Do managers understand?

You just wonder whether managers, even the most celebrated of them, become so immersed in the tactics of the game that they can no longer see the wood for the trees.

Watching, recently, Manchester United lose to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, albeit at the last gasp, I wondered not for the first time how it is that even the most celebrated managers get things so tactically wrong. For, the strategy adopted by United's Alex Ferguson, 20 years in the job and winner of an infinity of honours, seemed utterly defeatist.

Why, you wondered, did he decide to use just a single striker and make that striker the veteran Swede, Henrik Larsson, recently and enterprisingly signed on loan? True, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, had just expressed his admiration of Larsson and the part he played last season in Arsenal's defeat by Barcelona in the Final of the European Champions Cup, when he had come on as a substitute to fashion two goals for his team. But at Barcelona he was used to the support in attack of Brazil's dazzling Ronaldinho and the powerful Samuel Eto'o. At Highbury, by contrast, he was expected to plough a lonely furrow.

Moreover, it was hard to see the sense of sticking Wayne Rooney out on the left-wing — though he later switched to the right flank and headed United into the lead — while taking Ryan Giggs off his favoured left-wing and playing him in central midfield. There, he and his manifold talents tended to be crowded out. By contrast, Rooney, essentially a central performer, ideally playing just off the chief striker, clearly needed to be in the action rather than subordinate to it, the more so as he had been going through a somewhat subdued period of form.

Eventually, after he had given United the lead in the second half with his header, his team seemed to be decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They retreated into a policy of containment with only the occasional break and the Gunners, throwing on extra attackers, gained due regard for their initiative by scoring those two late, decisive goals.

Go back in time to a much more crucial match, the Final, of the European Champions Cup in Barcelona, and again you find Ferguson making bizarre tactical errors. On this occasion, he inexplicably decided to use the left-footed Giggs on the right flank and the ineffectual Swede Jesper Blomqvist on the left. Bayern Munich, largely dominant, took the lead, were unlucky not to double it when they bombarded the woodwork, and succumbed in the final minutes only when Ferguson belatedly came to his tactical senses, put Giggs on the left and scored two, winning, goals with his substitutes, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.

It always, moreover, baffled me when Ferguson was so prone to drop Mark Hughes, the current manager of Blackburn Rovers but then the Wales centre-forward, the ideal target man, was able to shield the ball and hold it up till reinforcements arrived. He even left him out of an important League game at Chelsea, on the dubious grounds that he would not be eligible to play a European Cup game four days later in Budapest. Without him, and plainly missing him, United lost at Stamford Bridge.

And what of the extraordinary fiasco Arsene Wenger made of Arsenal's tactics in a game against Manchester United, in the FA Cup Final, a couple of seasons ago in Cardiff. Incredibly, apparently convinced that United had far the stronger team, he decided, as did Ferguson this season at the Emirates, to play with just one, ageing striker. In this case, it was the Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, who had never relished the striker's role even when he was much younger and playing in Italy with Inter. At this stage, he still retained his superb technique, his opportunism, his rapid response to any situation, but to stick him alone up front, closely marked, was simply to sacrifice him, and to give the United defence a virtual holiday.

This was a strategy which never deserved to work, but in the event it did. One way and another, Arsenal held out all the way through half an hour of extra-time to win the Cup, quite undeservedly, on penalties.

Then there is Liverpool's Spanish manager, Rafa Benitez who, like Wenger that afternoon at Cardiff, was blessed with astonishing luck two seasons ago, when his team met Milan in the European Champions Cup Final in Istanbul. Who knows what possessed him to deploy a midfield in which no one was marking the dazzling young Brazilian, Kaka? In consequence, Kaka had a field day, exploiting the excessive space he was given, and Liverpool at half time found themselves 3-0 down.

As we know, Benitez in the second half saw the light, put the powerful and versatile Steven Gerrard on Kaka, radically changing the game. Liverpool clawed back the deficit and won on penalties. But how anyone, after that, could call Benitez a strategist was beyond me. Just as it was when he, prior to Alex Ferguson, brought Liverpool this season to the Emirates Stadium.

He had bewilderingly been sticking Gerrard out on the flanks for much of the season. But when his combative midfielder Sissoko dropped out injured, from a central role, it seemed axiomatic that Gerrard would play there. Not a bit of it. With what seemed sheer perversity, Benitez stuck him out on the right-wing again, preferring to use in central midfield a winger, in the shape of the Dutch international, Zenden. Liverpool looked unbalanced and lost.

You just wonder whether managers, even the most celebrated of them, become so immersed in the tactics of the game that they can no longer see the wood for the trees. Go back in time and you find even Alf Ramsey, winner as manager of England's solitary World Cup, doing strange, self-defeating things.

As in Leon, in the World Cup quarterfinal of 1970. A 3-2 defeat by West Germany largely blamed on the failings of Peter Bonetti, deputising in goal for the mysteriously food poisoned Gordon Banks. But, for me, equally responsible was Alf's decision not to substitute his exhaustive, overlapping full-backs Keith Newton and Terry Cooper, undermined by fierce noon heat and the breathless altitude.

An error exploited by the wily German coach Helmut Schoen, who put on Jurgen Grabowski, a fresh outside-right, to exploit the weary Terry Cooper. And in 1972, at Wembley, in a European quarter-final, Ramsey used no ball-winner in midfield and lost 4-2, with Gunter Netzer rampant. In the return leg in Berlin, Ramsey panicked, put out a team of hardmen and got a useless 0-0 draw. "The whole England team has autographed my leg," said Gunter Netzer.