One of the footballing cliches most bandied about by fans and pundits alike is that to win a league, you need the utmost stability at the back. A platoon of defensive ever-presents who know each other better than they know their own wives...or girlfriends...or both, if you’re any footballer anyone’s ever heard of.
In principal, these ideas seem very sound: When the cosh is on top of you and close games that are often the difference between an open-top bus parade and a first-class flight full of leg room and shame come down to the final minutes, you want a reliability, toughness and functionality akin to those you’d look for in an oxygen tank if you were a deep-sea diver.
History also holds the same values in the highest regard. From Lawrenson and Hanson (who still can’t be separated) to Bruce and Pallister to Adams and Keown: There are a litany of partnerships that evoke the arm-in-arm kinship of a less racially dense Rush Hour movie.
However, this deeply enshrined element of the footballing scripture has come into question from a man who helped write it.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United are attempting to rewrite (at least part of) the rulebook of how to win the Premier League.
This season, United have conceded 31 times in 26 games, putting them on course to concede 45 times this season. Last year, Sunderland finished 13th while conceding 46 times. Two years ago, Fulham finished 12th also giving up 46. Logic dictates that such a porous defense will severely compromise your chances of winning the title.
In fact, in the 20-year history of the Premier League, only twice has a team taken the crown when conceding over 40 times. You won’t be surprised to hear that it was United both times.
The first occasion came in 1997, a year in which Newcastle finished second, seven points short, with Alan Shearer scoring 25 times. Arsenal and Liverpool tied the Magpies on points. Roman Abramovich had just turned 30 and was a good six years off hitting an oligarch’s mid-life crisis and buying Chelsea. Sheik Mansour was a young man doing Sheik things.
The second time came in 2000, when both Arsenal (second) and Leeds (third) gave up 43 goals, nullifying the effect.
Apart from those two occasions, the closest United came to the big four-zero was when they let in 37 in the historic treble-winning 1999 campaign. One of the most overlooked parts of that season is that United only won the league on the last day of the season and took the title by a single point. It’s also worth noting that the very same year, Arsenal conceded a mere 17 times and threw away the title by only finding the back of the net 57 times compared to United’s 80.
In fact, in the last nine Premier League seasons, only two teams to hit the 40-goal mark have ever finished in the top three (Arsenal last year and in 2010, third both times).
But despite these bleak truths, United have a 12-point lead. You can point to the goals of Robin Van Persie (ask my RVP-less fantasy team) and the discontent down the road at City as the main reasons why.
However, barring a historic collapse, United will complete two incredible achievements this season: They will reach the milestone of 20 titles and, more intriguingly, they’ll debunk the set-in-stone philosophy that you need a band of brothers guarding your net. Or at least they’ll make us think about it.
In the 26 games thus far, Sir Alex Ferguson has picked eight separate central-defensive partnerships. His most used pairing (Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans) have started less than half the games together (12). Their best partnership (Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic) have played just three games together and their best defender and captain, Vidic, has started nine league games (34 percent).
Ferdinand has provided the closest thing to stability, starting 19 times, and Evans, who not long ago was used as a punchline more than a centre-back, has started just over half the games. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones (seven combined starts at centre-back, zero together) have rotated between playing in the centre and at right-back. Jones has also seen time in a holding role, while Michael Carrick, an out-and-out midfielder, has also started twice in defense due to injuries.
It’s fair to say that it’s been something of a revolving door at centre-back—and it doesn’t end there.
Behind the shuffling deck, David De Gea has been dropped for eight league games (over 30 percent) and has been criticised for the majority of the other 18, prompting rumours that Stoke’s Asmir Begovic or someone else may take his place in the summer.
All of that means that the rigid wall of defiance pundits like to witter on about when there’s time to fill may not hold the same weight that it once did.
Of course, it doesn’t render the idea of a consistent defensive spine irrelevant. At the end of last season, United’s lack of stability was cited as the reason for their failure to win the title outright, or via goal difference.
Last season, United also fielded eight central-defensive pairings. Ferdinand/Evans started most of the games at the back (20); Ferdinand and Vidic rarely started together (five times), with Vidic starting in only one other game. Ferdinand started the most games (29), and Evans was the only other centre-back to start over half the games. Jones and Smalling started a combined 11 games in the middle (zero together) while rotating around other positions. Even Michael Carrick started exactly two games at centre-back.
The symmetry is so incredible, it’s scary.
Just in case you need any more proof: David De Gea was dropped for 10 games (26 percent) and, in one exceptional case when De Gea was ill and Anders Lindegaard injured, Ben Amos claimed his first league start (the irony, of course, being that he kept a clean sheet).
When you compare this to Manchester City’s title-winning campaign, it’s easy to say that United’s defensive weaknesses cost them the title.
Joe Hart started all 38 games in goal and had the combination of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in front of him 26 times. They only started without one of those two on three occasions.
Unsurprisingly, when he’s had the chance, Sir Alex Ferguson has also favoured the more conventional approach.
In 2011, when United regained the title from Chelsea, Edwin Van Der Sar was the unquestioned No. 1, Nemanja Vidic started 36 games and his partnership with Ferdinand was the most numerous.
Scanning through history, the most successful teams have also followed the formula.
Arsenal’s invincibles of 2004 are the absolutely prototypical example. Jens Lehman, in his first season and before he became all funny and terrible, started every game in goal, while Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure started 33 games together. Combined, they started 71 of 78 times, with one of the two starting every game and either a really old Martin Keown or the somewhat-old Pascal Cygan filling in next to him.
The team that conceded the fewest goals in Premier League history were, unsurprisingly, a Jose Mourinho-led Chelsea, in this case the 2005 edition. What’s interesting about that team is that they kind of half-followed the conventional approach, but half-used a rotational policy.
In goal, it was all very straightforward with Petr Cech (back in the days where we could still see his flowing locks) as the clear No. 1. However, in defense was where it got interesting. John Terry was an ever-present, starting 36 games (the two he didn’t start were the final two when the title was already won); however, next to him, Mourinho switched between Ricardo Carvalho (18 starts) and William Gallas (14 starts).
Trust Mourinho to throw a spanner into the works. Who knows why he did it?
Maybe it was to create competition and get them to push each other. Maybe he did it entirely on form.
Maybe he did it based on who was best-suited against the opposition. Maybe he just couldn’t decide who was better.
Maybe he had the inside track on John Terry’s mental state and didn’t want either of them to become his "best mate" by playing them with him every week like he did with Wayne Bridge. Maybe that’s why he signed Ashely Cole a year later. Is it possible that John Terry’s insidious behaviour won Chelsea the league in 2005 and the year after that with Cole bombing down the left? Maybe John Terry really is the greatest captain of all time.
Bringing this back full-circle shows how unique this Manchester United team has been. Of all these dominant teams we’ve seen over the past decade, they've all seemingly had goalkeepers who've been the "first name on the team sheet" types—and not just because the goalkeeper literally comes first on the team sheet.
From Arsenal to Chelsea to the other Manchester United teams of late, they've all seemingly had centre-backs who pick themselves and who don’t pick up injuries that deny them the chance of being in the conversation.
That’s why this United team is so interesting. Whereas all of these other teams have won the title from the solid-foundation formula, Sir Alex Ferguson has thrown caution to the wind and said, “Screw it, we can’t stop them but we will not be stopped."
And that brings us to Robin Van Persie. I won’t go into detail over his performances this season because it’s all been said already, but I will say this: His summer transfer might be the most directly impactful on a the title race as we’ve ever seen. Think about the impact of taking Van Persie off this United team and adding him to that City team. It’s like the player equivalent of a six-pointer which goes in United’s favour every game.
Last season, both teams finished on 89 points, with City taking all six head-to-head. United are currently on course to finish on 95 points, with City finishing on 77. Van Persie has scored 19 goals this season, most in the league, including five winning goals, also most in the league. Most memorable of all was the last-minute free kick in the Manchester derby.
If you take away that goal, and let’s say two more of those winning strikes (an extremely lenient drop off considering how removing many of his 19 goals could have also turned wins into draws and draws into defeats), United would have 59 points, putting them on pace for 86. Give City a point in the derby and those two winners and that puts City just a point behind and still well in the frame to claim another title.
Obviously, all of that was hypothetical, but it just shows how such an imposing lead can evaporate.
Moving from the hypothetical past to the presumptuous future, if all does go according to United’s plan and they seal the deal, don’t get caught up in the rose-tinted sentimentality of what "a great team effort" it was and how "everyone played their part."
Hail Van Persie and the rest of that attacking crew for scoring (insert number here) of goals to win the title. Hail them for doing all they did to win the title, and at a canter at this stage, in a team with one of the weakest defensive spines we have seen in such a dominant team. After all, that’s the difference between them regaining the league title this season and retaining it.
The moral of this season is clear. Manchester United haven’t rewritten the book of football and they aren't trying to. If they keep up the defensive pace they are on, Ferguson won’t be happy and he’ll strive to find that foundation that all those other great teams have.
What this team has taught us, though, is that even an incomplete team with quality depth and a depth in quality can still win it all, and are on the brink of doing so.