Championship won, Sir Alex’ hard work starts here
It really never gets boring, this lark of winning Premier League titles. Some 13 have now come during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign; the latest after his side beat Aston Villa 3-0 at Old Trafford on Monday night.
Perhaps none will be quite as giddily received as that in 1993, not after Steve Bruce’s late late double. Nor will there be as much euphoria as that generated in 1999, when the Premier League was achieved as the first leg of the treble. But make no mistake, this year is special. Special for every reason that last season’s loss was so traumatic.
Manchester City’s last-gasp victory in May 2012 hurt. And despite supporters’ bravado of the past week there was no genuine sense that the Blues had become but temporary custodians of United’s trophy. Not last summer at least.
Yet, Sir Alex’ side responded to last season’s defeat with a campaign of consistent performances. At times the genuine determination required to drag points out of nothing has also shone.
“Focus,” as Sir Alex calls it – not least his side’s ability to come back from opening-day defeat at Everton and win 25 Premier League matches in the next 29.
By stark contrast Roberto Mancini’s is a side that capitulated amid a flurry of infighting, complacency and rank poor man management. In that there is certainly a sense of smug satisfaction among the Old Trafford faithful, with City breaking down into bitter recrimination that may still result in Mancini departing this summer.
In fact, while the data says that in most key areas United hasn’t truly improved on last season – goals scored, passing statistics, attacking numbers and the rest – Mancini’s side has gone backwards. The Italian might end the campaign with another FA Cup, but there are some serious questions to be answered about his stewardship.
Abnormally, there has been scarcity of drama over the past eight months. No pivotal moment, no great clash between rivals to seal the title, nor a last gasp winner that has proven decisive. In truth there’s been little doubt about the Premier League’s destination since February.
United’s consistency ensured that.
“You can go on and on about losing the title,” Ferguson said in the aftermath of Monday’s victory.
“At the end of the day, our consistency for the last 20 years has been unbelievable. This club never gives in. From Sir Matt Busby, the Munich Disaster, to rebuilding and to win the European Cup, that tells you the history of United..”
“I think the focus of the team was good. The focus on the challenge from City. It’s amazing, 13th championship in the Premier League. Our consistency has won us the league.”
Still, it is a triumph that falls short of Ferguson’s very best: those of 1993, 1999 and 2008. Each redefined the club’s history. This year’ will do nothing of the sort, with a fair suspicion that the side is far from Ferguson’s finest.
That a certain stardust is missing is in not doubt. Since Christmas Ferguson’s side has retrenched into it’s shell – a functional unit bent on claiming points. It is questionable whether this side will be revered in 20 years.
It is an assertion rejected by the Reds’ 71-year-old coach, who maintains that his current vintage compares favourably with any of United’s past.
“Nostalgia plays tricks in people’s minds,” adds Ferguson.
“The amount of times you’ve said ‘when I was a boy, things weren’t the same’. It’s nostalgia. Put it in context, we’ve got 84 points from 34 games, we’ve never done that.”
If there is an absence of magic then at least one player has made a real difference during the campaign. Robin van Persie’s 28 goals in all competitions has shaped a season, although it is the Dutchman’s charisma that has added most – a calming influence spawning a belief that a goal will come when required. It so often has.
There will also be words for Michael Carrick come the campaign’s end. The Geordie has once again held United’s midfield together with performances that now draw long past due eulogies.
Mention in dispatches is also reserved for the fast maturing Rafael da Silva and United’s outstanding young goalkeeper David de Gea. And with Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones also enjoying Ferguson’s enduring support, the Scot retains a strong base from which to build.
But the hangover of glory will be short-lived. It is the Fergusonian way. By May’s end thoughts will already have turned to retaining United’s Premier League title next season, and mapping out a route to one final night of European glory.
The latter depends on how United strengthens over the summer, with the Reds’ midfield in no shape to take on Europe’s finest. United might have been unlucky to exit at Real Madrid’s hands, but it is a fool’s errand to argue that Ferguson’s side is the continent’s best.
Potential summer moves for Borussia Dortmund’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski and Benfica’s Argentinian defender Ezikiel Garay will do little to enforce United’s soft underbelly.
But will Ferguson break an six year streak and sign a midfielder? With Anderson’s time done, Darren Fletcher unlikely to return, and Paul Scholes surely on his way to a second retirement, it would be negligent not to.
Moreover, the domestic challenge will surely be stronger next season. In Abu Dhabi, City’s owners will unleash the state’s sovereign wealth once again. It is, after all, not much use owning a vanity football club if the team is beaten by such a distance. Clear blue water, Sheikh bin Zayed Al Nahyan might call it.
Chelsea may be a different beast, but owner Roman Abramovich, having spent not far off £200 million over the past two seasons, may have the taste for glory again. This will certainly be true if José Mourinho returns from six years in the continental wilderness.
On the continent Bayern Munich this week announced the arrival of German wunderkind Mario Götze, while Barcelona and Real Madrid are sure to invest heavily once again.
It is a challenge at home and abroad that will fuel Ferguson into a 27th campaign in charge at Old Trafford.
“The manager has great desire and a winning mentality,” said Wayne Rooney, whose own future is as yet unresolved.
“We all buy into that and want to do well for the club. When you lose the title, it’s hard to take. The way we did it wasn’t a nice feeling last time so we’ve all dug in deep and all worked together.”
But in football, Rooney also argued, it is foolish to take anything for granted – a good message for the summer. Ferguson now has an opportunity to build from the front. Once again England’s finest, the side everybody else must chase. Ferguson wouldn’t have it any other way.