The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann was hugely successful during his career, both in South America and Europe – leading Benfica to two European Cups – but he was always adamant that “the third season is fatal”. Beyond that, he felt, he could no longer motivate players as they had seen all his tricks and he had run out of ways to surprise opponents.

On the spectrum of coaches, Guttmann stands at one end as a shock merchant, somebody who came in, rattled cages, shook things up and – sometimes – prompted spurts of success. In terms of a modern equivalent, a coach who is always wandering, winning trophies across a range of countries, the closest comparison is Jose Mourinho.

At the other end of the scale are the likes of Alex Ferguson, Guy Roux and Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the empire-builders who measure their tenures not in years but in decades. Their achievement is not just their stamina – in that regard it was interesting to hear 33-year-old Andre Villas-Boas say after the Europa League Final that he may have only a decade left in management because it was so stressful – but also in their ability to adapt, to live out a constant process of evolution.

Just how difficult that can be is perhaps best seen in those who have failed to change. Look, for instance, at Brian Clough, who was a far more astute tactician than he was often given credit for – as Nottingham Forest’s use of a five-man midfield against Hamburg in the 1980 European Cup Final attests.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s he did an astonishing job to keep Forest competitive despite limited resources, but alcohol and ill health caught up with him and in the end he was exposed. His preferred mode of play was 4-4-2 with one wide midfielder advanced and the other tucked in, and he would not countenance change.

Late in 1991-92, his side was overrun in midfield by a QPR team playing 4-3-3, but he stuck stubbornly to the old system. The following year Forest briefly experimented with three at the back in a game against Crystal Palace, a system that seemed to get the best out of their attacking full-backs, Stuart Pearce and Gary Charles, while offering midfield cover. Alan Hill, his assistant, remembers the system working, but Clough didn’t like the change and demanded a return to 4-4-2.

There were other issues that season – not least the lack of leadership offered by Clough as he lost the battle with his inner demons – but at least part of Forest’s problem was the fact that football had moved on, leaving Clough behind.

Forest’s relegation and Clough’s retirement came in the first season of the Premier League, which was also the year that Ferguson, in his seventh season at Manchester United, won his first English league title.

The tactical shape was little different then to how United play now – essentially a 4-4-2 with split strikers – but the style has undergone a series of vital reinterpretations. As Lobanovskyi said when under pressure after finishing 10th with Dynamo Kyiv in 1984: “A path always remains a path. It’s a path during the day, during the night and during the dawn.”

In the following two seasons he won the league twice and the Cup-winners Cup. But a faith in the method doesn’t mean there should be no tweaks.

After Lobanovskyi’s death in 2002, Dynamo seemed hamstrung as a series of coaches – all of which, until the arrival of Yuri Semin, were former Lobanovskyi players – seemed intent on trying to second guess what “the Colonel” would have done. But what Lobanovskyi would have done was to adapt.

In their book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, Lobanovskyi and his long-time assistant Anatoliy Zelentsov wrote: “When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.

“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game.”

United’s subtle changes are a case in point and also exemplify the importance of what Ferguson has referred to as “managing change”.

A generation of players cannot be allowed to grow old together without replacements rising up to step in – something that helps prevent Guttmann’s three-year problem. Rather than change the manager, change the players.

The reason for Leeds United’s collapse after Don Revie left in 1974, for instance, was that the players had played together for the best part of a decade – and arguably that has been part of Chelsea’s problem this season.

Break up the side
Ferguson, though, has always been ruthless. After United had finished second in the league and lost the FA Cup Final in 1995, he ditched Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. After defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final in 2000 – a game that underlined flaws demonstrated against Borussia Dortmund in 1997, Monaco in 1998 and Croatia Zagreb in 1999 – Ferguson opted to break up the treble-winning side and to add midfield strength by bringing in Juan Sebastian Veron and using Paul Scholes to link midfield to a lone forward.

The transition was rocky, but the ultimate success of Ferguson’s policy came with the quasi-strikerless formation that won the Champions League in 2008, with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez both dropping deep, leaving a vacuum that Cristiano Ronaldo, cutting in from the flank, could exploit.

With Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid, there has been a step back from the avant garde, and United, certainly in Europe, now play something that would resemble their 4-4-2 of the 1990s if it were not for Rooney, whose energy and desire to track back effectively gives them an extra midfielder.

Certainly among forwards, Rooney is probably the most complete player England has produced and as such is key to this phase of United’s evolution. Lobanovskyi, presumably, would approve. The path that underlay his dialectical thinking was always towards universality.

By Jonathan Wilson