As the dust settles on what some commentators have labelled ‘the most exciting premier league season in recent memory’ but what turned out to have an all too familiar feel to it, the time for excuses, explanations and blaming can begin.
Gianfranco Zola has already fallen victim to the season’s post-mortem and few would be surprised if there wasn’t a few more managers joining him in the dole queue very soon- or at least at the airport, eh Rafa?
One of the first things many fans –unless they support Chelsea- will point to when explaining why the season hasn’t been an unmitigated success is the old favourite ‘injuries’. If it wasn’t for injuries England would have won the world cup a record-breaking 12 times by now, injuries also stopped United completing a hat-trick of trebles during the noughties, prevented David Beckham becoming Sir David this summer and cost David Cameron the majority he needed. Probably.
There’s an old saying in football about bad decisions even-ing themselves out over the course of a season and while anyone outside the top four will probably agree that’s a load of old tosh, can the same be said for injuries? Obviously not.
The real question is if the top 3 teams in the premier league had been injury-free all season, would the title have ended up anywhere other than Stamford Bridge?
Well let’s look at them one by one.
First up must surely be Arsenal- simply because I’ve decided to do this alphabetically. The loss of Robin Van Persie for five months was a huge blow to the Gunners and one which in a perverse way, may have actually relieved some of the pressure on Arsene Wenger. Many Gooners will cite RVP’s injury as one of the main reasons Arsenal never quite mounted the title challenge they threatened to do at certain stages this season. Losses to Chelsea –twice- Man U- twice- Wigan, Man City, Blackburn, Sunderland and Tottenham meant that Arsenal finished 11 points behind the champions. Yet how many of those losses, can be attributed to the injury to RVP? Well Manchester’s City and United both beat Arsenal with the Dutch forward in the team, earlier on, as did Blackburn and Wigan at the back end of the season. Was Van Persie the difference between the title going from West London to North?
I’d argue not, after all Arsenal’s problem has been more than just scoring goals, in fact that’s arguably been the least of their worries. A lightweight midfield far too often out-muscled or ‘anti-footballed’ as certain Frenchmen may say seems to be a much more prominent reason for the Gunner’s shortcomings.
Of course, Arsenal have had more than just the loss of RVP to contend with, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Aaron Ramsey have all missed key parts of the season.
While Ramsey’s loss was particularly bad, more for the manner of his injury than for the void he left in the team, Walcott when he has played has been inconsistent to put it mildly. As for Fabregas, by the time his injury came about, you could argue Arsenal were already practically out of the title race anyway.
The next on the list is Chelsea, even though they won the league, in the purposes of fairness the question must still be applied to them, after all winning it by a point against one of the most beatable United side’s in recent years is hardly totally convincing.
The most prominent loss for Chelsea was Michael Essien who has been missing for much of the season. While Jon Obi Mikkel has come in and done a fine job, there can be little argument that he’s not a patch on Ghana’s finest. Then there’s also the loss of Ashley Cole for most of the business end of the season, which would affect any team in all honestly.
Cole is one of the best left-backs in the country and his importance in the Chelsea team cannot be underestimated. There’s also the loss of Jose Boswinga of course, but the form of Branislav Ivanovic has not only negated that argument but in all probability made Boswinga’s loss actually Chelsea’s gain. Had Essien and Cole been fit then maybe Chelsea would not have been beaten by Tottenham, but as last season proved and the season before in the Carling Cup, Spurs are capable of giving any Chelsea side a run for their money.
There’s also the losses against Everton and Man City but they were more down to defensive lapses by John Terry coupled with some ‘hilarious’ goalkeeping thrown in the game against City. Let’s not forget as well that Aston Villa were able to defeat a full-strength Chelsea team early on in the season. The loss of Essien probably did cost Chelsea points somewhere along the line as he’s that good a player.
All this of course is moot as Chelsea didn’t need any more points the other teams did, so the real question is could Manchester United have caught them without the loss of certain personnel?
Well United have at times this season, been awful regardless of whoever’s been playing. The main defeat that many United fans will look to as an example of where injuries took their toll was the loss to Fulham. United were missing seven, yes seven, defenders which even Roy Hodgson admitted was a major factor for Fulham’s emphatic win.
However while a three-man defensive unit consisting of Ritchie De Laet, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher is hardly awe-inspiring, let’s not forget that last season Fulham were able to beat a full strength United side- albeit after Paul Scholes was dismissed and it’s not inconceivable that it could have been achieved this time round.
Losses to Burnley, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Liverpool came when United had practically full strength teams, the only missing men were Edwin Van Der Sar and every physio’s favourite Owen Hargreaves.
The loss of VDS early in the season may well have contributed to some lost points, particularly in the home draw against Sunderland, but to blame any losses on his absence is probably unfair.
As for Hargreaves, while Darren Fletcher and to a lesser extent Michael Carrick have made his loss, less felt there’s no denying that a fully fit Hargreaves is better than either player, just look at a 2007-08 DVD if you need any proof. The question is would his fitness have given United the extra 2 points they needed to lift the title? Most definitely. But then again a fully fit Michael Essien would have no doubt elevated Chelsea’s points tally above 86. On a final United note, the most important injury of the season was surely Wayne Rooney’s prior to the home game against Chelsea, had Wazza been fit would the outcome have been different? Who knows, you would think so but to be fair United have been that inconsistent this season it’s not as certain as many would believe.
You could analyse games one-by-one all day long there’s not just the losses to contend with but also the draws, not just the injuries but also the decisions.
The fact is even Spurs could claim that without the lengthy injuries to Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon, not to mention Ledley King’s erratic appearances, they would have been able to mount a title challenge. While we can debate the ‘what ifs’ all day long nothing’s going to change the fact that Chelsea are the title holders….unfortunately.
Read more of Justin’s work at his excellent blog ‘Name on the Trophy’