On the last day of the 2011-2012 Premier League season, United were wounded from losing out on the title in the dying moments of the final game. Sergio Aguero lashed in a goal against QPR which gave the ‘noisy neighbours’ every right to rave. Sir Alex Ferguson had a habit of rebuilding his squads over time – and this felt like a time when the team was in transition.
Some have argued United’s squad in 2012-2013 was one of the weakest to have won the league. With De Gea in goal, and a defensive line held by Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evra, with Rafael, Jones and Smalling supporting United’s solid back line.
Ferguson had the attacking talents of Rooney, van Persie, Welbeck and Hernandez at his disposal – a front line of significant firepower. The midfield emerged as the weakest. Giggs and Scholes, although not diminished of their powers, were reaching the end of their careers. Carrick and Kagawa struggled with fitness. Whilst Young, Nani, Valencia and Anderson played with inconsistency rarely found in a title challenging side.
The United squad of 2012-2013 could hardly be sniffed at – but they were significantly short of the talent and capacity of previous great United sides of the Premier League era. With this in mind, perhaps the single greatest achievement of Ferguson’s career was securing the title with the weaker side of 2013.
Ferguson had a habit of winning. He also had a habit of being able to get the best out of others to enable his winning ways. He was able to extract a higher level of performance from his players. Players, like John O’Shea, Ji-Sung Park, Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher, who at first appeared average were able to perform at a much higher level – if only for a short time. These types of players were certainly of Premier League standard. However, when they played for different teams nobody would have identified them as players capable of playing for United. Ferguson regularly brought the best out of them.
It is isn’t just average players Ferguson had this influence on. Time and again, he recruited excellent players and influenced them to be even better – again, if only for a short time. Henrik Larsson and Teddy Sheringham are two prime examples – but there is one who stands out above all others – Robin van Persie.
In 2011-2012, his final season at Arsenal, van Persie scored 30 goals in 38 Premier League games and finished as the winner of the Golden Boot and the FWA Footballer of the Year Award. At the end of the season he opted not to sign a new contract with Arsenal and made a surprise move to United after Rene Meulensteen convinced him his influence could bring a 20th league title to Old Trafford – an accolade he never won at Arsenal.
The Dutchman saw much of the first half of his career blighted with injury and showed occasional flashes of brilliance whilst at Arsenal. It was the 2011-2012 season where he delivered his best performances in an Arsenal shirt. Although he didn’t score as many goals in the following season for United, his overall performance was better. He lifted the team and gave them the belief they could win when they had their backs to the wall. His performance in 2012-2013 represented a direct embodiment of Ferguson’s resilient philosophy.
His goals earned United wins from losing or drawing positions in critical games. A hat-trick against Southampton in a 3-2 win brought United back from 2-1 down, and a late penalty against Liverpool at Anfield secured a 2-1 win. His hat-trick against Aston Villa in April secured the title for United and displayed the fantastic on-pitch understanding he developed with Rooney. The second of his goals came from a Rooney long pass from inside the United half which van Persie watched drop over his right shoulder before lashing a long distance left footed volley far out of reach of the goalkeeper.
There is another game and another performance which embodied van Persie’s conversion to a ruthless and decisive match winner under Ferguson. Going into the Manchester derby in December, reigning champions City had made an unbeaten start in the league and they also remained undefeated at home from well into the previous season. Then came Wayne Rooney.
Rooney scored twice in the first half and victory seemed as though it would be processional for United. City fought back with second half goals from Yaya Toure and an 85th minute equaliser from Pablo Zabaleta. It looked as though City were going to hijack United late in the day again until Carlos Tevez’s injury time foul on Rafael came inside shooting distance. Robin van Persie’s deadly left foot struck the ball which deflected off Samir Nasri and past Joe Hart’s reach.
The significance of this game lies in the way United fought back to win in the dying minutes – a trend we have seen regularly in the Premier League era. This was Ferguson’s final season and his final triumph. Often, sport does not stick to the fairytale ending script, but for Ferguson it did. With their backs against the wall and many writing them off before the start of the season, United were able to forge and grind victories when it looked out of reach.
In his final season, he brought the best out of the ageing Giggs and Scholes, combined the tireless work ethic of Rooney with the killer instinct of van Persie, and ensured his defence remained solid throughout the year. It was a culmination of a group of players performing at their peak for the last time as a collective.
His ‘do or die’ attitude became the attitude of the entire club. He transmitted it over the years to his players and they repaid him with 20 Premier League titles. Ferguson is the most successful leader in sporting history. His vast array of achievements were all individual landmarks on a quest for something that may not even exist – perfection. He is as close as football has ever seen, and possibly will ever see, to reaching this stunningly phantom promised land.
He said upon his farewell:
“I have been very fortunate. I have been able to manage some of the greatest players in the country, let alone Manchester United. If you think about it, those last minute goals, the comebacks – even the defeats are all part of this great football club of ours. It has been an unbelievable experience.”
It was for us too, Sir Alex.