Of course, one should never rule out the improbable when it comes to the Premier League, but it would appear that the title race has already been decided. Manchester United have twelve games left to play, with a twelve point cushion between themselves and second place Manchester City.
It seems that despite it being just February, a short sprint over the line will surely clinch Sir Alex Ferguson yet another Premier League trophy, as their local rivals continue to squander under the pressure of being reigning champions, not to mention the training ground bust-ups and constant speculation over the long-term future of head coach Roberto Mancini.
Although I wish to take nothing away from Manchester United, who have played some fantastic football this campaign, it is a fair point that their success this year is largely due to the poor performances of the likes of Chelsea, City, Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as the Premier League in general arguably slumping in quality over the past few seasons.
It’s clear to see that defending has gone out of the window this year; anyone watching Liverpool take on West Brom this Monday night were shown definitive proof of that. Daniel Agger, whom is regarded as one of the better centre-backs in the league, made two unforgivable errors that bring the phrase “cardinal sins” to mind.
Firstly, the Danish national team captain lost sight of his man, Gareth McAuley, whilst defending a corner, and suddenly in a match in which the Baggies had hardly entered their opponent’s half, they were One-Nil up. Then, in the dying minutes of the fixture, Agger was caught flat-footed trying to make a challenge on Romelu Lukaku, who side-stepped him with style and finished the chance well.
But as I said previously, I don’t wish to take anything away from Manchester United, and especially Sir Alex Ferguson. The man has an astute knack of picking up on the trends of the Premier League and acting upon them. The reason he’s been so successful for so many years, whereas his old rival Arsene Wenger has somewhat wilted, is due to the fact Fergie is ever-modernising and tailoring his team to how the English game has moved on and changed. For example, the scot has come to realise that there is no place for laziness in a Starting XI anymore.
Although United have never been a team that could be accused of a lack of work-rate, the effortless styles of Dimitar Berbatov have now been replaced with the athletic and tireless Danny Welbeck, and Nani, who is now arguably the club’s laziest player in terms of defending, has been ostrasized this season and is expected to move on in the summer.
Meanwhile, Manchester City have paid the price, especially in the Champions League, for having the likes of Mario Balotelli and Samir Nasri on the pitch, who regularly fail to track their runners, and Chelsea have become incredibly unsturdy, unlike their traditional selves, now that they have Eden Hazard and Juan Mata on the flanks.
There is little doubt however that all of the top teams, excluding Manchester United, have not been competitive enough, which is why the Red Devils are have the most amount of points they’ve ever recorded at this point in a Premier League season, despite possessing a much weaker team compared to those in the past.
To understand the decline properly we must take previous campaigns and the business side of things into account. In my opinion, the corrosion of quality at Arsenal and Liverpool has largely been due to the rise of Manchester City. The Reds, in an effort to remain competitive at the top of the table, took a gamble and went on a lavish spending spree that has now left the club in a sticky situation, with a number of players in their squad, such as Stewart Downing, Andy Carrol and Jordan Henderson, that they paid through the nose for but clearly don’t have the pedigree required to be playing for a team who set their targets at Champions League football. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has decided to play the long game and not get involved in a fiscal battle for the title. The Frenchman is holding out for the financial fair play laws to save him.
Chelsea, on the other hand, is a club caught in transition that is also being poorly run by the sack-happy Roman Abramovich. Struggling to come to terms with the fact Mourinho’s golden generation had rapidly aged into their twilight years, a total revamp of the first-team has been underway over the past few seasons, changing the team from one based around playing solid, sensible and physical football into a side geared towards style, excitement and flair, where even their centre-backs are expected to contribute to attacking play and add to the score line.
Manchester City, in my opinion, are quite simply not a football team – they are a collection of elite players, and that is why they have found retaining the title so difficult. Furthermore, the efforts by Tottenham Hotspur and Everton to solidify their positions as Champions League contenders should not be ignored, in addition to the strong campaigns of Swansea and West Brom that have applied added pressure to the Premier League big boys.
I am also an advocate of the Championship, and improvements from the teams below should not be a factor that is ignored. Newly relegated clubs find it difficult in the English second tier largely because the quality is surprisingly good, and the quality is at a consistent level throughout the league with a few exceptions at the head and foot of the table.
Just this season, a Championship youngster, Wilfried Zaha, has commanded a £15million transfer fee, a Championship goalkeeper, Jack Butland, has been included in the Team GB and England senior squad, and a Championship striker, Charlie Austin, had the most prolific goal-record in Europe before the new year.
So has there been a slip in quality in the Premier League, or is it more than anything an optical illusion? Well, the fact that Gareth Bale, amid his sensational form, is being linked with moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona already with little discussion about a move to either of the Manchester titans would suggest it has. It is certainly true that the two biggest stars of the game ply their trade in La Liga, despite the vast wealth opportunities that would be available to them in the Premiership.
And furthermore, this season’s Champions League escapades have proved that the English clubs are lacking in the consistency required this year to take on the continent’s elite and perform well. But we did produce the reigning Champions of Europe in Chelsea, and in many ways I still view the Premiership as the best top-flight division in the world.
It is still the most exciting league, all be it often for some dramatic errors and controversial refereeing, and I would argue that although the talent at the top has diminished since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, there is a much wider spread of talented players throughout in comparison to the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga.
We may be lacking in true superstars nowadays, and a number of the top clubs are having somewhat of an off-season, but I attribute that as much to the fantastic efforts of the mid-table clubs and relegation battlers as i do to any particular failings. And as far as Manchester United’s dominance is concerned, i’d put that down to the genius of Sir Alex Ferguson.