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Tuesday, 11 May 2010

United Suffer In Second

In the end, the Premier League season signed off with a whimper, not a bang. As if the BBC deigning it appropriate not to show highlights from the two title contenders at the same time on Match of the Day was not enough to serve notice of who had won, Chelsea taking the lead inside six minutes duly was. The unconscious recognition of the title heading to Stamford Bridge was iron-cast even before results transpired to make Chelsea the Premier League’s highest-ever scorers (103 goals – the first in 47 years to score over 100 in a season) and Wigan’s its leakiest-ever defence to avoid relegation (79). The air of inexorability was familiar.

Thumping victories for the top two yesterday reiterated the gap between the haves and have-nots and while there were upsets aplenty in 2009-10, it feels a laboured season at the top. Manchester United have strained most, to the extent that runner-up is a remarkable finish for a team who have delivered so few remarkable performances. “Own Goals" was United's joint-second top scorer with Dimitar Berbatov and given the stick the Bulgarian received sometimes, it was as if United fans would have preferred the former up front.

United had more than enough to dismantle Stoke 4-0 on the last day, but what they must have hoped was registering their defiance actually highlighted the gap in firepower as Chelsea ruthlessly smashed twice as many past Wigan. United have simply not been as direct this season as last, missing not only the goals of Ronaldo (who has scored 33 in 34 matches for Madrid) and potentially those of Tevez (29 in 40 for City), but the strength in depth and options up front they offered. They also suffered from the regression of Carrick and Anderson (pre-injury) in midfield and Owen Hargreaves’ comeback was maybe three months too late. Most significantly, their defence has been ever-changing.

If you need a statistic to sum up United’s defensive personnel issues, here’s one: Rio Ferdinand made just two fouls in the Premier League all season. He played for 1,083 mins (12 games, give or take). This wasn't the only stumbling block. United were forced to field Darren Fletcher at right back and centre back, most keenly felt when they did so alongside Carrick at Fulham and lost 3-0. Van der Sar was missing for the first 12 matches and then again from November to January. His steadying influence was obvious on his return.

Contrast with Chelsea – with the consistency of Lampard and Drogba, the season-long rejuvenation of Malouda (rather than a three-month renaissance for Nani), the mean defence and the delight in uncovering a clinical streak in their final matches. Goals came from everywhere. United ground their way to victories, maintained by the lingering legacy of winning – and what it did to their opponents (see Spurs’ changing tactics) – rather than any ongoing dynamism. Goals came almost solely from Rooney. Old Trafford’s reputation continued to cause visiting teams to either park the bus or leave their entire first XI on it and be resolutely broken down. It should be noted that those who dared (particularly Sunderland), won (or drew).

Chelsea were strong this season, but United were relatively weak. There is no doubt we saw Ferguson’s qualities as a manager this year – retaining the title with this team – considering its departures and injuries – would have been one of his most impressive achievements. Taking them to within a point of it is commendable. But Ancelotti’s team beat United, Arsenal and Liverpool home and away, scoring 12 goals in the process and conceding just once (dubiously at that), as well as scoring 17 times in their final three games. United could only beat Arsenal home and away and Liverpool at home. While beating top four teams has never been a marker of United’s title-winning seasons, it could increasingly become the deciding factor as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. Ferguson knows this. There could well be plenty of big bangs at Old Trafford next season. Rob MacDonald

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