By Brendan Boylan,
There’s a school of thought which suggests the first of everything is always the best. Now, the dying embers of the Premiership season just finished might scotch that theory a little, but a broader appraisal of the situation might still prove it true. In the immediate aftermath of Sergio Aguero’s sensational salvation of the title for Manchester City, the obvious comparison was drawn between the conclusion of their season and that of their neighbours in the European Cup Final of 1999.
English domestic competition has seen similar conclusions in the past too. There was Mickey Thomas’ ambush of Liverpool in 1989, and Steve Bruce getting a double headed salvo against Sheffield Wednesday which more or less guaranteed Manchester United the first Premiership title. And that’s where the opening lines of this piece stem from.
You see, I think there was something more likable about the Premiership in those early years. Back then, big name foreign signings were a really big deal and not ten a penny as they seem to be nowadays as teams like City and Chelsea and Real Madrid buy their way to success. In that initially successful United team, the backbone was provided by players like Paul Parker, Bruce, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes. Most teams were the same at the time. We recall Arsenal’s legendary back five: Seanman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn. Liverpool had British stars too – David James, Neil Ruddock, John Barnes, Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush. You could do a similar list for every club at the time.
Yes, all teams had foreign signings, but at some point things got to the farcical levels at which they now sit. It’s hard to escape the thought that said point was the arrival of a certain Russian oligarch at Chelsea. Glenn Johnson might have been a fairly average player with whom to begin amassing his empire, but the array of foreign talent which followed quickly left it nigh on impossible for others to compete with the Stamford Bridge outfit and thus – in typical Jose Mourinho style – a glut of trophies followed very quickly.
There was a time when – due to, one suspects, Alex Ferguson’s wily way of doing things – the Red Devils were the only ones who could put it up to them and beat them. Of course, they have racked up a few more championships since the trophy was last bedecked in Chelsea blue, but that had more to do with the ridiculous aspects of how Abramovich operates than anything else.
Since the arrival of the Glazers at Old Trafford it’s been a matter of papering over the cracks. Titles were won alright, but the debt the club has been saddled with has left them with an inability to function properly in the transfer market. It’s only the enduring class of players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney that has made their most recent successes possible.
In a soccer world that’s now a case of the haves and the have nots, Ferguson being unable to stock up on a new talent as stars have been constantly parachuted into the other side of the city has had the inevitable outcome – for this season at least – failure. It feels like a long time ago since they went a season without a trophy.
At this point, it must be said that Roberto Mancini’s team proved themselves deserving winners. Aguero, David Silva and the likes produced some sparkling football. Perhaps more significant, however, was a successfully mean defence built around the best goalkeeper in the Premiership, Joe Hart, and others like Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and Gael Clichy.
Therein lies one of the biggest differences between the two Manchester teams. I say one because in contrast to the fizzing midfield fluidity of Silva, the Toure brothers and Gareth Barry et al, the centre of the United machine has looked ponderous and stuttering like school children lost in a busy street. Defensive dithering is a bigger problem though. Has been for some time too. Yet due to the financial constraints that seem to be in place it’s hard to see where the remedying can come from.
It’s still my belief that Rio Ferdinand was worth nowhere near what was paid for him. Even at his best. And that’s a while ago. His flaws have become ever more obvious – only being magnified by the absence of Vidic for the majority of the season. Remember, the concession of ‘only’ eight more goals than the noisy neighbours cost the reds the title.
A sound defensive system has to be the first basic requirement in any team sport. The fundamentals are the same worldwide. Look at the Barcelona playing roster – Valdes, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Al Cantera, Villa – arguably the best in the world in their positions. Yet, if there’s one weakness in this mostly mesmerising collection of sporting greatness, it’s the rearguard.
So, United and Barca have at least one thing in common – both need defensive augmentation. The likeness ends there however. Fergie has patching up to do in many places if his charges are even to reign supreme again in their own city, don’t mind anywhere else!