The end of the United Empire?
Don’t blame the ‘noisy neighbours’ at City, the real problem for United is they’ve lost their all-conquering aura.
Manchester City’s Premier League title win on Sunday was unquestionably dramatic. But the most exciting finale ever? Arsenal fans might beg to differ. The best title race ever? To be honest, judging by the standard of football, this season wasn’t a great vintage.
The truth is that the title was thrown away by United. An eight-point lead criminally blown in Keeganesque fashion. The fact that such a mediocre United team nearly snatched the title speaks volumes about the poor quality of the Premier League. Is this the start of a new epoch of City domination? I can’t answer that. My soothsaying powers aren’t what they used to be. What I can say with certainty is that Manchester United’s aura of invincibility ain’t what it used to be.
Precisely how and when United’s aura started to disappear is open to debate. Viewed through my own red and blue-tinted spectacles, I reckon the decisive moment was when Crystal Palace beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford in the Carling Cup. Yes, I know this sounds a bit like Spike Milligan’s autobiography, Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, but bear with me. This wasn’t just any old football match. It was an act of footballing mythbusting. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson seemed uncharacteristically perplexed after the game: ‘My apologies are to the fans because that was not a Manchester United performance’, he said. In the past, a visiting team would have lost the game in their minds the moment they stepped out of the tunnel of Old Trafford. That’s what an aura of invincibility does for you. United players grow when they pull on the red jerseys and the opposition wilts. But, on that fateful night on 30 November 2011, the Palace players – a mixture of kids and journeymen – were not cowed by the stadium or starstruck by the names of the teamsheet. They weren’t paralysed by fear. When the game went into extra time, it was Palace who pressed for the winner and got it. We expected a late onslaught, but it never really materialised. The inevitable late equaliser in ‘Fergie time’ didn’t happen. The myth of United’s invincibility was shattered.
Of course, an empire doesn’t crumble overnight. Cracks had already started to appear before the Palace game. Basel’s 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in September in the Champions League exposed United’s defensive frailties. More damagingly, the 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby in October symbolised an historic shift in the balance of power in English football. It was United’s heaviest home defeat since 1995. However, in mitigation, five of the goals came after United were reduced to 10 men when Jonny Evans was sent off.
A succession of home defeats has gradually eroded the mystique surrounding Old Trafford. Opposition teams are no longer quite so intimidated by the stadium. They don’t play quite so cautiously. They don’t just park the bus and hope for the best. They know United can be beaten so they have a go. Old Trafford is no longer a fortress. On 31 December, Blackburn Rovers, rock bottom of the Premier League, went to Old Trafford and won 3-2. One of the most astonishing performances was Athletic Bilbao’s 3-2 victory over United at Old Trafford in the Europa League. To be honest, the scoreline flattered United. Athletic could have easily scored five or six but for David de Gea’s goalkeeping heroics. I can’t remember the last time a European team came to Manchester and tore United apart.
United’s season has been uncharacteristic in so many ways. They had a wretched European campaign, going out of the Champions League in the group stage and then being dumped out of the Europa League by Bilbao. Then they blew an eight-point lead in the title run-in. This is unheard of. We all assumed that United’s ability to hold their nerve on the finishing straight would see them over the line. But, for once, their winning mentality deserted them, losing to Wigan and then letting slip a two-goal lead against Everton in the closing minutes.
United’s lack of flair has also been striking. We’ve come to expect an expansive attacking style of play but something clearly seems to be missing this season. Wayne Rooney’s haul of 27 league goals has papered over the cracks. United have often looked bereft of creativity this season. This toothlessness was highlighted in the 1-0 defeat at the Etihad on 30th April. It’s rare to see United play with so little ambition or attacking intent. Seldom have Fergie’s men created so few scoring chances. According to the stats, United mustered only two attempts on target in the entire game – which is two more than I can remember.
United left-back Patrice Evra has rejected suggestions that United’s domination of English football is over. ‘[A] lot of people will say this is the end of the empire’, said the French full-back. ‘But there is a lot of talent at this club.’ Fergie might argue that his team is young and in the process of rebuilding. This is true but, in the past, United were able to make big-name signings when they’ve needed to strengthen. They broke British transfer records to sign Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney. However, the emergence of Manchester City and the Glazer debts have hampered United’s ability to attract the top players. United desperately need a playmaker, like Luka Modric or Wesley Schneider, to replace Paul Scholes, but the club simply cannot match the financial clout of their noisy neighbours.
United have lost their Premiership crown and they’re no longer top dogs in financial terms. But, most alarmingly for them, their ability to inspire awe amongst opponents has gone. Sure, this is still a very good side and Ferguson has proved adept at rebuilding teams. The young players will continue to improve and learn from this season’s setbacks. But an invincible aura, once broken, is not so easily repaired.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.