Manchester United’s 3-0 defeat of Aston Villa sealed the title with four games still to go in the Premier League season, in stark contrast to the final-day drama that played out at the Etihad Stadium last May. While the jubilant Old Trafford crowd declared that they’d won their trophy back, their neighbours might have been wondering if their chance to forge a dynasty like that crafted by Sir Alex Ferguson had passed them by. Even if the signing of Robin van Persie was a significant coup for United, many in sky-blue feel that, player for player, they still have the bettering of their rivals. The matches between the sides this season, both close-fought encounters, can be strongly contrasted with the substantial points gap between them. While few seriously believe Roberto Mancini’s claim that teams don’t try as hard against United, you would have been hard-pressed to find many before the season started predicting that a United team still seemingly missing a world-class midfielder would storm to the championship in the manner they have. For all Ferguson’s claims of this being one of the best United squads he has ever assembled, it seems hard to substantiate that claim.
While comparisons have been drawn between United’s current strike-force and that of the Treble-winning season, the fact is that the present squad are far more reliant on one player – van Persie – than has previously been the case. Wayne Rooney endured one of his poorest seasons yet in a United shirt, culminating in his being left out of the starting line-up in the Champions’ League second leg against Real Madrid; Danny Welbeck has netted just one league goal this season, while Javier Hernandez has struggled for starts. So despite Mancini’s complaints about missing out on his prime targets this season – and there is no doubt that a City team containing van Persie, Danielle de Rossi and Edison Cavani would have been a formidable one – there is no obvious reason for City to be lagging as far behind as they are.
In fact, the real problem for Mancini may have been his own approach, rather than any successes or failures, in the transfer market. United won their first title for 26 years in 1993: within the next two years Ferguson had signed Roy Keane and Andy Cole, as well as bringing through the talents now destined to be known as Fergie’s Fledglings, while experienced pros such as Robson, Hughes, and Ince had been shipped out. Ferguson’s genius has always been knowing when to get rid of a player. So while the likes of Nasri and Tevez may have served Mancini well enough last season, one cannot help but wonder whether selling them, and targeting promising hungry players rather than world-class superstars, may have been a better tactic for City. Stability here is the key: it’s a lot easier to plan for the future when you can be sure that you will still be in the job this time next season. With multi-billionaire owners comes intense pressure, and such pressure is not always conducive to long-term planning.
So what does all this mean for City? While it seems certain that they will attempt to strengthen their squad in the summer, there’s no guarantee that they will secure their major targets. The likes of Neymar are courted by Europe’s biggest clubs, and City’s disappointing showing in the Champions’ League can’t have impressed many. United, on the other hand, have already secured the signing of Wifried Zaha, while their next generation of young talent – Smalling, Jones, Rafael – will emerge hungrier than ever, driven on by the indefatigable Ferguson. For City fans, their title-winning season was the best they had seen for 44 years. Unfortunately for them, it could also be the best they see for some years to come.
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