It’s not over just yet, but Manchester City’s 1-0 win over rivals Manchester United has put Roberto Mancini’s side back in control of the title race. It was inevitable right? We’ve been told that ever since the Abu Dhabi billions were bestowed on the club they would eventually secure their first top flight title since 1968.
But what of the side they’ll be usurping upon the Premier League throne?
There are supposedly big summer plans in place to restore United’s dominance but has it been left too late? Watching Ryan Giggs, the best of the 1991 generation, and Paul Scholes, this season’s reserve team coach, line-up for United should be viewed with consternation for fans of the club.
Whilst times were good and they overhauled City’s 20 week lead at the top of the table, the two veterans came in for suitable praise. Scholes has been formidable in his six months out of retirement and Giggs has typically found the crucial touch whether it be the match-winning goal against Norwich or the pinpoint cross against Chelsea – all contributing to the steady accumulation of points.
But as United fell to their second league defeat to their noisy neighbours, questions must now be asked. The reliance on their ageing legs symbolises a bigger problem at United – something that may cost them a 20th league title. As romantic a storyline as it is to witness Scholes lace his boots up at the call of Sir Alex Ferguson, it points to deeper issues in a club that has been underfunded ever since the Glazer takeover.
Dissenting voices may have been drowned out through the tense adulation of the mother of all title races but they must surely still exist and it will be interesting to see if the green and gold scarves return to Old Trafford over the coming months.
Perhaps, as has been suggested, losing the Premier League to City will prove to be the catalyst for a revolutionary summer. There must come a time for Ferguson’s bloated squad to shed weight and perhaps a year in which they bowed out of both European competitions before schedule marks that moment.
Ferguson has built many great sides in his 20 years at Old Trafford and although the current crop have a youthful nucleus, the backbone is reinforced by two of the most experienced professionals in England. With Rio Ferdinand creaking into his mid-thirties it’s little wonder Ferguson attempted something different to kick off the 2011/12 campaign.
Maybe he underestimated the strength of City, or more likely overestimated the capabilities of his squad. The season began with an experiment – Anderson started eight of the first nine games, initially alongside Tom Cleverly before he succumbed to injury. The idea was to introduce a new version of his preferred passer and runner combination (as discussed extensively by Michael Cox).
It still took time for Michael Carrick to claim the key role he now occupies and it wasn’t until the 12th league game that he started his first game. Between then, Darren Fletcher was used before illness ended his campaign, Park Ji-Sung was tried out and Giggs was deployed centrally. Every move hinted at Ferguson attempting to replicate the passer and mover idea he prefers.
Injuries and a sky-blue juggernaut led Ferguson to abandon plans for not just the new-school of passer and mover but the entire game-plan. The favourite midfield pairing has been Scholes and Carrick – two passers. The latter has started the last 24 league games whilst Scholes has missed only one game altogether – the 1-0 defeat at Wigan.
Without heading too deep into the finer details of Ferguson’s reshuffle, one thing can be gleaned from his decisions. Paul Scholes’ retirement initiated the Anderson/Cleverly experiment. Though injuries disrupted this test, it’s clear faith was lost in Cleverly who has not started a Premier League game since 29th October. Though he has time on his side and could very well develop into the midfield passer Ferguson believes he could be, there are certain United midfielders no longer up to the job.
Specifically Anderson, who has underwhelmed for years in a red shirt and to a lesser extent Ferguson’s go-to ball of stamina Park Ji-Sung. The latter may finally be running out of steam and although it would be curt to pounce on his performance at the Etihad Stadium – the fact that it was his first start in three months suggests others are also querying his worth.
Though Park attempted to restrict Yaya Toure’s movements, ultimately this game played out similarly to United’s loss at Newcastle earlier in the year. It isn’t easy to have more of the ball than a team with two quality passers in Carrick and Scholes but on both occasions United saw less of the ball and were significantly overrun centrally. The loss at Newcastle showed how over-indulgent United had been by using the languid Dimitar Berbatov with the Scholes and Carrick axis and it’s little coincidence that he started just one game after that defeat.
The loss to City highlighted not only the strength of Mancini’s side but the problem Ferguson has within his squad. This summer will test his faith once more – will he give Cleverly, Anderson and Fletcher the chance to lay claim to Scholes’ position? Or will Ferguson finally snap up the world-class midfielder every transfer window threatens to deliver?
Of course, it’s worth reiterating, this race is not over. It’s quite conceivable City will succumb to a Newcastle team hunting a top four finish. But if, in two games time, Premier League bigwigs cart the trophy to the blue side of Manchester, the above will remain relevant.
A word of warning for Mancini though. His laconic suggestion to reporters that United remain in charge of the title race could do more harm to his team than good. As ‘Hey Jude’ blared from the Etihad Stadium’s speakers at full-time, he’d do well to lend his ear to a pertinent line:
“For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool.”
Fortunately the intense focus shown by his captain Vincent Kompany, suggest it is just Mancini engaging in the ridiculous mind-games so referenced in the last few weeks.
If City do emerge from the shadow of their rivals with a gleaming Premier League crown atop their head, ensuring a trophy-less season for the Red Devils, it will be Ferguson’s toughest challenge yet to wrest it back from them.