By Andrew Leci
Football pundits are fond of the phrase ‘the table doesn’t lie’.
As we look at the final standings after what has been yet another compelling Barclays Premier League season, it’s difficult to argue against the assertion.
Manchester United have been the best team over the course of the campaign, although they haven’t necessarily always played the best football. Generally speaking though, that’s not the issue in a results-based industry where the margin between success and failure is often fine.
This season, in my opinion, United have had the edge due to three people: Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick, and Sir Alex Ferguson.
This is in no way to denigrate the achievements and contributions of others – the team, after all, had 20 different league goals-corers for the first time in Premier League history – but to highlight those who have made the difference between coming second last year, and claiming the title this time around.
Van Persie’s goals have been vitally important (most pundits will suggest that Manchester City would have been champions again this season had they secured his signature last summer instead of United), while Carrick has featured in just about every game this campaign.
Often unnoticed, rarely spectacular, Carrick has quite simply made the team tick in 2012/13. Almost everything goes through him, and while detractors will say he doesn’t always use the ball well, the fact is that he does always use it. He keeps possession, he ‘gives and goes’, and on his day controls the pace and tempo of a match.
When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Carrick in July 2006, he identified a player who had the ability to dictate a game, and I think this season we have seen Carrick at his best, reflected in the amount of game-time Sir Alex has seen fit to grant him. Ferguson takes credit for keeping the faith, as he does for securing the services of Van Persie last summer.
Robin van Persie proved to be a stellar signing for Sir Aelx's title charge
Ferguson in fact can be applauded for being, again, such an integral part of a season that has seen normal service resume in the city of Manchester. His managerial acumen was put to the test early on, with United conceding far too many goals. He responded accordingly, with all the confidence his 26 and a half years at the top afforded him, and the rest, as they say, is history.
We won’t talk about the last game of the season. Let’s just put the 5-5 draw with West Bromwich Albion down as an entertaining anomaly, rich with the irony that Sir Alex will appreciate in the months ahead, even if he didn’t at the time.
The only issue that went down to the final day of the season involved the race for UEFA Champions League spots, and normal service resumed there as well, with Chelsea securing third and Arsenal pipping Tottenham Hotspur for fourth.
It was a cruel end to the season for a Spurs side that had played some delightful football through the course of the campaign, and arguably deserved a better fate. The problem is that as with last season (when they finished fourthand were still denied a seat at European football’s top table) they only have themselves to blame.
Andre Villas-Boas, whose future at the club is under no immediate threat despite the apparent failure, was keen to win the Europa League (it is after all what launched his career at FC Porto) and played full-strength teams in the midweek competition. Domestic results suffered accordingly, and critics will suggest that he simply didn’t prioritise correctly.
On the cusp of elimination against Lyon and Inter, an earlier exit from Europe’s second string competition would probably have done them the world of good, with defeats against Liverpool and Fulham following nights in Europe in mid-March highly detrimental to their top-four cause.
To be pipped for fourthby their arch rivals Arsenal would have made the bitter pill even harder to swallow, but the Gunners got into their groove at the right time, and deserve credit for showing the requisite strength of character.
After defeat at White Hart Lane in early March, even Arsene Wenger admitted that it would be difficult to qualify for the Champions League, but a run of eight wins and two draws to end the season has sealed the deal, and confounded quite a few pundits in the process.
It begs the question of course, as to why Arsenal didn’t play with the same level of intensity and purpose throughout the season, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of sport and the entire concept of getting over the finishing line. The Gunners deserve credit for the way they ended the season, and with riches to spend in the summer, I expect them to be a force to be reckoned with next season.
The hoops were the first to suffer relegation even with a star-studded squad
And what of the three relegated clubs? Were any of them ‘too good to go down’, as pundits are wont to say?
The answer is a simple ‘no’ – they all deserved their fate, but for different reasons.
QPR brought in a stack of players last summer in the expectation of a comfortable mid-table existence and not a relegation dogfight. They paid the price, and most of it was inflated. Much of the damage was done before the arrival of Harry ‘Houdini’ Redknapp, but in truth, he did little to improve matters and his managerial stock can now be discounted (sic).
He’s not entirely to blame. While many clubs will be handing out their post-campaign honours to certain individuals, QPR could host a ‘Calamity of the Year’ award, and there would be countless nominations in the category of ‘Shooting Yourself in the Foot’. The team’s ability to self-destruct was just about the only thing they managed to achieve with any level of consistency over the course of a wretched season.
Reading, to their credit, tried to do the right thing – play attractive football, and be positive at all times – but they didn’t have the personnel, while Wigan managed to make a bit of history by becoming the first club to win the FA Cup and get relegated in the same season. The fact that the two events were confirmed within three days of each other perfectly illustrates the often violent vicissitudes in competitive sport.
The likes of Sunderland, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Southampton and Stoke will spend much of the summer exhaling in relief, after beating the drop almost by default.
Two weekends before the end of the season, any of those clubs could have been relegated, but managed to do just enough to survive.
Post mortems will be under way with management and fans alike plotting ways to ensure that nerves do not get shredded in quite the same way next season. They may also be hoping that the next campaign doesn’t see the same stratification in the Barclays Premier League where we have seen, effectively, four mini-leagues over the duration, one of which comprised the entire bottom half of the table.
With Manchester United taking the title at a canter, this season hasn’t seen the gut-wrenching drama of last, but it’s been quietly compelling nevertheless. As with every campaign, it whets the appetite for the next, as we look forward to nearly three months of feverish transfer speculation and managerial change. I’m counting down the days to the start of the Barclays Premier League 2013-14 season already. Sad, but true.
Wigan Athletic were the first ever FA Cup winners to face relagation
Time for my season awards:
Manager of the Season: Sir Alex Ferguson – no brainer, I’m afraid.
Worst Manager of the Season: Harry Redknapp and Roberto Mancini share the award. Tony Pulis gets a dishonourable mention.
Goal of the Season: Matthew Lowton for Aston Villa against Stoke. A stunning strike, at a crucial point in the match, that propelled Villa forward and towards safety.
Player of the Season: Gareth Bale for sometimes (most times even) carrying his team; 21 goals, almost all of them extraordinarily good. An honourable mention for Robin van Persie whose goals, arguably, made the difference between the two Manchester clubs in the race for the title.
Biggest Disappointment of the Season: Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli (remember him?) and Luis Suarez.
Young Player of the Season: Callum McManaman (now relegated, but I have a feeling he’ll be back sooner rather than later), with honourable mentions for Ashley Westwood, Eden Hazard, Seamus Coleman, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Luke Shaw and Danny Rose.
Goalkeeper of the Season: Brad Guzan.
Game of the Season: Manchester City 2 Manchester United 3 – Sunday 9 December 2012. It had…everything.