At the beginning of the season, Manchester United were more or less written off in the press. BBC Football put up a post which showed what ‘football experts’ predicted to happen this season. Hardly any of them fancied United to win the title and quite a few had us down as third or fourth behind their predicted champions, City.
I bookmarked the article and desperately hoped that in May 2011 I’d be able to write this. Big thanks to the journos who have contributed.
1. What do you think has been the biggest factor in helping United achieve what they have this season?
2. Who do you think have been our most important players?
3. Is this United squad as bad as lots of people say it is?
4. Where does this title rank amongst Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements?
5. Do you think United can win the league next season?
Journo: Martin Lipton, chief football writer
Paper: The Mirror
1. Home form, more than anything else and the ability to win – yet again – when they weren’t playing well. At times they’ve not been great but the key players have been so consistent. And, of course, the winning mentality of the manager.
2. Van der Sar has made one mistake all season – against West Brom. Vidic thoroughly excellent, Giggs has defied time itself, Hernandez has been the revelation of the season, Rooney became himself again when it mattered. And Valencia’s return has been a real boon.
3. It is not as good as 2009, of course. But the performances over the past six weeks have got to suggest this team is better than it has been portrayed. And if they beat Barca, then all previous bets are off!
4. Arguably as high as any. Not just because it is the 19th but more that it has been achieved with a team in transition. The low points tally for a winning team suggests a below-par season. Arguably this was the title
Arsenal threw away because they didn’t have the intestinal fortitude of United, even of Chelsea. But that’s not United’s fault and their display against Chelsea was as good as I’ve seen from them for a couple of years.
5. Can? Yes. Will? Probably. Think City will be the closest rivals. Chelsea will take six months to find a way of playing to Torres, Arsenal are Arsenal. Liverpool will be top four.
Journo: Kevin McCarra, chief football correspondent
Paper: The Guardian
1. The manager does seem like a useful guy to have around. More particularly, I think the squad has become much larger thanks to some, like Fabio, maturing and Michael Carrick taking on far more responsibility.
2. I would go for Vidic and Van der Sar. They have ensured a solidity that meant United could still take points even when they were not particularly flamboyant. Vidic, in particular, has been the cornerstone. It was essential that he should rise to the occasion when Ferdinand was so hampered by injury.
3. I have been sceptical at times and we ought not forget that the League has been won with a rather small points total. None the less, you can’t be dismissive about players who have done better than every other squad in the Premier League. It might well be possible to beat Barcelona in the Champions League final. Seven of Pep Guardiola’s side started the World Cup final for Spain on July 11 2010. Those guys have
been playing for two years without a real rest.
4. His key achievements will always be seen as turning United into League winners again (1993) and then bringing the European Cup back for the first time since 1968. However, there has to be great respect for the
way in which he regroups and meets the sort of challenge that Chelsea have posed.
5. My predictions come with a health warning. I tipped Arsenal for this year’s title. I still argue that they had to put in a big effort to avoid winning it. (Guess where Blackburn –at the time of writing — had kept their only clean sheet away from home in the League). I don’t see why United shouldn’t retain the title, particularly if the midfield is strengthened. It would be rash to assume that Ryan Giggs will go on being so effective and Paul Scholes is feeling his age nowadays. The other clubs have a lot of improving to do. Manchester City are an interesting case. Can Roberto Mancini buy some more top-line players and would he encourage them to express themselves?
1. Sounds obvious but Sir Alex Ferguson. He is responsible for creating this incredible winning culture at the club. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched United save games through mental strength as much as anything. When you take into account how Ferguson’s recruitment has been restricted by the owners’ debt repayments, he has done remarkably well. Tactically he has again shown an ability to adapt and change. He didn’t really hit on his strongest XI until a couple of months ago but, with patient rotation, he has squeezed the best of of his squad at the right times.
2. Nemanja Vidic was my vote for player of the season. As captain, he sets the tone. I think Nani was exceptional for the first two thirds of the season, breaking opponents down. Edwin van der Sar and Ryan Giggs have been consistently excellent. And then Valencia has given the team a new edge at a crucial time – on his game he’s frightening.
3. No, although I don’t think the first XI is not quite as strong as the 2008 one. The squad is actually strong, even if many players, like Hernandez and Smalling were only expected to have transitional seasons. My main concern at the start of the season was that United had still failed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. A world class game changer in the final third is what is needed to take this team up a level – I know the club nosed around Wesley Snejder last summer – and I still think Ferguson will be looking to add in that area.
4. The title itself is obviously historic for the club but Ferguson has had to work harder to win the league over the years. Where he has been very impressive is in Europe. Even when United were not always convincing in the league, they were impressive in Europe. Just reaching another final is a serious achievement. Beating this Barcelona team to win his third European title? That might just take
it as his greatest achievement.
5. Yes, of course. It looks like Chelsea are foolishly ditching Ancelotti while for Man City and Liverpool it is probably a season too soon to be a title challenger. At this stage Arsenal, with some wise recruitment, should be the biggest threat. But United have a lot of young players coming on, and will probably buy a couple in key areas, too.
Not all the journos were wrong though…
1. Not one star, but a proper team effort. Various players stepping up at different stages – Berbatov in spells, Rooney for the last three months. Giggs has been incredible. Carrick has re-invented himself. Nani had six months when he was the best attacker in the country. Vidic has been Vidic. Valencia has come back like a man possessed.
2. If I had to pick the player-of-the-year, I’d vote for Hernandez. Until March, it was probably Nani. But honorary mentions too to Vidic and Van der Sar. Who’s had a bad season? Maybe Jonny Evans. And Rooney for five months. Otherwise, everyone has contributed.
3. No, it’s just that everything gets magnified when it comes to United. Did you see that MOTD recently when Emile Heskey shoulder-barged the ref – not a word of analysis afterwards! Yet we all know the fuss if that had been, say, Rooney.
It’s true that the away form has been very dreary, very unlike United, and you couldn’t really argue with Didier Deschamps when he talked about United not having the ‘fantasy’ of old (he wasn’t being derogatory, just talking sense), but ‘this is Fergie’s weakest team for years’ has become too easy a line, the default setting for people trying to knock the club.
4. Number 19 means it’s up there, and it will be remembered for that. But without wanting to take away from the achievement, I also think it’s been a year with no truly outstanding opponent. By that, I mean Chelsea have regressed. They’re not the team they were. Arsenal just never seem to learn, when it has been clear for X amount of years that a team without a decent goalkeeper and with no commanding centre-half doesn’t win the league. Liverpool have been poor for long periods, Tottenham have deteriorated since the turn of the year. City are strong but never really convinced as championship material. So I don’t think the competition has been that strong.
5. Yes. But if Arsenal get a £20m centre-half and a new goalkeeper, keep Fabregas and solve their goalkeeping issues, I think they can win the league. But that’s a lot of ifs and United will start as favourites, especially if they bring in 3/4 players to replace the likes of Owen/VDS/Hargreaves/maybe Scholes.
Check out Danny’s latest book: Squeaky Bum Time: The Wit & Wisdom of Sir Alex Ferguson
What did other journos say at the start of the season?
Journo: Ian Ladyman, Daily Mail football writer
Predictions: Chelsea 1st, Arsenal 2nd, United 3rd, City 4th.
“I think Chelsea will improve with another season under Carlo Ancelotti. Arsenal and Manchester City will also improve but not quite enough to win it. Manchester United could start to slip.”
Journo: Patrick Barclay, Sunday Times chief football correspondent
Predictions: Arsenal 1st, Liverpool 2nd, Chelsea 3rd, United 4th.
“The time has come for Arsenal. Patience is going to pay off. In Cesc’s last season, Arsene Wenger, the genius who stole him from Barcelona, is going to be vindicated.”
Journo: Ben Clissett, Daily Telegraph Head of Sport
Predictions: Chelsea 1st, City 2nd, United 3rd, Arsenal 4th.
“I wonder if Man Utd will be able to cope with their ageing players so well. Could this be the moment their neighbours break into the top four and overtake them?”
Saving the best ’til last…
‘Journo’: Piers Morgan
Manchester United will miss a top-four position for the first time in decades. Putting aside my usual detestation of all things United, I actually believe this. Based on current squads, I think Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are stronger.
Liverpool will have a very good season under Roy Hodgson. Judging by what he did with Fulham’s fairly average squad, imagine what he’s going to do with the likes of Gerrard and Torres.
Arsene Wenger will end his trophy drought. I know, I know, I’m biased. But I have been very impressed with the boss’s close season activity.
May 15th 2011: Have you learned anything from Sir Alex, Arsene?