I have a feeling the current Premier League season won’t be looked back upon too fondly unless you’re a Manchester United fan. The battle at the foot of the table has been much more exciting than that at the top, despite the fact that the two now relegated clubs, Queens Park Rangers and Reading, have been adrift for some time.
Yet, in comparison to the one-horse title race, with that horse being an ever-consistent team that has avoided complications to their aims of monopolising the English top flight all year, we at least have the prospect of it coming down to a whirlpool of emotions on the final day of the season in regards to the final relegation spot.
While some have referred to it as being a ‘vintage season’ for United, with a vintage cast to boot, others, including myself, are not so sure. Although a number of their players appear to have come of age – Rafael, David De Gea and Phil Jones for example – the only major difference in terms of personnel from last year is the acquisition of Robin van Persie. It begs the question – is the Premier League’s top scorer the only difference between the two Manchester clubs this season? And to extend that hypothesis further; was the domestic title decided in the summer, with his £20million move from Arsenal?
The Netherlands international has certainly played his part. A record of 25 goals and 8 assists in 35 Premier League games speaks for itself, and his first-half hatrick against Aston Villa, including arguably his greatest ever strike considering the magnitude of the situation, epitomises how van Persie has not simply been a new recruit at Old Trafford this season and added quality to the first team, but rather that he’s become a leader, a focal point of the starting XI, and most importantly, the difference between a win and a draw, or claiming a point rather than coming away with nothing.
At 29 years of age, and having been one of Europe’s most talented striker since his mid-twenties, the desire for a deserved accolade in the form of a title or trophy, the kind of historical recognition of his ability that was only ever in touching distance whilst at the Emirates, has been the driving force behind van Persie’s fantastic season, and lifting the title has no doubt been at the forefront of his mind ever since signing on the dotted line in the summer. It’s the kind of personal motivation that is impossible to value in monetary terms, which Sir Alex Ferguson would love to tap into and take advantage of.
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With a combination of talent and motivation it was always going to be van Persie’s season, which makes you wonder what would have happened had the striker opted for the blue side of Manchester in the summer. There’s no doubt his decision to move to Old Trafford rather than Eastlands tipped the balance from last season. Whereas City’s prolific strike force was unrivalled in the Premier League last year, with Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli firing on all cylinders and Carlos Tevez still on the books, the acquisition of the former Arsenal forward suddenly created an equally as desirable selection of strikers of Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandes, whom are all capable of twenty goals a season, in addition to the hardworking styles and link-up play of Danny Welbeck.
Van Persie’s season has been sensational, yet it would not have been so easy to pull off had the Wayne rooney not been providing such uniquely effective supporting role at the tip of the United midfield. They’ve benefited greatly from each other’s presence and individual characteristics, and United have benefited from their astute partnership. Goals has been the key to the Red Devils’ success this year, with the league’s highest goal tally of 79 from 35 games, a long way above City’s 61, and spurred on further by the Red Devils’ bad habit at the start of the year of conceding first.
Back to the former champions, the after effects of not bringing in the Dutchman during the off-season have been duly felt. As many expected, it was not long before Mario Balotelli’s City career imploded, triggering a move to Serie A, and furthermore, the Citizens fell victim to their most prolific forward, Sergio Aguero, spending the majority of the campaign on the sidelines, with the Argentine finding the net just 11 times thus far – a long way shy of last year’s 23.
But furthermore, there must have been a considerable psychological effect on the Citizens camp. Despite them being Champions, with a bottomless wage budget at their disposal, they let the Premier League’s most desired prize purchase slip through their fingers to the local rivals. Roberto Mancini has spent much of the season discussing it in the media and ruing over the failings of City officials such as Bryan Marwood, which has no doubt rubbed off on the players whom at least in their manager’s mind, have become second best in comparison to United’s newest recruit.
The difference between the two managers has also been crucial this year – one criticised for his use of a 3-5-2 system early in the season, failing to control his players from constant infighting, and furthermore, scrutinising player performances in public, whilst the other has kept his players level-headed, avoided the media circus that appears to have engulfed City and Chelsea, and focused solely on the club’s dominance of the domestic league.
It illustrates an intangible difference between the two clubs, which has been overlooked in the debate over United’s season due to van Persie’s sensational form. Whilst United represent a constant stability- highlighted by the fact they’ve recorded an average of two points per game from all but three of their years in the Premier League – that has been created out of hard graft alone, the Citizens are still yet to mature into a team rather than a collection of incredibly talented individuals, and furthermore, they are yet to develop into an elite club.
They’ve took the fast-track to success, backed by unprecedented foreign investment and finance at their disposal, which in turn has allowed for a complacency amongst the players, shown by City’s inability to secure convincing results against the smaller teams, that Mancini has failed to stamp out, and that Ferguson would never stand for.
Manchester United is a club built around winners, and much of that is an extension of the United gaffer’s mentality. I am not suggesting that the City roster cares any less about picking up trophies in comparison to their local rivals, but it is a club built on finance rather than deserved reward, and thus I feel the desire to retain the championship was perhaps less institutional as it would have been at Old Trafford.
Unfortunately for the Citizens, all you need to give the Red Devils is a way in. Their desire to achieve keeps them ever-consistent, and thus, a spell of poor form, champions or not, is enough for United to capitalise upon. It would be wrong to suggest that van Persie’s presence alone has created a 14 point gap between the two Manchester clubs, and I believe this season’s successes at Old Trafford should be more attributed to the sheer presence of Sir Alex Ferguson and the stability he provides, than the former Arsenal man’s summer transfer. Yet, had he opted to sign for the former champions, you can’t help but consider the prospect of the Skyblues rather comfortably retaining their title, with the Red Devils lacking their unique cutting edge.
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