How Cantona changed EPL Forever
With the advent of the EPL era, the fortunes of Manchester United changed forever. They had not lifted the trophy in a quarter century and were in Sir Alex’s seventh season; unthinkable in today’s time, especially since Sir Alex went on to become one of the greatest managers ever. But with the arrival of Cantona, everything was going 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 one season they lost in that period 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 a paltry 17 goals in 16 games. After his arrival, United’s scoring rate doubled and they quickly rose to first place. It is almost impossible to find another 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 the same pedigree today. Eric, the King, was truly bling and he shot United upwards to glory. And in the course, he changed the Premier League forever.
Eric Cantona was a tremendously gifted player with his puffed out chest and his 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. Despite winning the league, Cantona was not allowed to express himself too much, due to the typical British mentality of Howard Wilkinson, i.e. favoring hard work over flair and ability and setting up his team to play long balls that completely bypassed Cantona. The next season, Sir Alex Ferguson pounced on the chance of acquiring 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 a straight bank of back four and no surging full backs.The play in the penalty box was still rudimentary, taking a back seat to wingers providing crosses for strikers to score, and United was no different. So ingrained was crossing in United and other teams’ veins, that in the season Cantona was suspended, Blackburn won the league with their wingers and full backs putting crosses in the box to Shearer and Sutton and steamrolling teams. Interestingly, when Blackburn faced part time Swedish team,Trelleborg in that 94/95 season, in the UEFA cup opening round, a team with only one professional player (others were carpenters, shopkeepers, insurance agents etc), the then would be premier league champions lost 3-2 on aggregate. This highlighted that the Premier League approach was not on par with even the minnows of Europe. However, Cantona and Manchester United provided Premier League the blueprint to move forward and this culminated in United winning the treble in 1999.The French revolution of United was complete. Sir Alex definitely deserves a lot of plaudits for accommodating a player in the mold of Cantona and changing the teams style and structure, but it will be justified to say that 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 the 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 produce 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 space, 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 the tactical naivety. The next season, Sir Alex paired Paul Ince with Roy Keane in central midfield, Ryan Giggs and Kanchelskis on wings and had 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 the 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 to training and putting in extra hours after regular practice time was unheard of. It inspired his other teammates to work hard too and most importantly it inspired the famous United Class of ’92, who benefitted most from the off field Cantona revolution. Eric Cantona paved the way for foreign players like Bergkamp, Gullit, Zola, Henry etc to play and succeed in the Premier League since he completely swept away the rigid rudimentary approach of Premier League teams who had to adjust to compete with United. 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 : Daily Mail