Bring On The Champions… Again
There had probably been some amongst who had been hoping that a home defeat at the hands of Manchester City and a draw away to West Ham United might have been the start of a wobble that might drag things out to the end of the season, but in the end, the juggernaut just kept rolling. Indeed, within fifteen minutes of kick-off at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s title clinching match against Aston Villa was already effectively over a contest, with the margin of quality between the two teams already defined as ‘very wide indeed.’ The best team in the Premier League were tearing into one of the worst three or four teams in the Premier League, and there was no question over who the winners would be.
As it was at Old Trafford tonight, so it has been regarding the entirety of the Premier League over the entire course of this season. There have been moments of fallibility, of course, most notably in the cups. There are for every club in every season. This year, however, has seen Manchester United lead from almost the start to the finish, an impeccable season which will now likely recorded in the history books by the sheer margin of their win. Unless Alex Ferguson opts to play his reserves for the remainder of the season – and there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t beat the rest of the Premier League either – this team will win the title by a handsome margin, and they will have merited no less.
What Manchester United have done better than anyone else in the league this season is so obvious that it feels as if it should barely even need to be said. They have been better at both winning and controlling matches. They have been better at doing so whilst playing, as they did this evening, majestically, and they have done so whilst playing more patchily. And this, before the more rabid amongst you start demanding my head on a stick outside the entrance to the Stretford End, is a skill in itself, one which requires tenacity, organisation, knowing when to stick and when to twist, and solid determination. No-one has the ‘right’ to see their team win a league title in style. Indeed, no-one has a preordained ‘right’ to see their team win a league title at all.
This twentieth Premier League title win, however, presents the rest of the division with something of a dilemma. It might be argued that the opposition was weaker than usual this season, that Chelsea remain in a transitional state that they put themselves in by only appointing an ‘interim’ manager following yet another sacking earlier in the season, that Manchester City look in need of a fresh outlook and found defending the title to be more difficult than winning it in the first place, that Arsenal will not seriously challenge for the title again until they learn how to play football in the winter and that Spurs and Liverpool’s hopes of sitting atop the Premier League are as fanciful as they have been in recent years, but to look for the weaknesses of others is really to seek to deny Manchester United their excellence this season.
Of course, the obvious place to look when identifying a hero is Robin Van Persie. Perhaps it is merely unfortunate for Arsenal supporters that Van Persie should have reached his season in excelsis at such a time and avoided the injuries which characterised his time in North London. Perhaps it is true that Alex Ferguson has brought an extra dimension to his game that has been further accentuated by the excellence around him. While it is true that, on the pitch, his contribution has obviously been the most significant, it is not on the pitch that we should be looking to identify Manchester United’s key player this season. The key player, who hasn’t set a foot on the pitch this season is Ferguson. Although he remains a man for the neutral to like (aren’t they all in that division these days?), Ferguson’s triumph this season has been one of rebuilding and redevelopment.
Other managers, those that had not been there, seen it and done it before, might have been awed by Manchester City’s financial power, but Ferguson simply weighed up his options, made the tweaks that he felt was necessary and left them to get on with the job. There have been no tantrums at Old Trafford this season, and there has been – the sending off of Nani in the Champions League against Real Madrid aside – been little drama there, either. Ferguson has spent more than twenty years developing young players, finding those that fit his jigsaw and those that don’t, and he has been a permanent fixture of authority at the club which has, perhaps, spared it the more wayward tendencies of so many of the club’s rivals over that period of time. And this season’s crop, the likes of the unfairly derided David De Gea and defender Phil Jones, have grown in stature as the season has progressed, leading to the feeling that a new impervious generation of Manchester United players is set to break through, replacing those that reach the end of their natural uselfulness as and when required.
That, perhaps, is all that can be said about this Manchester United team. For the sake of competition, it would be nice to see the other clubs with pretensions of grandeur have a more concerted at dislodging them, but the commercial advantages that they have over the rest are such that there is no way of viewing them through the same lens as most of the other clubs in the Premier League. Across Europe, a familiar parade of super-clubs are hoovering up the trophies – Barcelona in Spain in La Liga, Bayern Munich in Germany and Juventus in Italy all have double-figure leads in their respective league, with the four biggest clubs in Spain and Germany set to contest the semi-finals of the Champions League – and this, it seems, is the future of professional football in Europe. With a near-monopoly on prize money, the highest amounts of television money and commercial revenues that dwarf those of almost everybody else, there really is little competition between these clubs – and as well as a handful of others – and the rest. And as much as we can eulogise the likes of Alex Ferguson or Robin Van Persie, the truth of the matter is that the game at this level is a business above all else these days, and that money will be the driving factor behind the the game for its foreseeable future. Next season, whoever wishes to win the Premier League will have to beat Manchester United in order to do so, and that, as this season has demonstrated, will be as big a challenge as it has been for most of the last two decades.
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