With the advent of EPL era, fortunes of Manchester United changed forever. They had not lifted the trophy within quarter of a century and were in Sir Alex’s seventh season without the league, unthinkable in today’s time, especially since Sir Alex went on to becomes one of the greatest managers ever. But everything was going to change. With the arrival of Cantona, everything was to change. Manchester united went on to win four of the next five league titles and Sir Alex had his name etched forever in EPL folklore. The only season they missed was when Cantona was banned due to his kung fu antics away at Crystal palace. Cantona came to United when they were sitting at eighth place having scored paltry 17 goals in 16 games. Cantona arrived and United’s scoring rate doubled and they quickly rose to first place. Very difficult to find any other player with such an impact in such a dominating period with a top club. Had United got Hirst instead of Cantona, as they originally intended to, it would be safe to conclude that United and Sir Alex would not have been having the same impact and pedigree today. Eric, the King was truly bling and he shoot United upwards to glory. And in the course, he changed Premier League forever.
Eric Cantona was a tremendously gifted player with his chest puffed up and upturned collar. The man always cited Cruyff and Maradona as his idols and his playing style epitomized the same. When he came to premier league, it was a mess for him. He first had an ill one week confusing tryst with Sheffild United before going to Leeds United in mid season and at the end of the season they won the league. Though Cantona could not express himself too much due to the typical british mentality of Howard Wilkinson regarding hard work over flair and ability, when he set up his team to play long balls completely bypassing Cantona. Next Season, Sir Alex Ferguson pounced in for Cantona. Sir Alex looked for other traditional forwards too like Hirst and Deane and was open minded about his choice of striker since he required a striker to partner Hughes. English football was still 4-4-2 with straight bank of back four with no surging full backs and the play in penalty box was still rudimentary with wingers providing in crosses for strikers to score and United was somewhat similar. So ingrained this crossing was in United and other teams veins, that in the season when Cantona was suspended, Blackburn won the league with simply their wingers and full backs crossing in the box from wings to Shearer and Sutton and stream rolling teams. Interestingly when Blackburn faced part time Swedish Team Trelleborg in that 94/95 season in UEFA cup opening round, a team having only one professional player, others were carpenters, shopkeepers, insurance agents etc, the then would be premier league champions lost 3-2 on aggregate highlighting premier leagues basic rudimentary approach not at par with even minnows of Europe. However Cantona and Manchester United provided premier league the blue print to move forward which culminated in United winning the treble in 1999.The French revolution of United was complete. Whilst Sir Alex definitely deserves a lot of plaudits to having accommodated a player in mold of Cantona in his side and changing the teams style and structure, however it will be justified to say, without Eric Cantona, it would not have been possible.
When Cantona arrived at United, they also played the straight 4-4-2 with wingers crossing in from flanks for strikers to score. There was no concept of playing between the lines and terms like half spaces, zones and switching were alien to premier league. Cantona came and was paired with Hughes changing United’s 4-4-2 into 4-4-1-1. Cantona boasted the technical ability, intelligence, vision and strength to play in between the lines, utilize half spaces, hold off defenders and producing instances of magic using his outside foot chips, dinks, one touch laid passes, through balls. Also he was a sensational finisher, tremendous header and was deceptively fast. He started causing opponents lots of problem, he posed questions to opposition back fours to which they had no answers. How to cater to a deep lying forward who drifts in pockets of pace, can produce moments of magic, has vision to channel the play and has strength to act as focal point. Zonal marking was an alien concept and closing of half spaces and compactness of lines was rarely understood. Cantona caused havoc amidst all such tactical naivety. Next Season, Sir Alex paired Paul Ince with Roy Keane in central midfield, Ryan Giggs and Kanchelskis on wings with Cantona as a deep lying forward. It was a 4-4-1-1 but it was not dissimilar from the modern 4-2-3-1 with Ince-Keane in middle, Giggs and Kanchelskis flanking forever roaming Cantona in fulcrum and a traditional man like Hughes in top. Sir Alex was continuously experimenting to improve his side and his template was widely copied across premier league, especially after Manchester United rendered the premier league to a virtually one horse race during Cantona era. But none could succeed, since there was only one Eric Cantona in England.
Apart from on field, Cantona also contributed massively off field. His dedication in training, working extra hours after regular practice time was unheard off. It inspired his other team mates to work hard too and most importantly it inspired the famous Class of 92 of United who was most benefitted from the off filed Cantona revolution. Eric Cantona paved the way for foreign players like Bergkamp, Gullit, Zola, Henry etc to play and succeed in premier league since he completely swept away the rigid rudimentary approach of premier league teams who had to adjust to compete with United and he was the instigator of the first French revolution of premier league before Arsene Wenger brought the second one. But that is a story for another day. The King, keeping in terms with his unpredictability, suddenly retired at only 30 years of age. But his legacy lives on in both Premier League and Manchester United 20 years afterwards.
Photo Credit : dailystar.co.uk
By Arindam Chakraborty