match by introducing a single second-half winger or telling a central midfielder to occupy space five yards forward—is almost laughable. You're juggling 11 moving parts with one hand tied behind your back.
Most managers make changes just for the sake of changing something. Down at the half? Send on an extra forward. The problem with this is the assumption that the game has a formula. It doesn't. The gift that Alex Ferguson has is ability to look at a fluid game and decide to decide, then make a move that more often than not turns out to be the perfect move. It's an alchemy built on intuition and strategy and luck and a lifetime of study.
That's why Ferguson was able to stick around so long. He didn't crack the ever-evolving game so much as he grew with it. Based on his squad's strengths and weaknesses any given year, any given fixture, he'd use any number of formations and styles. He's won silverware with the 4-4-2, with the 4-2-3-1, with the 4-3-3. Often, he'd use multiple formations in the same week, or in the same game. Of United's 88 points this season, they've earned 29 of them after falling behind in matches, only to claw all the way back to win nine and draw another two.
The 2012-2013 campaign has been a testament to Ferguson's impact. He's had sides, like his 1999 and 2008 Champions League winners, that were arguably the greatest teams in the world at the time. No one would dare say this 2013 United team is one of those teams. It may not even be the best team in the league. Local rivals Manchester City have spent over £500 million on transfers in the last five years, and United only beat Chelsea once in five tries this season. And yet, with nearly half the league's teams fighting for Champions League spots or to avoid relegation over the past few weeks, United was untouched by it all, clinching the Premier League title on April 22. And until they decided to take a monthlong victory lap, United had a chance to break the all-time record for points in a season.
When the whistle blows on Sunday to end Ferguson's last match as manager, the machine will roll on. On July 1, David Moyes will take United's helm. And though things may seem different at Old Trafford, especially at the start, we should probably expect more of the same. Of all the things Fergie did for the Red Devils, the most important was making sure the club could thrive after he's gone. Since 1986, all he's done is win, and now you're a United supporter, or your sister is, or your father, or your mailman, or your best friend. United fandom would be the third-most populous nation on earth, according to one study.
This translates into merchandise sales and television contracts, to say nothing of ticket prices. United are the most valuable team in the world by a long shot. The money they earn can then be used to buy stars—not to simply fill the squad, but to supplement the players like Ryan Giggs, Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes, Jonathan Evans, Wayne Rooney, and legends past who joined United as teenagers. If United spend to win, they can spend because they won.
Sustainability will be Fergie's greatest contribution. Long after he's retired to his skybox, he'll watch over a team that remains among England's elite. Thanks to Sir Alex, no one—not even Ferguson himself—is bigger than Manchester United.