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Park Ji-sung: Man United’s Big-Game Player

Never a certified starter during a 7-year spell with Manchester United, Ji-Sung Park did, however, make a name for himself by being a go-to man in the so-called “big” games, playing a vital part in how Sir Alex Ferguson set-up his sides in key clashes.

Between 2006 and 2010, Manchester United were at their most recent peak, winning three Premier League titles and reaching two Champions League finals, winning one. And in the games against title rivals and more notably against Europe’s top sides in the knockout stages of the Champions League, United would at times ditch their more recognisable 4-4-2, with an extra midfielder and go with what on paper resembled a 4-3-3/4-5-1. Not only was there an extra midfielder, but there was Park usually on the right or left side of a still rather fluid front-three.

As a wide player in Ferguson’s system, Park carried out different tasks to Cristiano Ronaldo who by this point was a fully-fledged forward taking up positions left, right and centre – not really a winger and when starting central, not really a no.9, either. Park was a hard-working winger who tracked back to support the full-back. Park would press the opposing full-back and on the other side of things was excellent at starting and sometimes finishing off counter-attacks. Manchester United not only in this period, but in previous sides under Ferguson have been famed for their direct counter-attacks, but the side containing Ronaldo and Rooney were particularly potent. And even though Park was an option used more so to obstruct the opposition more so than enhance his own side, did not hamper United’s excellence on the counter-attack.

Two highly renowned (to the extent that bringing them up in discussions about counter-attacks is almost a cliche), and perfect examples of that noted above both came against Arsenal. The first being in the Champions League semi-final second leg in 2009, in which United won 1-3.

Park scored the opening goal after making a run into the box to meet a low cross from Ronaldo who had previously combined with Anderson down the left-side, perhaps fortunately as left-back Kieran Gibbs slipped in the box, but this goal showed Park’s ability to get into good positions in the box with good movement.

And for United’s third goal, Park was instrumental in a three-man counter; regaining the ball from an Arsenal attack down the right, Park carried the ball through the centre following a flick from Ronaldo, and played the ball into Rooney who was in space on the left, with a 3v3 in attack and Rooney then playing the ball into the box to be met by the on-running Ronaldo.

Man United lineup vs Arsenal - Champions League Semi-Final 2009
Manchester United’s starting XI against Arsenal in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, 2009.

The second example was also brilliant and came a season later, but this time with Park adding to the scoreline. An interchange between midfielder Michael Carrick and Rooney gave Park time and space to make a run in behind the Arsenal midfield and receive a lovely ball over the top from Carrick. Park had a great deal of space to run into down the left as Arsenal were still trying to regroup, and Park dribbled into the box and put the ball straight past goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

Of the 27 goals scored by Park in his time with United, Park scored five times against Arsenal. Two also came against both Chelsea and Liverpool.

As well as being a great tackler, United’s second-round home game against Milan in the Champions League in 2010 also displayed Park’s ability to play in the centre of midfield and man-mark Andrea Pirlo out of the game. Pirlo was harried by Park which offered up more freedom for Paul Scholes in a deeper midfield role. To add, Ferguson even cited in his autobiography how Park could have man-marked Lionel Messi in the 2011 Champions League final.

“I might have been better assigning Park to mark Messi for the first 15 minutes and pushing Rooney wide left. If we had employed those tactics we might just have sneaked it. We would still have been able to counter-attack.”

Park, as previously alluded to, was not a regular starter at United, particularly when Ronaldo was there. Park, alongside Nani, was generally a second-choice attacking player to Ronaldo, Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Ryan Giggs and later on Dimitar Berbatov. But, Park starting in these key games, whether that be against Roma (2007-08) or Arsenal (2008-09) in the Champions League was very important.

And what also showed what Ferguson was like as a coach. United did not play defensive football as such under Ferguson, but Ferguson was certainly intent on restricting the strengths of the opposition and taking a more pragmatic approach in the bigger games.

Park, as well the likes of Nicky Butt, defender Ronny Johnsen who would at times play in midfield to form a more defensive midfield partnership in European games and Darren Fletcher who could play in the centre or wide of midfield and in defence, is a prime example of how utility players and rotation played an important part in United’s success during Ferguson’s time as manager.

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