It started with the ring of Arsene Wenger’s phone.
And with it came Robin, revenge, redemption and a ruthlessness that got Manchester United to the finish line a full 27 days before the end of the season.
Champions for the 20th time. It was what Sir Alex Ferguson had dreamed of during one of his many summer visits to New York City just ten months ago.
It will have taken the shrewd Scot many an hour to get the image of Vincent Kompany lifting a trophy he thought he had won already out of his competitive mind.
His side had come within seconds of winning title number 20 only to have it snatched away from them in a storybook ending that even most film directors would have thrown out for being too unrealistic.
Yet, as he consoled his players on that final day, despite being so close, he will have been only too aware of the dismal season that had unfolded. Dumped from the Champions League in the group stage and not one domestic honour claimed, for just the fifth time in the 20 years of the Premier League. It had nowhere near been good enough.
Something had do be done. He had been here before. Of the four previous times they had failed to win any domestic trophies, three times they had bounced back immediately the following season with a Premier League crown. It was time for recruitment.
Many expected a new centre back or a new playmaker in midfield, perhaps even a new goalkeeper. Few expected a new striker and a world class one at that. United had just completed their league season scoring 89 goals, the most since they bagged 97 back in 1999/00. Despite that they had lost the league on goal difference, pointing many to believe the defence needed improvement.
Ferguson looked at it differently. He knew that against all 18 other teams, other than Manchester City, they had reached 89pts from 36 matches, while their neighbours had claimed just 83. The title had been lost in the head-to-head games and he needed a gamebreaker who could make a difference against the quality of City and, at the same time, ensure that the six point gap in which they were better than City, versus the rest of the league, would get wider.
He recognized the league’s greatest weakness, the art of defending, and sensed with the reigning player of the year he could batter teams into submission, while at the same time help his slightly flawed defence by giving them bigger leads to work with.
Van Persie was signed, sealed and would go on to deliver on both of those key demands.
After an opening week loss at Everton, where the Dutchman came off the bench,United won four in a row with Van Persie scoring five goals, three of which tied the games when they were losing while the other two were game winners. Essential points-changing goals.
After a loss at home to Tottenham, United won five in a row, Van Persie scoring the go-ahead goal against Stoke before netting crucial goals in back-to-back games against Chelsea and Arsenal that were each separated by just one goal.
After a loss at Norwich another five game winless run followed and Van Persie’s four goals in that stretch all broke ties during the games and proved to be game winners, 1-0 at home to West Ham, 4-3 at Reading, 3-1 at home to Sunderland and, crucially, 3-2 at Manchester City through a 90th minute free kick.
After a draw against Swansea, Van Persie scored in five straight matches and only when Clint Dempsey scored a 90th minute equalizer for Spurs in January did the 29-year-old walk off the field not a winner after scoring in a match for United. Until then he had scored in 14 of the club’s first 22 matches and they had won all 14 of them.
He had become their momentum changer. In 19 days last April they lost the grip on the league title by winning just one of four league matches. This season, with Van Persie, they have not gone more than a game without winning. Only six times they failed to win a match and in the six games following they scored a thumping 17 goals, scoring at least two every time. They never allowed themselves to go on a poor run. In contrast, City had two separate runs of two games without a win and one three game winless streak.
The Van Persie factor certainly paid off in the two areas Ferguson had hoped but even he couldn’t have imagined it would end this early, coming so thanks to some dismal City performances. The title was secured on April 22nd, a year ago to the day in which United handed City the momentum back following a 4-4 draw at home to Everton. With three games left, United led 83-80 last year. Twelve months on, with four games to go, United lead 84-68. The gap is so large it is a fight that was called weeks ago.
And that may have been one of the reasons for the looks on the faces of the United players and fans as they celebrated the title at Old Trafford on Monday night. Sure, there was happiness, sheer joy in a few, but it felt more like ‘job done’ than ‘something won’. It had almost been too easy.
Sir Alex looked like he was enjoying himself and how could he not but even he must start to wonder if it can get any better than this. There was some irony that the title was won on the eve of the Champions League semi finals, a tournament the manager so craves. Should they have been preparing for a final four clash this week, championship number twenty will have to have waited but instead it was celebrated, for the 13th time in the last 21 seasons.
This week then he will sit and watch Europe’s best clubs fight it out for a spot in the Wembley final and as he does so he should use these teams for motivation this summer, just like he used City last year. United’s monopoly on the Premier League since it was born in 1992 has happened for many positive reasons of their own but is also been helped because of a clear lack of ambition from their domestic rivals.
Financially only Chelsea and City choose to compete with the Red Devils each season, essentially meaning United won a three team race to be champions of England and this season both their main rivals let themselves down badly. Sure, there was some close, excellent matches when the teams came together and it will be those wins that Ferguson will be most proud of this season because they were achieved in top gear. The stark reality is the rest of the league is rarely testing his side and is certainly not helping prepare them for Champions League glory because the team can go through many games stuck in third gear and still win.
Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have all had poor seasons. Rafael has had good and bad months, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand started just eight games together while Ryan Giggs, despite being lauded by every commentator who covers his game, has spent the majority of the season looking like a 39-year-0ld.
And then there is Wayne Rooney whose inconsistent performances against some very average teams were inexcusable for a player seen by many as among the game’s elite.
Yet still United cruised. As the club and its global fanbase celebrated on Monday many other football fans came together for a collective yawn. United would be wise to do the same back at the league. City will be back to fight, Chelsea quite possibly too, but United and their manager know they are in cruise control against the rest, allowing average players to give average performances on their way to picking up a winners medal more seasons than they don’t. It is little wonder, then, that the majority of these players freeze in a big spot against Real Madrid when the going gets tough.
Last summer Sir Alex convinced ownership they needed to buy a world class player in an area many didn’t think they needed. If they want to be considered amongst the game’s best he will need to do the same again this year.
He can enjoy beating up on the domestic mediocre teams he sees most weeks for now and thrive in defeating the noisy neighbours once again but he will be naive if he concentrates on only achieving Premier League glory each season. That race may still be a marathon but within it they have barely broken a sweat.
Time to pick up that phone.
For some moronic reason the PFA players awards will be announced later this month including the team of the year. Votes are already in because apparently games this late in the season do not count! Much stock is put into this process by media outlets around the world ignoring the fact the votes are sent in by players who usually judge a colleague by watching highlight shows and saying terms such as ‘he is quality’. I much prefer to give my choices for such awards at the end of the season but some of you have asked on twitter so while I have spent this piece reflecting on the season that was, here are mine.
Player of the Year – Robin Van Persie
Young Player of the Year – Eden Hazard
Team of the Year – Simon Mignolet (Sunderland); Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City) Phil Jagielka (Everton) Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) Leighton Baines (Everton); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Michael Carrick (Manchester United); Juan Mata (Chelsea) Robin Van Persie (Manchester United) Gareth Bale (Tottenham); Luis Suarez (Liverpool). Subs – Asmir Begovic (Stoke); Matija Nastasic (Manchester City); Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton) Eden Hazard (Chelsea) Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) Marouane Fellaini (Everton) Michu (Swansea City).