1. Buying the right players
Last season Chelsea cruised to the title, and whilst our side was crippled with injuries and the hole Keane had left, we just didn’t have the squad capable of plugging all the gaps. O’Shea was certainly not a replacement for the departed Keane, Fletcher certainly was not a replacement for the injured Scholes. Bardsley was as yet, no Gary Neville, Richardson was no Heinze, Park was no Giggs etc.
When the summer came around, Kuszczak and Carrick were the only players who signed contracts with the club, whilst United’s most prolific goal scorers in years was sold on by Ferguson. The media had us pencilled in for a fourth place finish. Ferguson said the return of Ole, Scholes and Heinze would be akin to three new signings, and the press scoffed. Ferguson said Vidic and Evra, who were signed 6 months previously, would come good, and he was doubted. When the signing of Carrick became public knowledge, Mark Longden from IMUSA said, “I cannot understand what is going on. I have not spoken to anybody who, when £18.6m became available, would have spent that on Michael Carrick. But people have questioned Sir Alex Ferguson’s judgment in the past and finished up with egg on their face and I hope it happens again.”
In contrast, Chelsea signed Shevchenko, one of the greatest strikers in Europe, for £30 million, Ballack, one of the greatest midfielders in Europe, on a free transfer, and Ashley Cole, one of the greatest defenders in Europe, for around £15-20 million (a fee of £5 million + Gallas). There was also the token £9.5 million signing of Boulahrouz.
This season, Patrice Evra or Ashley Cole? Evra
This season, Michael Carrick or Michael Ballack? Carrick
This season, Nemanja Vidic or Khalid Boulahrouz? Vidic
This season, Dong Fangzhuo or Andrei Shevchenko… Ok, ok, that one was a joke. But Shevchenko? 13 goals in 41 starts (+10 sub appearances). Not flattering at the best of times, but especially not when you compare it to the “new signin” Solskjaer’s 11 goals in 13 starts (+14 sub appearances).
Chelsea have been criticised for “buying the title”, and whilst I can agree with that to a certain extent, everyone who knows about football knows you can’t just throw 11 superstars together, and expect them to win the league and give no credit to the manager. Look at the England national team for example. 11 players who rank within some of the best in the World, but with crap manager after crap manager, amount to nothing. So whilst Chelsea would be the “almost” team they’d been for years without Roman Abromovich, the signings of Ranieri, and to some extent, Jose Mourinho, were gelled together by the Portugese man. No, Chelsea didn’t play exhilarating football, and whilst they were in full control of most of the games they played, you’d be excused for taking up the opportunity to grab forty winks. But “who cares” Chelsea fans would say, because they won the title two years in a row.
For the most part, Chelsea’s best players have been signings Ranieri made. Cech, Makelele, Lampard, Duff, Gudjohnsen, Bridge, Robben, Joe Cole, to name a few. Whilst we’ve seen success in signings like Carvalho, Essien and Drogba this season, we cannot forget the likes of Kezman, Tiago, Del Horno, Ferreira, Jarosik etc. I suppose the point is, the impact of rich clubs is lessened when the man in charge doesn’t know how to spend the money effectively. It’s no good having a blank cheque if you don’t know how to spend it.
Chelsea fans have talked about injuries, which I will look at in further depth shortly, but the job of a manager, especially one with all the money he wants, is to make sure they have a strong squad, as much as they do a strong first XI. Chelsea, amazingly, have not had a strong enough squad this season.
2. Coping With Injuries
Now, the Cech injury is one which couldn’t be helped, and was worsened with the following injury to Cudicini (but whilst not trying to rub your noses in it, if both Van der Sar and Kuszczak were injured, United would have coped quite happily with Ben Foster between the sticks). Regardless, Jose can’t be blamed for not taking the precaution there.
Had Jose Mourinho kept Huth and Gallas, the injury to John Terry would not have had the impact it did. Jose of course had spent £9 million on Boulahrouz, but unfortunately for Chelsea, his performances could usually be best described accurately somewhere between comical and inept. Essien, the central midfielder was then relied upon to go in defence, and whilst he certainly worked hard, and certainly had a positive impact, his positioning was poor (as expected, he’s a midfielder, not a defender) and Chelsea could have done with his influence and presence in midfield.
United won the league, so didn’t really need to bang on about their injuries, but it is interesting to note that both Vidic and captain, Gary Neville, have missed more league games than John Terry this season. With six games left to play, United were forced in to playing Fletcher at right back and Richardson at left back, due to injuries to Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic, Silvestre, Neville and O’Shea. Wes Brown stepped up to the plate, and Heinze, whose position had been filled by Evra until his injury, was forced to the centre of defence.
Chelsea played most of the season without Joe Cole and Arjen Robben, however the latter, even when fit, wasn’t given a starting place in Chelsea’s new four man midfield. Fortunately for Chelsea Drogba finally showed up, after two years of playing a bit part in Chelsea’s success. He helped carry the Chelsea attack.
With United’s incredible goals tally, you’d be forgiven for thinking United haven’t struggled with any of their attacking players. However, Saha, who was favoured over Nistelrooy by Ferguson (leading to the question “Where are all the goals going to come from?” in the summer, which is fighting for cult status along the “You’ll never win anything with kids” remark), played his last league game for United three months ago. There have been times within those three months when Rooney has been our only available striker. Funnily enough, those kind of facts are swept under the carpet.
3. Star Men
Dider Drogba has had a great season, and has started to show why Chelsea forked out a whopping £24 million for him. Drogba racked up 13 league goals between August and the end of 2006, keeping Chelsea in the race with his goals against Everton, Newcastle, Fulham and Reading in December. However, in 2007, Drogba has just 6 league goals to his name. Whilst this isn’t a massive criticism of him, as it is difficult to keep up with the precedent he’d set, it is a contributing factor to Chelsea’s failure this season. When he ran out of steam, there was no one to take over the reigns.
This is in contrast to United. Ronaldo has claimed prizes for PFA Player and Young Player of the Year, as well as the Football Writer’s Player of the Year, and whilst currently the second highest scorer in the league, also has the highest amount of assists to his name. I’m bored of singing his praises. He’s simply been amazing. Over the past few weeks he has shared the goal scoring and assisting role with Wayne Rooney, who prior to this time had had a relatively quiet season. But just as other players and other teams start to tire, Rooney has stepped up to his form of the season. When we needed that extra fight, that extra grit, Rooney has provided us with it.
All in all, United won the league this season, with two games to play, by 7 points. United thoroughly deserved to win the league this season, aside from the points and the amount of wins they’ve racked up, but because of the football they’ve played. They’ve just looked like the best team this season, and have proved that with the points they’ve picked up along the way. For anyone to even make reference to the Chelsea injuries is insulting, and takes away what is a great achievement for the players at United, as well as the manager. Sir Alex Ferguson has been doubted by many, with top football journalists calling for him to leave with this some dignity before the United Empire inevitably crumbled. They were wrong. Ferguson has now won the title with the third team he’s built at the club.
The Premiership trophy has come back home, and rightly so.