Manchester United secured their 19th league title recently. James, Chief MUFC Writer for writtenoffside.com, chronicles the highs and the lows of a another memorable season.
Manchester United kicked off the 2010-11 season with three new additions to the squad. Chris Smalling had agreed his transfer from Fulham back in January 2010 but the deal was officially signed in July. Javier Hernández was signed from Chivas Guadlajara and impressed United fans with his pace and eye for goal during the World Cup in South Africa. The most surprising purchase by the club was that of Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (better known as Bébé) who arrived for a reported fee of £7.4million and with just 26 games as a professional behind him and seemingly little pedigree as a top class footballer.
United kicked off the season with the traditional Community Shield fixture against double winners Chelsea at Wembley. The Red Devils picked up their first silverware of the season emerging as comfortable 3-1 winners which included a goal from Hernández who displayed the first glimpse of his penchant for improvisation in the process of scoring his first strike of the season. The little Mexican’s goal was sandwiched between efforts from Valencia and Berbatov.
August to October
P10, W5, D5, L0. GS:22 GC:12
The Premier League campaign for United kicked off on Monday 16th August with a game against newly promoted Newcastle at Old Trafford. The home side ran out comfortable winners by three goals to nil with the night rounded off by a sublime Scholes assist leading to a fine Giggs finish which saw the Welshman maintain his incredible record of scoring in every Premier League season since its inception in 1992/93.
Scholes’ fine form continued at Craven Cottage the following weekend with a trademark strike from outside the box to give United the lead against Fulham. The Reds dropped their first points of the season in what was to become a worrying trend in the early weeks as a late Hangeland header drew the teams level after the Fulham defender had put through his own net just five minutes earlier. The frustration was further compounded by a Nani penalty miss which would have sealed the points with the score at 2-1.
A comfortable home win against West Ham followed which was notable only for Rooney’s first goal of the season from the penalty spot and a fine individual strike from Nani after cutting in from the right flank.
Matches at Goodison Park always have a habit of producing excitement and this season’s fixture was no different. After falling behind, United replied either side of half time with goals from Fletcher and Vidic before a casual but cultured Berbatov strike left United cruising as the game meandered into injury time. However, lapses in concentration allowed the Toffeemen to equalise and leave the away side with red faces as the stuttering start to the season continued.
Next up was the small matter of Merseyside rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford who would come to be knocked off their perch by the season’s finale. After storming into a two goal lead courtesy of the languid Berbatov whose overhead kick for his second will live long in the memory, United’s habit of letting leads slip emerged once more as Gerrard brought the Scousers level. Scenes of extensive camera and badge kissing were quickly extinguished by the Bulgarian number 9 completing his hat trick with a second header to secure a much needed three points for the home side. The result heaped more pressure on then Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson who had begun his tenure at Anfield in patchy fashion and it ultimately led to his sacking in January ahead of the FA Cup meeting between these two sides.
Away draws followed against Bolton and Sunderland as United looked unconvincing on their travels against teams they would have swept past in previous campaigns. The malaise surrounding the club’s performances grew deeper with the team surrendering a two goal advantage at home against promoted West Brom who benefited from one of the only blunders from Van der Sar all season. These were to be the only dropped points at Old Trafford all season.
It was at this point in October that news started to filter out about Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave the club. This was swiftly confirmed by Sir Alex in a captivating press conference where he attempted to explain the player’s motives for turning his back on the club. In everyone’s eyes it was a brilliant “performance” by the manager who heaped pressure on his wayward striker and made it clear that he was being badly advised. With the United faithful firmly behind the boss and the sentiments expressed, Rooney had a change of heart and returned to the negotiating table. In many fans eyes, he emerged somewhat fortuitously with a bumper new contract although it took some quality end of season performances to win round the favour of the fans who once idolised him.
The gloom engulfing the club was lifted further by the joy of a first away victory of the season at the Britannia Stadium where a new star appeared from the shadows to nudge United past the challenge of Stoke. Javier Hernández secured a brace on the day but it was his opener that will be fondly remembered and brought him firmly to the attention of the football watching public. After a corner had been headed back across goal by Vidic, the Mexican leapt up with his back to goal and managed to flick the ball towards goal in one swift motion. Replays proved beyond doubt that it was a tremendous piece of improvisation rather than luck as the timing of his jump was crucial to the eventual execution. The winner was a typical poacher’s goal from within the six yard box that sent the travelling army of fans home happy. This was also the game that proved why Gary Neville’s eventual retirement was a sound idea after he was caught struggling for pace numerous times and fortunate not to receive a red card.
October drew to a close with a game against Spurs at fortress Old Trafford. With Rafael keeping golden boy Gareth Bale quiet, it was left to Gomes in the away team goal to take the headlines after he gifted Nani the all important second goal after a Vidic header had put United in front. With the game still closely fought, Nani’s claims for a penalty were waved away by referee Clattenberg who gestured for the game to continue. Gomez clearly thought it was a free kick to Spurs and proceeded to put the ball down only for the Portuguese winger to fire the ball into an unguarded net. The inevitable Spurs protests failed to see the goal overturned and led to phone-in shows being deluged with calls from irate supporters still seething at the “goal that never was” by Mendes a few seasons back. Ironically, Mr Clattenberg was on duty that night also!
November to February
P17, W12, D4, L1. GS: 39 GC:13
The first league game in November saw the visit of Wolves to Old Trafford. The pre-match talk centred around the inclusion of Owen Hargreaves. Sadly for the former Bayern Munich midfielder, the much anticipated return lasted barely five minutes and he was never seen in a United shirt again. His replacement on the day, Bébé did not fare much better on the pitch as he faced the ignominy of being a substitute substituted after an erratic display. United managed to sneak the three points late on thanks to a Ji Sung Park strike.
Next up was the small matter of the Manchester derby at Eastlands but this occasion passed by relatively unnoticed due to the home side’s negative tactics as the game ended goalless and without incident.
Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground over the years both in league and cup competitions for United but after 75 minutes, the Reds found themselves two goals down after another insipid away performance. Thankfully, the much renowned never say die attitude that resonates from every section of the club shone through as goals from Macheda and Vidic claimed a share of the spoils.
A routine 2-0 home victory against Wigan followed soon after but was notable for the return to action of Wayne Rooney after his injury lay-off to a lukewarm reception from the Old Trafford faithful. Perhaps mindful of a negative reaction, the manager chose to introduce the Englishman at the same time as Paul Scholes to help to quell any disquiet. Wigan in the end were architects of their own downfall in many ways after being reduced to nine men. A rare Evra header was followed by a late Hernández one to secure the three points for the home side.
United’s biggest win of the season arrived shortly after, as Blackburn Rovers were steamrollered 7-1 thanks in the main to Berbatov’s five goals which equalled a Premier League record. It was a day when the home team were at their imperious best with Anderson standing out in midfield with accurate passing and driving runs that Blackburn had no answer to. The fourth goal that arrived shortly after half time will long be remembered as the team goal of the season. Berbatov picked up the ball in an unaccustomed position at left back and after swapping passes with Evra, pinged a glorious pass out wide to Nani who made his way towards the box before cutting the ball back to the on-rushing Bulgarian to fire home. The move was symptomatic of the flowing football displayed by the team that day.
Arsenal at home is always a pivotal match for United and a solid defensive display coupled with an instinctive Park header saw the Reds to victory against their arch rivals. The second half saw a missed penalty from Rooney as he struggled to regain full fitness and form. This malaise in his play was set to continue for a few matches yet.
Following Chelsea’s suspect decision to postpone their home fixture with United a full 24 hours before the game due to adverse weather conditions, the team had to wait until Boxing Day to return to league action where a dull two goal victory against Sunderland was achieved thanks to a Berbatov brace. A Midlands away double header then followed with a trip to Birmingham followed closely by a visit to the Hawthornes to take on West Brom as the New Year began. The trip to St Andrew’s saw a scrappy 1-1 draw played out with more frustration for United on their travels thanks to a late Bowyer equaliser. Rooney and Hernández struck a few days later to give the Reds three points against West Brom although the home side will count themselves unlucky not to pick up at least a point after missing a penalty and having claims for another after a suspect Gary Neville lunge.
Stoke City were the first visitors to Old Trafford in 2011 and went home with a narrow defeat after goals from Hernández and Nani. United managed to keep their unbeaten record in tact following a goalless draw at White Hart Lane which saw Rafael fall foul of Mike Dean’s yellow card on two occasions prompting an early bath for the feisty Brazilian. The match quickly lapsed into stalemate as both sides seemed happy to leave the game with a point in the bag.
Birmingham were duly dispatched 5-0 in late January which saw Berbatov’s third hat trick of the season. Incredibly, this meant the Bulgarian was on 17 goals at the half way stage. Unfortunately for United, he would only add three goals to that tally in the second half of the season.
United’s trip to Bloomfield Road to take on Blackpool brought yet another poor away display followed by a late rally to secure the points. Trailing 2-0 and with little sign of inspiration, the manager brought on a couple of renowned game-changers Giggs and Hernández and the picture rapidly altered. A Berbatov brace sandwiched by a Hernández clinical finish brought yet another Lazarus like recovery from this Manchester United side who were starting to feel that a record 19th league title could be a possibility with their nearest rivals starting to self implode.
February dawned with a solid regulation 3-1 victory at home to Villa with Rooney returning to the goal trail and showing signs of finally getting into his stride once more.
The seemingly inevitable first defeat duly arrived when a visit to Wolves saw the home side emerge victorious. The omens were not looking favourable before the match started when Rio Ferdinand pulled up with a calf injury in the warm up that was to sideline him for 8 weeks. Despite Nani’s early strike, United looked lethargic and lacking in invention throughout as they tasted defeat in the league for the first time in 29 matches dating back to April 2010 against Chelsea.
The perfect way to bounce back presented itself the following Saturday with the magnitude of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The performance paled into apparent insignificance following a goal of such majesty to claim the three points by Rooney in the 79th minute. The undisputed individual goal of the season came courtesy of a deflected Nani cross that saw Rooney launch an athletic bicycle kick that sailed past Hart in the City goal. It is easy to forget the quality of United’s opener from Nani just before half time as he collected a through ball from Giggs before slotting past the advancing Hart. Amazingly, it proved to be Nani’s last goal of the season as the “noisy neighbours” were put in their place. With Ferdinand absent, this was the game that saw Chris Smalling really come of age at the heart of the United defence as he demonstrated composure and class that belies his lack of experience at the top level.
The final game of February away at Wigan saw the start of a partnership that would ultimately drive the team towards their much coveted 19th title. Rooney and Hernández contributed three in this game and a further nine in the remaining league games. The partnership blossomed to such an extent that it left the league’s leading scorer to sample life on the bench for much of the remainder of the season. Probably the best away performance followed the selection of these two together and the Reds left the DW Stadium with a 4-0 victory with Fábio adding the final goal in the last few minutes.
March to May
P11, W6, D2, L3. GS:13 GC:12
“Beware the ides of March” we are all told and so it came to pass for United as their title challenge faltered following successive away defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool. A fantastic first half display saw the Reds lead Chelsea by a goal at half time thanks to a fine Rooney strike and an all round energetic performance notable for Scholes and Carrick controlling midfield and dominating on the flanks. However, the second half was a complete reversal as the home side were galvanised by Luiz’s controlled volley and took control before taking the lead thanks to a Lampard penalty. The result meant that Chelsea were effectively back in the title race although some poor officiating from Martin Atkinson left a sour taste in the mouths of the United faithful at Stamford Bridge.
The following weekend saw a much anticipated trip to Anfield but the midfield was once more over run and a Kuyt hat trick put United to the sword. The match will be remembered by many for the dangerous studs-up challenge on Nani by Carragher that saw the Portuguese winger in tears at the assault committed. Although Nani was only out for a week, it could be argued that he was not the same player for the remainder of the season as coupled with Antonio Valencia’s return, he was switched out to the left wing and was noticeably less effective.
Valencia’s return to league action came in the home game against Bolton after a brief cameo versus Arsenal in the FA Cup the week before. A late Berbatov strike (a rare impact as substitute) got United back on track with a precious three points. Jonny Evans was given a red card for a dangerous tackle on Stuart Holden that made United’s strength in adversity all the more important.
There were echoes of Bloomfield Road once more for the Reds as they trailed West Ham by two goals at half time at Upton Park. In similar fashion, United stormed back to claim a vital three points as a rejuvenated Rooney struck three times (including one from the spot) and Hernández popped up late on to put the icing on the cake. Controversy is never far from Rooney’s door and so it proved once more at Upton Park as he swore down the lens of the television camera which led to an FA charge and a ludicrous two match ban that would rule him out of the FA Cup Semi Final against City.
A week later saw the visit of Fulham to Old Trafford and they were comfortably dispatched by first half goals from Berbatov and Valencia before the home side took their foot off the gas with tougher tests on the horizon. A disappointing midweek draw at Newcastle gave United’s title rivals fresh hope in a performance that lacked authority or the necessary invention to break down a stubborn Toon defence. This match followed the sub-standard display at Wembley against City that saw the team’s treble dream evaporate and put their opponents on the brink of ending their 35 year trophy drought.
Having experienced two goalless games, the nerves were out in force for United’s attack in the home game against Everton as the match drew closer to its conclusion. Fortunately, prayers were answered when Hernández, not for the first time, secured the three points late on with a salmon-like leap at the far post.
The least said about United’s trip to the Emirates Stadium the better as the away side slumped to their fourth, and thankfully final, defeat of the season. Neither side looked particularly threatening over the course of the game and post-match many United fans called into question the wisdom of abandoning the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation that has been so effective against the Gunners in recent years. As it was, a momentary lapse in concentration from Park who had just been moved to a central midfield position, left Ramsey free to fire past Van der Sar. A late penalty claim was turned down as Clichy caught Owen but it was not to be United’s day.
The penultimate game of United’s home campaign brought Chelsea to Old Trafford in the knowledge that if they could repeat last year’s victory at the Theatre of Dreams then they would be in a strong position to retain their league title. As it turned out, these hopes were effectively extinguished after just 34 seconds as Hernández was put clear on goal and nervelessly steered the ball past the advancing Cech. What followed was United’s most complete performance of the season as the Chelsea defence wilted under the pressure exerted by the likes of Park, Rooney, Valencia, Giggs and Carrick. In fact, the Ecuadorian gave Ashley Cole such a torrid time that it is hard to recollect another such time in the left back’s career. The relentless pressure told once more midway through the first half as Vidic surged past the Chelsea backline to power in a point blank header. Although, Lampard gave the away side hope with a smart finish in the second half, the home side continued to create a multitude of chances but as each one was squandered so the nerves grew. Chelsea knew only a win would realistically keep them in the hunt and they eventually ran out of both ideas and time. United now knew that a single point in their remaining two matches would see them finally knock their old rivals Liverpool off their perch to claim their historic 19th league championship.
First up in their quest for the one remaining point required were Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. The home side had the audacity to shock the massed ranks of the away support as they took the lead and looked good value for it as Kuszczak in the United goal demonstrated perfectly why he will not be considered as Van der Sar’s replacement. His nervousness with the ball at his feet spread panic amongst a back line usually so composed under the guidance of the veteran Dutchman. In the end it was left to Rooney to secure the draw with a well taken penalty after Hernández was bundled over in the box by Robinson. The final ten minutes saw both sides happy to settle for a point as the ball was played around among United’s back line with barely a threat of forward progression. The final whistle blew and the scenes of jubilation that followed will live long in the memory as this alleged sub-standard squad celebrated their historic championship with the fans lucky enough to be present.
Going into the final league game at Old Trafford with the title secure, the only remaining goal was to see if the team could complete an almost perfect home record. Only West Brom had left the Reds fortress with anything other than a defeat. Unfortunately, a United victory consigned Blackpool to relegation after a season where they imposed their own brand of attacking football on the division but ultimately they conceded far too many to survive. Their spirit was amply demonstrated by having the impudence to take the lead at one point but hopes of saving themselves were dashed by Anderson, an own goal and a late Owen strike.
The club’s 19th league title was presented after the game but not before Old Trafford had applauded Ian Holloway’s gallant battlers from the field in a sign of class from those in attendance sympathetic to the plight of a fine football team. Nemanja Vidic lifted the trophy and started the celebrations in earnest as the players wives and children joined in the party on the pitch.
The season was to end on a sour note with the defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League but there was no disgrace in coming off second best to one of the best sides of all time. Despite this disappointment, it was never going to take the gloss off a remarkable season that has seen Sir Alex Ferguson navigate his way through the congested fixture list with wonderful imagination and bravery in terms of squad rotation. The challenge as ever is how to remain on top next season and plans are already under way with rumours flying around about transfer dealings at the club. As well as players coming in to strengthen the squad, there will be inevitable departures too with the likes of Neville, Van der Sar and Scholes retiring and question marks about the futures of a number of others. Whatever happens, United will rise again next season in the face of renewed challenges from the usual rivals as they look to retain their league trophy and conquer Europe once more.
You can follow James on Twitter @writtenoff_mufc for updates, news and general Manchester United information.