Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2010-11 team may not be a side to stir the blood but they certainly fought like champions
By Paul Wilson
It was a much more confident Manchester United that won their latest and most historic title on the ground where they lost the last one. Opinion is still divided on precisely where United were blown off course in last season’s run-in. After losing Wayne Rooney to injury in Europe the league leaders went down 2-1 at home to give Chelsea hope and impetus. Yet most agree it was the points lost in a woefully poor scoreless draw with Blackburn a week later that forced Sir Alex Ferguson to wait another 12 months to claim final dominance over Liverpool and the record books.
Ironically, this was another draw at Blackburn to add to a poor away record. In finishing second last year they won 11 away games to Chelsea’s 10, and a somewhat patchy record outside Old Trafford has led to criticisms that this is an ordinary side by United’s remarkable standards, allowed to win almost by default in a lacklustre league where Arsenal and Chelsea failed to find the required competitiveness.
That is a harsh judgment, though not a wholly invalid one. Certainly the 2010-11 league campaign was only ever a three-horse race. Manchester City’s goal was always fourth place, despite occasionally rising higher, while Tottenham would barely have figured in the top four at all but for Chelsea’s unusual mid-season slump. A pitiful return of 11 points from 11 games around the turn of the year effectively left Chelsea with too much ground to make up, as well as putting Carlo Ancelotti’s future at the club in doubt, and while Arsenal were generally more consistent and usually within striking distance of the leaders their chronic lack of killer instinct or champions’ mentality left them frustrated spectators by the end.
If United only sporadically played like champions, at least they fought like champions on the occasions when it mattered. In November, a point in a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa might have been considered a disappointing return, yet a trademark comeback after going two goals down to a rampant home side preserved their unbeaten record and enabled United to top the table for the first time after their next match, a 7-1 home demolition of a shoddy Blackburn.
The unbeaten record lasted until February and a surprise defeat at Wolves, though only because United had again showed their famous tenacity in coming back from two goals down at Blackpool to win with three goals in the last 20 minutes. Most teams would have been content to draw in those circumstances, but that is what sets United apart. They did the same at West Ham in April, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 win in a match somewhat overshadowed by Rooney’s peculiar style of goal celebration.
United needed to win that match because they had just been beaten at Chelsea and Liverpool, and that is exactly what they did. Interviewed in mid-season around the time of the Carling Cup final, Birmingham’s former United goalkeeper Ben Foster gave a succinct analysis of what sets Ferguson’s team apart. “United have a winning ethos all of their own,” he said.
“That is what they carry on to the pitch and you’ve got to admire them for it. When they were 2-0 down at Blackpool I knew for a fact they would come back and win. They have that toughness. It’s expected. The manager doesn’t tend to sign players if he doesn’t see it in them. You don’t get that anywhere else, not even at Chelsea.
“You wouldn’t see United throwing away a four-goal lead like Arsenal did at Newcastle. It just wouldn’t happen. United would have won by six or seven goals, but with Arsenal a few cracks appeared.”
Ferguson says the title always goes to the team that shows the most consistency, and goes on to point out that United have scored more goals than anyone else in the league this season, and won more games. They have also reached another Champions League final and coped with Rooney being both out of sorts and out of form for most of the first half of the season, so despite of all the faint praise they must have been doing something right.
Perhaps this is not a United side to stir the blood or a Premier League season to be remembered, yet no one will quickly forget the emergence of Javier Hernández, the incredible longevity of Ryan Giggs, the eventual excellence of Rooney or the cleverness with which Ferguson picks his teams.
In truth, United were desperately ordinary for a couple of months before Christmas, roughly from the time they let a two-goal lead slip at Everton to the time they won their first away game at Stoke in late October, but even though the Rooney distraction was going on in the background they remained unbeaten.
It is what happens at the end of a season that counts, and not only are United the only team in the league with an unbeaten home record, they have been on top of the table for the whole of this year, with the exception of a day or so in January when Manchester City briefly ascended the pile by virtue of having played three games more.
In the space of 12 months, they have gone from a team that looked over-reliant on Rooney and clueless in his absence, to a team with attacking intent spread right across the front line with a striker of the calibre of Dimitar Berbatov now joining Michael Owen as surplus to requirements.
The exciting impact of Hernández has helped bring that about and, though the contribution of one of the steadiest defences in Europe should not be overlooked, in a year in which Chelsea blew £50m on Fernando Torres and Manchester City £27m on Edin Dzeko, Ferguson can fairly boast the bargain of the season in the £6m Mexican. Liverpool signing Luis Suárez for a net fee of almost nothing may have been an equally astute piece of business, but the paper price of the Ajax and Uruguay striker (as opposed to considering him as a painless half-swap for Torres) was a more realistic £22m.
So while United may not be everyone’s favourite champions this season, they are unquestionably more deserving than any of their rivals. As they have just become the most successful English team ever, it seems silly to waste any more time arguing over whether it has been a vintage season. In one sense at least, it has been the greatest of seasons, and if we did not quite see a vintage United we most certainly saw vintage Ferguson, touchline ban and all. In a few years from now, when the Ferguson era is in the past rather than the apparently limitless present, that memory alone will be one worth cherishing.