‘If they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ was the motto of former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby. An idiom which led him to great success in conquering both England and Europe with his famous ‘Busby Babes’ and has remained a precedent at Old Trafford for the forty or so years after his departure as manager.
Sir Alex Ferguson certainly held a similar veneration for the focus on youth. He was said to double the number of scouts in his first few months in charge of the club and oversaw the introduction of famous academy graduates into the first team such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher to name a few.
Ferguson’s emphasis on youth went further than just focussing on the youth team however. The Scotsman rarely bought a player that was over the age of 25 and when he did, he was usually of the sort of league-winning quality that Robin van Persie later demonstrated after his arrival from Arsenal in 2012.
However, after the departures of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley (albeit only on-loan to Aston Villa) this summer with other youth team prospects such as Tom Lawrence also being shown the exit door; many have come to question not only the club’s youth credentials but also their new managers.
I wrote an article only a few months ago for this very paper detailing how Louis van Gaal, with his previous track record of developing young players at Ajax and Bayern Munich, seemed like a perfect fit for the Manchester club and it has to be said, I’m still very much of this opinion.
He gave young players a chance during pre-season, with the likes of Reece James and Jesse Lingard both impressing on the tour of America, and has followed this up by starting 20 year-old defender Tyler Blackett in every league game so far this season. He also gave youth their chance in the recent disastrous League Cup game against MK Dons but was unfortunately left extremely disappointed.
However with the arrivals of Angel di Maria (26), Radamel Falcao (28), Ander Herrera (25), Markus Rojo (24), Daley Blind (24) and Luke Shaw (19); Alex Ferguson’s previous policy of buying players in the early years of their career seems to have been reversed somewhat (obviously with the exception of Shaw).
This is not all together a bad thing. United are desperately in need of a quick-fix after their disastrous start to the season and the introduction of proven performers of world-class quality will certainly help get their campaign back on track. Di Maria’s impact against Burnley last Saturday was clear for all to see. His willingness to run at defenders, his ability to pick a pass and his trickery was a stark contrast to the one-dimensional football United have been guilty of playing for the previous two games this season prior to his arrival.
Similarly, a viewing of Falcao’s ‘Top 20 Goals’ will leave any football fan drooling into their Golden Grahams and the competition for places his entrance has created between Rooney and van Persie will undoubtedly help to drive up standards.
One of Alex Ferguson’s greatest assets was his ability to build consistently successful teams and he did this by continually organising a cohort of promising youngsters behind his first team stars, ready to take their place when the time had come.
With the likes of Januzaj, Blackett, Jones, Smalling and young James Wilson (a player that particularly excites me and one that Louis van Gaal should certainly be keeping a close eye on in the next few years); United clearly possess such a cohort but with the introduction of the club’s new signings, their chances to shine and progress in the first team will be distinctly limited. Welbeck and Cleverley both realised this and subsequently decided to look elsewhere for this chance; a crying shame for any United fan who should enjoy nothing more than ‘one of their own’ succeeding at the highest level at Old Trafford.
The worrying thing is however; I’m not sure whether this is the case anymore. A lot of United fans like to talk the talk when it comes to young players. They, like me in this article, describe United as a club committed to the development of young players; bandying round sayings such as ‘it’s in our DNA’ and harking back to the good old days of the ‘Busby Babes’ and ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’.
In practice however, they are as guilty as anybody of stunting the club’s great tradition. Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and John O’Shea are all products of the club’s youth system and have all, at different points in their careers, been made figures of ridicule by United fans who have cast them as scape goat’s for some of their team’s on-the-field tribulations.
As much as none of these players have the style and finesse of a Cantona or the world class quality of a Ronaldo; they are all undoubtedly players of a good standard who have, and will, forge good careers in the Premier League. Not only that, they cost United nothing in transfer fees, are usually impeccably behaved off the field and most importantly, get what it means to be a player of Manchester United. This is something that, unfortunately, no £59.7m transfer fee can buy.
Therefore, as much as I am sure there is method behind van Gaal’s transfer policy and his youth development credentials are still intact; United need to think very hard about where their priorities lie and the ingredients that has propelled the club to one of the biggest in the world. It would be a monumental shame for these ingredients to go awash in the face of immediate gain.
After another ‘riveting’ transfer saga the Red Devils have finally got their Angel.
No doubt Di Maria is a great player; the Argentine was the Man of the Match in last year’s Champions’ League Final and, according to Diego Simeone, Real Madrid’s best player. However, for most the reported fee of £59.7 is baffling. For one thing, it smacks of desperation; that’s obvious enough. After losing 4-0 to MK Dons, it’s clear United need all the quality they can get. But more than that, the sky-high transfer fee exacted on United is a testament to the success of Real’s transfer policy.
Madrid are football’s most luxurious club. They are football’s version of the suave city slicker who only drinks Dom Perignon and eats 100% Wagyu beef. Real have consistently held the record for the most expensive transfer for 14 years and during that time have broken their own record 3 times with the signings of Zidane, Ronaldo and Bale. Their lavish spending begs the question of how they can afford it. The reason they can is that Madrid, alongside Barcelona benefit hugely from the Spanish system. In particular the money from broadcasting rights is split less equally among the clubs in La Liga than in other leagues, with Real and Barca taking around 50% of La Liga’s total television revenue. Because of this 39% of Madrid’s income comes from broadcasting compared to just 32% of Man United’s. Madrid also benefit from tax breaks since they are treated as a not-for-profit organisation. As a result they earn by far the most of any football club. In 2011/12 Madrid had a revenue of €512 million closely followed by Barcelona with €483 million. Man United, the third highest earners, received around €100 million less than their Spanish rivals.
So it’s clear why Madrid can afford to splash hundreds of millions on a few Galacticos. But it’s not just that Real spend but that they are more than willing to overspend on players. Bale is good, but is he really worthy of the title of most expensive in the world? We’ve also all seen that Rodriguez is fantastic and has a way with large insects, but do his 5 games at the World Cup really make him €20million more valuable than he was last year? Madrid’s overspending seems so blatant and purposeful that you can’t help but think there’s reason behind the madness.
In fact there is a reason and the reason seem pretty good. By spending figures like £80 Million on Bale, or £60 Million on Rodriguez, Madrid are constantly inflating the transfer market. The £60 Million that Manchester United spent on Di Maria is far less baffling if compared to the £80 Million that Real spent on Bale. Inflation of the market obviously happens naturally, but no doubt Madrid speed it up as much possible; they are the ones who break the transfer record every time. In doing so they make it harder and harder for its rivals to compete on financial level. The latest outlay of £60 million for Rodriguez is not just the price of one player but the cost of keeping football a financial game where Madrid are top dogs. Last summer Brendan Rodgers rejected Arsenal’s £40 million offer for Suarez, arguing that the fee would have valued Bale at “100% more than Suarez”. The £75 million fee payed for Suarez this year, alongside the £60 million for Di Maria and £50 Million for David Luiz are proof that other clubs are being made to spend more and more to follow Real’s example. The issue is that very few clubs can afford to do so. It’s no wonder then, that la Liga is draining the world’s footballing talent, and as long as Spanish clubs get the broadcasting and tax benefits they currently receive, it will long continue.
The news that the Glazers have ruled out selling Manchester United for at least another five years does not bode well for the most successful club of the Premier League era. Player after player snubs Ed Woodward’s advances. £16m Marcos Rojo and untried Luke Shaw are unenviably tasked with filling the boots of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. The crevasse in midfield looks deeper by the game — and still the Glazers sit pretty at the head of a club still £295m in debt to their takeover.
From Ronaldo in 2009 to the three defenders lost this summer, the club has consistently failed to replace its star men, freewheeling on even as the engine is dismantled piece by piece. Meanwhile, the expensively-assembled squads of Chelsea and Manchester City pull further and further ahead domestically and in Europe.
United’s demise is a good advertisement for the Bundesliga’s model of fan-owned clubs. This system would never have allowed United to take on the colossal debt inflicted on it by the Glazers’ takeover in 2005. The laissez-faire approach to football economics, the argument goes, is responsible for the demise of English football’s greatest club.
[caption id="attachment_59037" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The Manchester United team that lined up for the 2008 Champions league final (left) and the Manchester United team that lost to Swansea at the weekend (right) – the teams decline could hardly be clearer[/caption]
But for United fans to cry foul is pure hypocrisy. United might be the most decorated club in England, but that’s largely thanks to English football’s willing embrace of free-market economics. In 1991, the Premier League was founded, allowing the top 22 clubs to negotiate their own TV deal with Sky and reap untold rewards – without it, last season’s seventh place would have been par for the course for a United unenhanced by the exponential financial rewards of Premier League success.
Imagine an alternative universe in which the Premier League’s inaugural season was a few years earlier than 1992-93. Let’s opt for 1984-5. Everton won the First Division that season, and in the following four seasons twice repeated the feat.
Now imagine how that success might have been rewarded in the Premier League era. Sure, the TV rights aren’t as skewed in favour of the top clubs as they are in Spain – Everton wouldn’t have become prize-money billionaires overnight. But with every year of Premier League predominance, they would creep further ahead of the pack, benefiting a little more each year from the skyrocketing global commercialisation of English football.
In this scenario, Everton would by the early Noughties be one of the biggest clubs in the world. They’d financially outmuscle their domestic rivals more each year, racking up title after title. Perhaps they’d even get lucky in the Champions League, and swell the ranks of their global following further. Success would breed success, and it would become harder and harder to compete with the Merseyside juggernaut.
[caption id="attachment_59032" align="aligncenter" width="615"] Everton celebrate winning the 1985 First Division title. If the Premier League gravy train had come to town 8 years earlier would we talk about their class of ’85 the way we do about United’s class of ’92?[/caption]
But it was Manchester United who were the first winners of the Premier League, and Manchester United who, for their sustained success in the division’s early years, were rewarded with financial power unrivalled until Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea in 2003. In the first ten years of the competition, United broke the British transfer record three times, and only missed out on Alan Shearer because of the lure of his hometown club. The £28.1m they spent on Juan Sebastián Verón in 2001 seems extravagant even now, but was absolutely colossal in comparison to pre-1992 record fees.
It’s also worth noting the contrasting fortunes of Liverpool and United before and after the Premier League kicked off. Prior to 1992-3, Liverpool had won the title 18 times, Manchester United seven. Since then, the score is 13-0 to United. 1992-3 was a watershed.
There are important factors besides wealth. United had a good-sized fanbase already thanks to Sir Matt Busby’s swashbuckling success decades earlier. And Sir Alex Ferguson’s genius becomes more apparent by the week as his team falls away without him: nobody else could have traded punches with the astronomical wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City for so long. There were Fergie’s Fledglings, of course, an unprecedentedly talented crop of youngsters who were important figures in United’s hegemony in the 1990s and beyond. But if United could reap the benefits of Everton’s academy when they paid £27m for Wayne Rooney in 2004, who’s to say that David Beckham and Ryan Giggs would have remained at a United that wasn’t the best and richest club?
Ferguson’s achievements should not be underestimated. But nobody at Old Trafford complained when, with dollar signs in their eyes, the top clubs unshackled themselves from their impoverished Football League cousins. And there was not even a splutter from the famous hairdryer when United benefited so disproportionately from these laissez-faire economics that they had knocked Liverpool off their perch within 20 years.
It was this success that made the club such an attractive proposition (if not really an investment) to Malcolm Glazer. The club’s current woes are a direct consequence of the lucky break of having had the upper hand just when revenues began to rise exponentially. United have had years of rich harvest from the free market, and there should be little sympathy for their feasting turning to famine.
Who is to blame for the current mess at United? Can the Glazers be held accountable or are other parties to blame? Do the United fans even have a right to be complaining? Have your say in the comments:
I suspect that the majority of this paper’s readers, like me, have never known Manchester United to be managed by anyone other than Sir Alex Ferguson. When he took over at Old Trafford, the Berlin wall was still in place and Margaret Thatcher was at Number 10. In the twenty-six years since, through the rise of the internet, mobile phones, Middle-Eastern wars and a global financial crisis, Sir Alex’s tenure in Manchester has remained constant.
It’s a remarkably scary thought that the Ferguson era is coming to an end and it leaves me wondering where the hell we go from here. The simple fact is that Sir Alex is the most monumental figure in world football – for good reasons and bad. His managerial ability is all but unparalleled. He produces teams that got winning results week in, week out and have an infuriating propensity for snatching results at the last.
There is the slightly more dubious side of his game: his constant undermining of the officials. As entertaining as it could be, as the most recognisable face in the Premiership it was his responsibility to be setting an example of respect and support to the men in black. There’s also the way he tended to fly off the handle any time an opposing team’s player had the temerity to perform a less-than-perfect tackle upon one of his beloved players. This season saw the peach of the crop for me, after Ferguson claimed Robin Van Persie was “lucky to be alive” after having a football kicked at his head. It would have been very funny if you hadn’t felt that Ferguson was utterly convinced it was true.
That we have lost a great sporting character is obvious, but perhaps more pertinent, and worrying for United fans, is the question of who fills Ferguson’s chewing-gum-spattered shoes. David Moyes seems a sensible enough choice and he appears to be a replacement with a long-term future in mind, something a man such as Jose Mourinho probably wouldn’t provide.
But Moyes definitely isn’t Ferguson. His record at Everton is admirable, but United fans have got accustomed to challenging for at least one piece of major silverware every season. It remains to be seen whether Moyes can handle the pressure of that environment. And what happens if it turns out Moyes can’t? United may yet fall into the managerial carousel they’ve done well to avoid so far. United’s future is in the balance. On the one hand they may have found a new boss with the exact attitude required to take over Ferguson’s mantle – and you have to feel that Sir Alex will have laid some decent foundations for his departure. On the other, there’s the worry that 26 without a managerial change will make this swap more difficult than it needs to be. United fans can say as often as anyone will listen that Moyes will be given time, but in the hypothetical scenario that we reach Christmas next season and form is faltering, I wonder if they’ll feel the same. Whatever happens, though, with the possible return of The Special One to Stamford Bridge in the summer, next season’s Premier League campaign looks set to be one of the most gripping yet.
[caption id="attachment_37319" align="alignright" width="300"] Arsene Wenger has lamented the decline of English football[/caption]
“We accept that the rest of European football has caught us.” As Arsène Wenger reflected on his side’s exit from the last 16 of the Champions League for the third successive season, he brought to attention the troubling statistic that for the first time since 1996, no English side has successfully negotiated its passage to the quarter finals of Europe’s premier club competition.
“It’s a massive disappointment for English football. We have to take that into consideration when we think about the future of the Premier League.” So what is the future of the Premier League? It is tempting to not look beneath the surface of the plight of England’s top clubs. Arsenal have been unable to mount a serious challenge for either European or domestic silverware for some years, Manchester City have yet to master European football whilst Liverpool are still undergoing a period of redevelopment. It would also be easy to explain away Chelsea’s catastrophic defence of their maiden Champions League crown as a result of their merry-go-round of managers and the generally farcical situation down at Stamford Bridge.
These, seemingly, are all short-term problems that can be turned around in a season or two. An English side won the Champions League last year and it can win it again next year. 2013 was just a momentary blip. But don’t let appearances fool you. In reality Europe has been catching and since overtaken the English as long ago as Manchester United’s defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final. The sight of Cristiano Ronaldo moping about the Stadio Olimpico as Barcelona celebrated their victory was telling. His heart was no longer in England, but instead he wanted to follow the trophy to Spain – the most glamorous league in the world.
This is the crux of the problem. As much as we kid ourselves that the English league is the best in the world due to its strength in depth, the ultimate for the superstars of this world will always be to play in Spain or even Italy. You only have to look at the plethora of big-name movers from England to the continent to realise that ultimately the Premier League is not top of the food chain. Henry and Fabregas to Barcelona, van Nistelrooy, Alonso and Ronaldo to Madrid, Vieira to Juventus to name but a few. However many various mitigating reasons for each move, whether they be going back to their childhood club or looking for a new challenge at the end of their career, it is somehow hard to imagine the Premier League luring any La Liga superstars away from their sunshine and tapas.
This issue is compounded by the Premier League’s inability to produce genuinely world-class English talent. Thus it has seen itself overtaken by a rejuvenated Serie A and Juventus in particular, and even the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have outshone the English champions Manchester City in successive group stages.
The success of previous years has been misleading. The Spanish giants will always be at the top of the European tree whilst the other leagues fight it out to be the best of the rest. During the last decade the Premiership has taken advantage of the turbulence in Serie A and a relatively weak Bundesliga. But as Wenger rightly points out, Europe has caught us up and we will have to say adios the days of English clubs punching above their weight.
[caption id="attachment_37320" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Is the Premier League the ultimate for superstars like Ronaldo?[/caption]
By Alex Tyndall
Hang on a second. Didn’t Chelsea win the Champions League just last season? It seems a bit premature to be panicking about English football’s place in Europe when just twelve months ago a club that finished sixth in the league was crowned European champion. The English have been enjoying a glut of success in European football in recent times, with finalists (and winners) seven years out of the last eight. The fact is that English football is undergoing a sizeable domestic shake-up at the moment, though. It’s not the same as a decline to suggest that the powers-that-be in English football are changing.
The first signs of this shake-up came in the topple of Liverpool – Champions League finalists as recently as 2007 – from their regular spot in top four places and the big-money rise to success of Manchester City. The clubs that we’d have called “top”, ten years ago are being usurped one at a time by clubs who were previously knocking on the door of Europa League places. Arsenal, Champions League finalists in 2006, have been haemorrhaging top players to other clubs with high aspirations, and this year they look like dropping out of the top four for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, Manchester City have blasted their way into the Champions League spots and Tottenham have announced loudly their own claim to a top-four finish. So, with new blood coming into the top four, the Premier League big dogs such as Manchester United can’t afford to slip even for one weekend, so tense is the competition for Champions League qualification. As I write, there are eleven points separating the team in third from the team in eighth. This time four years ago, the gap was double that. With such a fierce domestic competition, key players are going to be working harder than ever at weekends which will naturally affect their midweek performances.
[caption id="attachment_37321" align="alignright" width="300"] The rise of clubs like City has put the Premier League in transition[/caption]
European football isn’t the same as Premiership football; it requires a different managerial approach and more careful man-management to keep top players fit to play both at the weekend and Wednesday night. That’s the sort of expertise that can only come with experience. Roberto Mancini hasn’t got it right yet but frankly he can afford to buy a whole separate world-class squad to play midweek. It’s probably only a matter of time before he does so. The point is that success in a new tournament can’t be taken for granted. Once things settle down again in the Premier League and the new top clubs get used to their status, we’ll see English names back on the big trophy again.
PHOTOS/sbaisden; Calcio Better; Catalan Bola Photo Gallery
Miles Dilworth believes oligarchs are saviours of sport
It would not be ludicrous to suggest that the 2011/2012 season was the most dramatic we’ve ever seen. Two moments surely stand out – Sergio Aguero’s last gasp winner against QPR and Didier Drogba’s winning penalty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
Drogba was signed with Roman Abramovich’s millions back in 2004, whilst Aguero was bought for £35million as part of Manchester City’s Sheikh-Up in 2011. Foreign money has changed the English game, for better or for worse, and it is here to stay. There is nothing we can do about it so maybe we should just cherish the glorious moments it has provided us in recent years.
Agreed, you don’t need to have money to have drama, but without Mansour’s millions, Manchester United would have run away with the title last season, with Arsenal finishing a distant second. I don’t think anybody could argue that City’s emergence as serious title contenders hasn’t added spice to the Premier League and has taken the Manchester Derby to new levels of quality, atmosphere and entertainment.
In view of last week’s debate piece, that is surely one justification for some of the extortionate ticket prices burning a hole in fan’s pockets. Even if you are not a City or a Chelsea fan, your ticket begins to seem value for money when you are treated to David Silva’s guile or Eden Hazard’s trickery. Even the flops give us a laugh. We all grant ourselves a sarcastic jeer every time Torres fluffs his lines in front of goal, which just wouldn’t be as funny if Chelsea hadn’t paid £50million for him.
Admittedly foreign owners have not been all good news for clubs. Southampton are currently in the midst of a rage against crazy Cortese after he dispensed with their well-loved manager Nigel Adkins, whilst United are still less than happy with the Glazer family and just don’t mention chicken to Blackburn fans.
Unfortunately you can just never tell what you’re going to get. New foreign owners could mean silverware and glory or it could mean ridicule and relegation. But the crux of the matter is that it cannot be regulated. Who was to know that the Venky’s would prove so incompetent? Besides there was a period when Newcastle fans were apoplectic with anger against Mike Ashley, a life-long Magpies supporter who sat, drank and sung with the fans. Little did they know he planned to change the name of their stadium to the Sports Direct Arena.
It is increasingly difficult to predict the suitability of new owners and it is for that reason that you can’t properly regulate it with any kind of ‘fit and proper owners’ test. So enjoy the ups and downs and keep your fingers crossed; the Russian roulette of football might just land your club with the next Premier League trophy.
However, Oliver Park just wants chairmen to care more
A club gaining a multi-millionaire owner can of course have great benefits. However what fans have increasingly found to their cost is that it can also carry with it enormous risks. Portsmouth are one club which have been taken over by several wealthy individuals only to be left deep in the mire when they have either lost interest, tried to exploit the club for their own ends or the funds have run out.
A further problem is the propensity of clubs who acquire a wealthy owner to spend in a manner that is often ill thought out and, even with the rich owner’s backing, unsustainable. In addition to the huge financial burdens this places on the club, the new owner’s desire to see a quick return for their investment often leads to panic buying. When Fenway Sports (backed by two wealthy American businessmen) bought Liverpool in October 2010 they made no secret of their hopes of revitalizing the club’s fortunes. As a result they then spent big in the transfer market, paying way over the odds for players in a desire to mould a new, successful team. Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson may all be decent players but in no way were they worth a combined total of nearly £70 million. There can be little doubt the money could have been better spent upgrading the club’s infrastructure or on some properly thought out transfers.
Even the stereotypical rich owner success story is perhaps more complicated than it might have appeared. Roman Abramovich when he purchased Chelsea in 2003, was able to dramatically revive the club’s fortunes, a turnaround which has produced Premier League titles and of the course the Champions League last year. However Abramovich’s role has not been without criticism from some Chelsea fans who view him as dictatorial and unaccountable. This came to the surface with the sacking of two very popular managers, Mourinho and Di Matteo which have led to Abramovich’s ownership and leadership style being questioned.
Therefore while acquiring a multi-millionaire owner can provide a vital injection of cash to boost a club it also has the potential to led to financial ruin. Furthermore, some owners driven by their desire to produce immediate results neglect the club’s longer term future safe in the knowledge they can simply cut and run. In such cases it is the fans, buoyed briefly by the hope of an upturn in fortunes of their club, which are left to disconsolately pick up the pieces.
The Barclays Premier League season doesn’t end for another three months, yet there’s a growing suspicion that the teams are all just playing for the sake of ceremony.
Manchester United are now a hefty twelve points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table, with both teams having played twenty-six matches. That’s a huge deficit for the champions to make up if they’re to have a hope of stopping the trophy making an embarrassing trip across town in May. It’s still very much in the realms of mathematical possibility, but looking at the form and fixtures of the two Manchester clubs shows clearly that City are going to need to play almost flawlessly and receive a sizeable amount of goodwill from the footballing gods.
The run-in for United is made up largely of bottom-half opposition, with the exception of Chelsea, Arsenal and City themselves on the 8th of April. A possibly tricky game for them comes in the form of a visit to Stoke a week after their match with City, but Stoke’s form has been faltering of late with four losses in the last six. They may well be in a full-on decline by the time the Red Devils meet them at the Britannia.
Although Chelsea will fight at Old Trafford, and visiting the Emirates is never an easy task, Manchester United’s results against the “big” clubs have been exemplary this season, taking seventeen points from the meetings they’ve had so far with Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, City and Chelsea. High-profile fixtures for City in their last twelve matches include away games against United and Spurs and a visit to the Etihad from Chelsea.
City, meanwhile, have been far more sketchy in their form against bigger sides than United, with just ten points from an equivalent number of matches played. Regardless of City’s last few matches, however, United’s fixture list simply does not look threatening enough for them to drop twelve points between now and May. Perhaps the only hope for City is that United’s continuing European involvement tires them out sufficiently to force a slip.
If City should end up capitalising on a dip in form for United and have their name on the Premier League trophy come the end of the season, it will be a fairly searing injustice against the Premiership’s most successful club. United have played this season in brilliant league-winning form, not because they’ve dominated every match – they haven’t. What they have done is display a remarkable ability to win games even when playing below their best. They’ve won several matches through goals scored in the last ten minutes, including Robin Van Persie’s double against Southampton in September that secured a remarkable comeback victory for the Red Devils.
Such mental resilience and confidence that the team can score even as the minutes begin to die has been the difference this season. Or perhaps the difference has been Robin Van Persie, who could have gone to either club this summer and whose imperious goalscoring has made the difference to United on occasion after occasion, not least in United’s 3-2 victory over City in December.
The demonstration of a champion isn’t how they cope when playing well; it’s how they respond when playing badly, and United have provided the right response time and again.
At my primary school there were two groups: the Arsenal fans and the Manchester United fans. There were a few more exotic teams; West Ham weren’t even in the Premiership for a while. Being a hipster I went for an obscure team called, erm, Liverpool. But when Arsenal played Manchester United everyone cared, there was an acceptance that this would decide the title or, if the game was in the cup, would decide who would go on to defeat Newcastle/Liverpool/Chelsea in the final. This season is different though – the match today will not be the most important played this weekend. Ironically it’s the two teams’ local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, who will have a bigger impact on the title race when they meet at Eastlands. However when Wenger and Ferguson have met over the last decade or so the games have tended to define English football in some way.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal – FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999
Back in 1999 Sir Alex Ferguson still cared about the FA Cup. A year later he would choose to compete in the World Club Championships instead of the tournament, and a little bit of the ‘magic of the cup’ that pundits still obsess over was gone forever. As a last hurrah for the cup’s respectability though this was a fitting game. In hindsight this games seems like a microcosm of an era in English football; David Beckham scored with a curling effort from outside the box, Dennis Bergkamp equalised with a perfectly placed shot, Roy Keane got sent off and Phil Neville gave away a penalty. Oh and Ryan Giggs took his shirt off.
After this Manchester United went on to win the treble, still the pinnacle in Fergie’s career (the world club championships didn’t go too well) and in many ways the football landscape changed after this. Although it would be another six years until Roman Ambramovich funded Chelsea to the title they began pushing up the table before this, whilst Liverpool and Newcastle both found themselves challenging for trophies and European qualification; this game was the highlight of the monopoly these clubs had for a few years.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Arsenal, Premier League, 21st September 2003
‘Goals are overrated’ is the motto of the Blizzard, and this game definitely supports that theory. Unfortunately it’s not brilliant defensive tactics or two passing teams constantly outmanoeuvring each other that made this game stand out. Both sides did line up defensively, with Arsene Wenger dropping Pires and Wiltord for the less glamorous Parlour and Ljunberg whilst Manchester United played a 4-3-2-1, with Roy Keane taking command in a defensively minded midfield. Even with the likes of Cristano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistlerooy in attack United only managed five shots on target in the game. Arsenal, with Henry and Bergkamp leading the line managed none. Viera, rather predictably, received a red card but it was a last minute penalty that made this game infamous as Van Nistlerooy blasted against the crossbar. Arsenal’s players, dignified as ever, shouted, screamed and generally lost all human control right in front of the Dutch striker, cue the inevitable fight at the final whistle; both clubs had players charged by the FA whilst Arsenal were also charged with failing to control their players.
Once again it defined what was happening in English football. The actual match was in truth dull, with neither side creating enough chances to make it a classic in the way the 1999 game was. Arsenal were about to go on their ‘invincible’ streak of 49 league games without a loss, and you could see the nucleus of this determined team in the way Keown and Toure led the backline. Had Sol Campbell not been out for this game then perhaps Arsenal would have been even stronger. At the same time Manchester United was in one of their rebuilding phases – life in a post-Beckham world was not looking so great and Ronaldo was still finding his feet. There was also something to be said for the kind of player emerging; one of the fines issued to Ashley Cole was for ‘involvement in a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo after the final whistle’, a phrase that makes the skin crawl. The players were becoming more than media stars, they were objects of entertainment for our pleasure. More and more every aspect of their lives was ours and the likes of Ronaldo and Cole could propel themselves into the public eye through more than good performances. The way this game was called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’ highlights more than just the laziness of the media; it revealed that what the audience wanted was, more often than not, this kind of off the pitch event, rather than a great on the pitch performance.
Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal, Premier League, 28th August 2011
The moment Arsenal fans were dreading. After years of floating around meaninglessly, living only with the vague memories of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp and that invicible campaign that was so nearly bettered by Huddersfield, Arsenal finally had to live up to a decline. At the same time though, so does English football. Wenger’s continued insistence on a particular style of football was revolutionary when it first came. In fact I admire any team that sticks to its game plan, be they Barcelona with tikka takka or Jose Mourinho’s Inter with their calico style defending. However when that style doesn’t work something needs to be done. Since Wenger’s arrival nearly every club has adopted similar ideas, introducing nutrition programmes and different styles of training. Arsenal are no longer unique and, whilst they are undoubtedly a good team, Wenger’s insistence on his way and his methods will continue to hold them back.
The same is true of English football in general. Whilst we have rested on the laurels of our club teams’ Champions League performances for the last few years uncomfortable questions about the national team and the general state of football in England have gone unnoticed. Now, with Manchester United and Manchester City out of the Champions League, these questions are becoming less ignorable. The likes of Germany and Spain have already moved out of reach for the next few years at least, and the calls for Harry Redknapp to take over from Capello only make me despair even more. We seem unable to recognise the tactical side of the game, the side that requires a good manager and good teamwork instead of individual talent. Whilst we fail to understand this English football will remain in stagnation, like an Arsenal team who have been so content with ‘doing okay’ these past five years.