When the final whistle blew at the Stadium of Light on the 13th of May 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson applauded his players, and waited for the news. The news was not good. Manchester City had scored at the death against QPR, and snatched the title on goal difference. Phil Jones wore a look of utter distress; Dimitar Berbatov put his hand behind his head and stared into the distance. Ferguson meanwhile, briefly surveyed the Sunderland crowd, gleefully participating in a bout of schadenfreude, before instructing his players to go and applaud the travelling fans.
Ferguson was already plotting. He wanted the players to drink in the atmosphere of defeat, defeat by the slenderest of margins, but defeat nonetheless. Danny Welbeck tells the story of the bus trip home to Manchester. “I remember it well. He went round all the young players and told them ‘Never forget this – because this will win you win titles.” It’s not difficult to imagine him doing the same in 1992. Then, United won just 4 of their last fourteen games to surrender the title to Leeds by 4 points. They went onto win 4 of the next 5 titles.
It’s this type of man-management that has meant United under Ferguson have a history of bouncing back after disappointment. Five times in the Premier League era, United have lost the title after winning it the year before. Four of those five times they have wrested back the title the following year. It is worth pointing out, however, that each of the successes came against teams roughly on the same playing field, and the one time they failed was to Chelsea and Roman Abramovich’s millions. A similar threat exists across Manchester now. United responded cagily to the Russian threat, trusting in the club’s dynamic youth, Rooney and Ronaldo to come good. Come good they did, eventually, but in the meantime this faith meant successive titles for Chelsea, following on from Arsenal’s undefeated title win. Ferguson has no such intentions of waiting so long this time.
And so, the summer purchases. Relatively hamstrung by the Glazers’ business model, United’s spending has been frugal in recent years. Upon their arrival to Old Trafford, the Americans promised a transfer spend of £25m net per season. Over the past 5 years, as hundreds of millions fly out of the club to service a debt that exists solely for the dubious privilege of having them as owners, it had been £4.4m. Skewed by Ronaldo’s mammoth fee, yes, but then he was United’s best player, and they lost him. A mixture of necessity and thoughts of revenge has seen £46m spent by the club in the summer, with only £5m recouped, although that will surely rise with impending departures.
In came Shinji Kagawa, a slippery little Japanese magician, from the same school as David Silva. This was an expected purchase, a quality player at a knockdown price. Another player with a relatively knockdown price arrived too, although this was less than expected. Robin van Persie, reigning Golden Boot and Player of the Year, demanded to leave Arsenal, wished to join United and got that wish, perhaps images of the seminal 8-2 game flashing through and influencing his thoughts. This was a transfer to make the jaws drop and the laughter flow. Laughter was the only response. United had signed the best player in England, the player perhaps only third-best to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for long stretches of last season. They’d signed him despite interest from City. This simply shouldn’t have happened, and yet it had.
How Ferguson uses van Persie and Kagawa remains to be seen, though a 3-man interchanging blur of Rooney, Kagawa and Nani playing in behind van Persie whets the appetite. Neither was perhaps needed in terms of position, with again central midfield left unchased in the market. Both however, were cherished in terms of imagination, magic and explosiveness. United, with Wayne Rooney the perfect microcosm, had swapped magic for efficiency. This year, it appears, they shall strive for both.
A joint cause for concern and optimism is injuries. United had the worst injuries in the league last season. At one point, they were missing 13 players. City never missed more than four at one time, and United’s players missed a cumulative total of six times more action than City’s. Given United lost the title on goal difference, the optimistic viewpoint is that the balance of probabilities would state the likelihood of less comparable injuries this season, and therefore a damn good chance of finishing above City, if both perform to similar levels this season.
Doing that would likely win the league, as for all of Chelsea’s purchases, the suspicion remains that 6th to 1st is too big a leap in one season. The others are nowhere near.
The pessimistic viewpoint is that United have a serious injury problem. Going into tonight’s game against Everton, the sole fit centre-back is Nemanja Vidic. He will likely be partnered by Michael Carrick, the club’s only proper defensive midfielder. This suggests both a long-standing injury problem, and a lack of strength in depth in certain positions. Carrick will play a crucial role for United this season, winning the ball back and keeping it for all the attacking talent ahead of him, and United will hope not to have to deploy him at centre-back more than once.
Carrick’s presumptive partner in midfield is questionable. Tom Cleverley excelled in midfield with Carrick for England against Italy, and the pair remains United’s most natural looking partnership. Paul Scholes will feature plenty, and Ferguson will hope Anderson, a player whom he loves despite the reservations of certain United coaching staff, will finally step up, à la Nani of 2010.
Ferguson is banking on the defence to stay fit, the midfield to step up, and the attack will look after itself.
It is fair to say that a specific set of circumstances lead to Manchester United losing the title in 2012. A historically bad run of injuries, combined with complacency, errors, a fine Manchester City revival and a mental final day saw the Blues win the title on goal difference. It is also fair to say that it is unlikely all of those circumstances conspire again. When one considers United’s purchases of one of Germany’s finest and England’s finest, as well as City’s purchase the wrong Everton central midfielder, it is difficult to say United have not had the better of the transfer market. When one thinks of Ferguson’s reaction to defeat, it is impossible to say that United will not have a right go at winning their trophy back. A price of 2/1 from the bookies is too good to turn down. The thought of wresting the title back from the clutches of the increasingly noisy neighbours, with the magic back and the goals flowing is too good not to grasp. One thing’s for sure, it’s not going to be dull. Bring it on