In 2005, the England cricket team won a test series against Australia for the first time in 18 years. The rivalry between the two nations is the fiercest in the sport and an Ashes series usually makes for compelling viewing. Almost two decades is an awfully long time to consistently come second in a two-horse race, and the English players celebrated victory in arguably cricket’s greatest ever series with reckless abandon. There was an open-top bus parade through the streets of London, an alcohol-fueled reception in Downing Street and even MBEs from the Queen.
Eighteen months later and Australia won the following series against England 5-0. That humiliating whitewash had everything to do with the complacency of the England players. Instead of viewing their success as a platform for greater things, the English celebrated as though they had reached the top of the mountain. Rather than pushing on and attempting to overtake Australia as the No. 1 team in the world, there was a sense that the players felt as though the hard work had been done.
It was a similar story with Manchester City last season. Having won the league in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable the year before, Roberto Mancini struggled to motivate his side. Winning the Premier League two seasons in a row is extremely difficult, particularly when you consider that even Arsenal in their prime under Arsene Wenger never managed it.
Having gone such a long time without winning a championship, snatching the trophy from under the noses of their closest rivals with almost the final kick of the campaign must have felt like the zenith for players and fans alike. Unfortunately for City, football never stops.
City were not alone. Queens Parks Rangers also suffered for thinking only about the immediate future. In 2011, a documentary was released about the club entitled The Four Year Plan, the title derived from Flavio Briatore’s declared aim to be in the Premier League within four years of the takeover in 2007.
QPR managed to gain promotion to the top flight in that time only to end up relegated last term. It does make one wonder whether they ought to have added a few more years to the plan and devised a strategy for not just getting up but staying there.
Complacency is a difficult thing to avoid. The psychological effect of United’s defeat to Real Madrid this time last year was keenly felt, mainly because there was a feeling, largely unexpressed, that the title was already won. The FA Cup exit soon after ensured the only competition left to play for was one in which United were already almost home and dry.
The performances after that second leg against Madrid reflected this, as United limped over the line in their pursuit of a 20th league title. Brendan Rodgers was mocked for his envelope tactic in Being Liverpool, but at least he was attempting to keep complacency at bay. In fact, it was a technique pioneered by Sir Alex Ferguson in an attempt to keep his players hungry after that first league title back in 1993.
Ferguson’s own desire was insatiable, and it is remarkable to note how often he managed to produce teams capable of winning the league two or even three times in a row. He would doubtless agree with the words of Tracy Flick in Election: “Coca-Cola is by far the world’s number one soft drink and they spend more money than anybody on advertising. I guess that’s how come they stay number one.” This was a man who was never averse to strengthening a title-winning team and removing a player he suspected of becoming complacent, regardless of reputation.
Bayern Munich’s performance in the second leg against Arsenal a year ago showed just what a curious effect the sense that a job has already been done can have on footballers. One can be pretty sure they won’t make the same mistake twice against the same opponents.
For United, while David Moyes and the board must shoulder a large portion of the blame for the David Lynchian nightmare of the last six months, the players are fortunate their own failings have been largely ignored. Indeed, other than Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, almost every other member of the squad has suffered a decline in form since the departure of Ferguson. One can argue that it is the job of Moyes to motivate his players but those on the books at United should have enough professionalism and pride to perform at a higher level. It is all well and good complaining about tactics but some of the lapses, particularly at the back, have been unforgivable.
Nemanja Vidic has looked entirely unfussed about recent results (unsurprising given the team have very little left to play for in the league and he is off in the summer) while Rio Ferdinand and Javier Hernandez have resorted to passive aggressive tweets, the modern equivalent of holding a press conference and outlining their frustrations. At this precarious moment in the club’s history, it is patently unhelpful and more than likely to irritate the supporters.
For the fans, this has been a season to forget. Rarely in recent years have United had nothing to play for as early as February but, since only the most optimistic of reds would predict Champions League triumph, that is the reality of the situation. The only question that remains is whether the players have enough professionalism to give it their all until May, particularly with their reward likely to be the dubious honour of a place in the Europa League.