Steven Gerrard rather rudely dismissed Everton as 'the new Stoke'…
When Sir Alex Ferguson set out to overhaul Liverpool’s record of 18 league titles, few would have considered the outcome to be a safe bet. Yet, 26 years and 19 Premier League trophies later, the dream has become reality for Manchester United supporters. And what’s more, far from resting on their laurels, United are in hot pursuit of a 20th league championship; four points clear and unbeaten in nine, Ferguson’s latest team are in pole position. Unless, of course, those ‘noisy neighbours’ have anything to say on the matter… Top for the majority of the season, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City – with a game in hand and a 100% home record – could yet claim their first league title.
For United, the key word has been resurgence. A matter of weeks ago, Sir Alex Ferguson looked a man bereft of ideas as a stuttering midfield was matched by an equally unimpressive back four and a goalkeeper struggling to adapt to the English game. However, Fergie regained his magic touch once more and back came veteran, Paul Scholes, to pull the strings as midfield lynchpin. Indeed, Scholes’ return, accompanied by a significant defensive improvement and coming of grace for De Gea, has seen United embark upon a superfluous run of results. The likes of Wolves and Bolton have been decimated, Tottenham Hotspur comprehensively outplayed and Chelsea, crucially, pegged back from 3-0 up. Just when the jury was out on United’s season, a timely romp of success has launched them into first place, perhaps compensating for a lacklustre year in the knockout format.
Statistically, United’s league form cannot be criticised: 48% of games produce a clean sheet, accompanied by 0.93 goals conceded per match on average – this coming at a time filled with defensive injuries and uncertain partnerships at centre back. Attacking wise, 2.52 goals a match are scored on average, thanks to a fearless strike force, clinical finishing and an effective use of space with free-flowing movement off the ball.
The recovery of Ferguson’s men has been nothing short of remarkable; fans and critics alike have been reminded that any new kids on the block must produce their absolute best to have any chance of stealing the crown from the red half of Manchester. But what is it that has made United tick? What is it that has enabled them to rise from the dead when many had already marked their gravestone? The answer lies in a marked development of key personnel.
Johnny Evans, for starters, has come on leaps and bounds since a time when onlookers may have laughed at the mention of his name. Scoring his first Manchester United goal against Wolves, the Northern Irishman has worked on his strength and physique and consolidated his position in the starting line-up; his solid form is a far cry from his sending off against Manchester City earlier in the season. David De Gea, too, is a reformed character; no longer fumbling at crosses and suffering from indecisiveness, the Spanish goalkeeper is showing why his manager thought he was worth a reported £18 million.
In midfield, the aforementioned talisman, Scholes, is well supported by Michael Carrick, a consistent performer of late. This central midfield pairing are in exceptional company with Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia out wide. United’s biggest strengths are their versatility up front and the match-winning ability of so many of their players. Ferguson is able to rotate between the likes of Welbeck, Hernandez, Young, Valencia, Nani and Rooney, scorer of 20 league goals this season, to suit the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. And with regards to being match winners, Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney have all scored decisive goals to win their team points at vital stages of the season.
But what of City? Can the blue half of Manchester finally derail their arch rivals after decades of living in their shadow? The signs certainly looked promising after a 6-1 win at Old Trafford, whilst City proceeded to open up a lead of several points as the season progressed thereafter. Yet, a tough January period saw the team brought back down to earth and now, ahead of a testing fixture against Chelsea, many are backing United’s experience and resilience to retain their title.
Statistically, City have faired better than United defensively, conceding an average of 0.71 goals per game, whilst achieving a similar percentage of clean sheets at 46%. The scoring rate, too, is similar, at 2.46 goals per match on average. Thus, there isn’t much to separate the two Manchester sides and one may be forgiven for concluding that the race, having provided a tumultuous journey so far, is simply too close to call.
The ‘Citizens’ have spent freely in recent years. The arrival of owner, Sheikh Mansour, has seen an endless influx of world-class talent and spending matching that of Formula One teams before the spending cap was introduced. Vital to their prior success have been ever-present stalwarts, Micah Richards, Jolean Lescott and Joe Hart. Defensively, City have been the most astute team in the league, but have suffered when captain, Vicent Kompany, has been unavailable through suspension or injury. Arguably their most influential player, Yaya Toure, is instrumental to their intricate passing game and was dearly missed when he was on African Cup of Nations duty.
If City are to lift the title, the efforts of David Silva will be eternally appreciated. The agile Spanish playmaker is a strong contender for Player of the Year and has hugely impressed this season, grabbing five goals and 12 assists. He is also not short of highly skilled team-mates to conduct his business with: James Milner, Adam Johnson and Samir Nasri have all interlinked with the Spaniard to great avail. However, such is the depth of City’s squad that none of the above are guaranteed a starting place.
In attack is where City’s most recent problems have become apparent. Despite 40 goals between them this season, City’s front three of Aguero, Dzeko and Balotelli have been relatively quiet of late. The solution? In steps potentially the most important man in City’s title bid: Carlos Tevez, whose return Roberto Mancini will hope can inspire the rest of his team-mates to glory.
And so, with ten games remaining, the title race is perfectly poised to provide further twists and turns. Though no game in modern football is easy (a point compounded by United’s home loss to Blackburn and City’s 1-0 defeat to Swansea), Manchester United have the softer run-in. City must play Chelsea, travel to Arsenal and visit Newcastle at the Sports Direct Arena. By contrast, United have no games against any of the top seven, aside from a monumental trip to the Etihad on April 30th.
Indeed, unless either side undergoes a catastrophic lapse in form, it is this all-important Manchester derby that may decide the destination of this season’s trophy. City have won every home league game this season, but United beat them there in the FA Cup in January. With both sides out of the domestic cups and European competition, it is safe to say that the Premier League is now their full-on priority. Manchester United’s recent form may have given them a surge of momentum, but City’s title credentials would be foolhardy to undermine; all eyes to the Etihad on April 30th – no Manchester derby has ever been bigger.
Timothy Poole is the Sports Editor for the LSE student newspaper The Beaver