The target for Manchester United last summer was simple, to wrestle the Premier League title off neighbours Manchester City whom they’d heartbreakingly surrendered the trophy to months before. Losing hurts Manchester United but because it was City, it hurt more. There simply would be no repeat, no let up as the Red Devils embarked on their determined bid to win the championship back.
Sir Alex Ferguson made a huge statement of intent by signing Robin Van Persie, the preceding season’s top scorer, off Arsenal for £24 million. Double Bundesliga winner Shinji Kagawa arrived from Borussia Dortmund for £14 million whilst in the talented teenager Nick Powell, they signed one for the future from Crewe. Alex Buttner arrived late in the window as left-back cover and the squad was set. After all, it was a team that were short to City only by the virtue of goal difference and there was no doubt that Ferguson had added to it significantly.
They initially started slowly, succumbing 1-0 to Everton Goodison in the midst of a defensive crisis that saw Michael Carrick fielded at centre-half. Concerns of defensive instability remained as Fulham and Southampton pushed them close in two 3-2 victories, the latter seeing Van Persie hit a hat-trick to suggest the quality of his signing. A 4-0 demolition of Wigan was followed by a vital 1-2 victory at Liverpool, Van Persie hitting the winner from the penalty spot.
Tottenham then interrupted the momentum with a 2-3 win at Old Trafford to highlight the folly of Ferguson’s decision to field Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs against the lightning pace of Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. It was a year in which the commodity of age hit United’s two elder statesmen more then ever before, Giggs struggled woefully in a 1-0 defeat at Norwich whilst Scholes was suspect as Newcastle gave Old Trafford a big scare on Boxing Day, marching through an open midfield to score twice in a 4-3 loss.
The defeat to Norwich in November was United’s third and last before April as they set on a mid-season unbeaten run of 18 games. Frenetic counter-attacking dispatched of City and Chelsea in away games, the game at Stamford Bridge ingrained in controversy though it was a huge test of United’s attacking verve and mettle that they recovered from Chelsea’s comeback to win late on through Javier Hernandez. The Mexican striker scored a hat-trick at Aston Villa as United emerged victorious from 2-0 down.
That, and the thrilling 3-4 win at Reading, was the epitome of United’s first half of the season, shaky defending consistently being compensated for by attacking of the most unforgiving potency. Van Persie was unerringly prolific, Wayne Rooney was mostly in a creative role though sporadically chipped in with goals, 12 in total, whilst the elusive Chicarito provided able support when needed with 18 goals.
The only attacking disappointment came with Danny Welbeck who managed just two goals over the course of the campaign, though his contribution in intelligently linking the play and pressing the opposition with sublime athleticism cannot be overlooked.
In Europe, United qualified for the second round of the Champions League with two games to spare from a mediocre group including Sporting Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj, but Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho lay in wait in the last 16. A 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu gave United the upper-hand and a Sergio Ramos own goal pushed furthered the advantage in the second-leg, but a contentious dismissal of Nani whilst United were in the ascendancy changed the course of the game, Luka Modric and, almost inevitably, Cristiano Ronaldo striking ruthlessly to send Madrid through. Sir Alex Ferguson proved inconsolable in the aftermath.
In the two domestic cups, United fell to Chelsea twice, a roller-coaster 5-4 loss at Stamford Bridge saw them dismissed from the League Cup back in October before the FA Cup proved a troublesome hurdle with United, who fielded rotated teams, requiring a replay to overcome West Ham before Reading and Fulham were dispatched with little discomfort.
In the quarter finals, United were looking comfortable at 2-0 up before recklessly abandoning a lead at Old Trafford, Demba Ba striking in the replay back at Stamford Bridge to send United crashing out.
Focus came back to domestic issues and the matter of winning back the Premier League which saw a pivotal weekend on the tenth of February, Ferguson altering plans to rotate his squad for the visit of Everton after City’s 3-1 defeat in Southampton the day before. Everton were duly beaten 2-0 and the gap was extended to 12 points, becoming 15 when United reacted to City’s 2-0 loss at Goodison Park in mid-March by edging a 1-0 win over Reading.
15 points clear with nine games to go, there was little chance of a repeat of the dramatic collapse that caused United’s loss of the title in the season before and although Manchester City won the return derby at Old Trafford, the title was wrapped up with just four games to spare with a 3-0 beating of Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Nemanja Vidic’s return from injury had helped tighten up the defence as they kept 10 clean sheets after Christmas to help see the job out.
The improved attack ultimately proved the difference between the two Manchester teams, City’s struggle in-front of goal saw them score 27 goals less then the 96 they managed in their title winning year, United managed just 3 less than they did the year before. Van Persie’s arrival, ahead of City who were also in the chase for the Dutchman, was massively pivotal as he hit 26 league goals to become top-scorer.
Although they won just 3 of their last 8 games, the title was secured and in the end it was a procession by a margin of 10 points over rivals City in runners-up. After a 20th title and a 13th individually, Ferguson stunned the world of football by announcing his retirement days after the loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford.
As the eulogies poured in to celebrate the passing of peerless dynasty, it became clear the desperation Ferguson held to wrestle the Championship back from City. He achieved that and saw fit to hand the reigns over to David Moyes, Everton’s long-serving coach who cherishes the value of respect and loyalty as much as his fellow Scotsman.
Moyes inherits a squad that Ferguson has forged with his own brilliant eye for excellence. David De Gea is growing into a brilliant goalkeeper, Rio Ferdinand remains evergreen whilst Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones harbour enough talent underneath an experienced, but ageing, back two. Rafael had a great season at right-back and has a bright future ahead whilst Patrice Evra, growing into a leader at left-back, showed improvement from indications of decline.
It is a well-equipped back-bone to a team that relies on Michael Carrick, arguably United’s player of the season, Tom Cleverley and Anderson to provide creativity in midfield. Shinji Kagawa’s debut season was slightly underwhelming though he showed signs of his brilliance towards the end of the year, notably with a hat-trick against Norwich. Moyes will also have at his disposal the incredibly versatile Rooney, who has popped up in centre-midfield at times in this campaign, at his disposal should the striker renege on his reported desire to leave Old Trafford.
It was slightly strange however, to see Ferguson’s final year of success achieved with consistent use of a narrow 4-2-3-1. The Scot has built a reputation for fielding teams with flying wingers over the years but this campaign has saw Luis Valencia and Nani, who Ferguson uncharacteristically blamed personally for the League Cup exit to Chelsea, struggling badly for form.
Ashley Young meanwhile was hampered badly with injury. Moyes will seek to restore the form of his wide players whilst he will also recruit the services of the promising Wilfried Zaha as he completes his move from Crystal Palace in the summer.
It was the typically ruthless assault on success that embodied Ferguson’s final year in charge of Manchester United and perhaps fittingly, it was the year that his extraordinary will to win became so glaringly obvious. The form they showed in steamrollering their way to a 20th championship with just 3 defeats in 30 games before the run-in was relentlessly brilliant and it secured Ferguson’s ultimate aim, to go out on the high of a league win.
Moyes has huge boots to fill, but everything is seemingly in place to launch a quest for the future and a 21st league win.
Player of the season
David De Gea emerged from early season shakiness and competition from Anders Lindegaard to finish the season strongly and there is now little doubt that he has earned the number 1 shirt. Robin Van Persie’s goals were extremely vital whereas Rio Ferdinand and Rafael were both particularly impressive at the back.
Michael Carrick wins this award for his strong displays in midfield, adept at passing the ball and providing a solid presence defensively, he has silenced long-standing calls for Ferguson to sign midfield reinforcements. He made a mammoth 46 appearances in which he consistently cut an assured, calm figure to help the likes of Tom Cleverley progress alongside of him.
Long-awaited England call-ups have also been on the agenda as, at the age of 31, his quality is finally being appreciated.
Flop of the season
Anderson once again struggled to justify his £17 million price tag in midfield whilst Wayne Rooney’s worth to the squad was evidently in decline as Ferguson omitted him from the side that lost to Madrid. 12 goals and 10 assists was a fine return, though one cannot escape his apparent unhappiness at Old Trafford where nobody is particularly sure of his best position despite his age of 27.
It wasn’t however, a good season for wide players. Nani’s future is in doubt as he remains dreadfully inconsistent on the flanks, though he was trusted with the gargantuan match with Madrid where his chronic misfortune conspired to see him pivotally dismissed. Ashley Young meanwhile, had to settle for a peripheral role as injuries curtailed a promising first year.
Luis Valencia is the recipient of this award however, failing to build on his Player of the Year debut to become a winger who seems unable to cross or do anything of note in the final third. Still a hard-working, diligent cog of United’s system, he will have to improve his contribution on the ball if he is to keep his place under Moyes.
Final grade- A
The clear objective of winning the Premier League title was achieved emphatically but Ferguson, especially in his bow-out year, would have wanted better performances in the domestic cups and in Europe, where they went out controversially.
The old experienced heads of Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick and co. have helped the younger generation of Jones, Cleverley, Welbeck etc. to a league medal and Ferguson leaves behind a well-equipped squad which, under the right guidance, can build another era of success.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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