Once upon a time there were four managers and their names were Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger and Benitez. These four super-powers of the game were in charge of the top four sides from England’s premiere football division and they were the envy of most managers in the world. There stay of success in English football meant that year on year they were qualifying for the Champion’s League and winning domestic trophies accumulating precious money along the way. Whilst many clubs in England and around the world were struggling financially, these four clubs were thriving and as a result they were empowered with the ability to buy the best talent from around the world in the quest to assemble the strongest squad’s in world football.
Aside from the domestic and European domination that these clubs enjoyed the other enduring memory for me from this era of the Premier League is that of the four club’s head-to-head fixtures. The excitement and tension surrounding the build-up to these fixtures were tangible. The fans knew full well that the sides were all well matched and immensely competitive and with this came the knowledge that their sides were just as likely (if not more) to lose or draw the match as they were to win.
With their respective club’s being so well matched the manager’s developed fierce rivalries. Their underlying mutual respect for one another fired their ambitions and hopes of getting one over on each other and not one of them shirked the challenge. Not one of them were short on confidence. Each of them were immensely confident in their team’s and their own ability and it made for a brilliant side show to the main attraction of the matches themselves.
This burning desire not to be embarrassed by their challengers was perhaps what led to the matches being so tight and generally low-scoring. It seemed that the managers’ intense rivalries rubbed off on their players and as such the matches bristled with tension, mind-games and a fierce undertone. Where the players could get away with small niggling indisciplines they did and more often than not the games were fractious affairs. Perhaps it is arguable that the nature of these games detracted not from the defensive qualities of the club’s but their attacking brilliance, which was such a factor in their overwhelming of lesser sides.
I don’t mean to dumb down the magic in these fixtures with stories of negativity, but in these years the big games were captivating rather than thrilling. They were based far more on ebbs and flows than they were upon roller coaster rides, but they were brilliant nonetheless. Maybe not beautiful, but brillant, and more often than not decided by moments of inspiration. Sure it would have been nice to get the odd 4-3 thriller and maybe there were a few too many 0-0 and 1-1 draws but that just served to demonstrate the equality of effort and strain being put into these games by all the sides.
The reason for such nostalgia is this current season’s own take on the big matches and the stark contrast to the aforementioned era of Premier League football. This season’s head-to-heads between the so called ‘title contenders’ have been a world away from the older days with goals galore caused by an amalgomation of brilliant, fluid attacking play and some quite frankly rotten defending.
The latest example in the series of open games between the Premier League’s finest was that of Manchester City’s romping 6-1 victory over Champions Manchester United in their own backyard. Though full credit must go to City for their attitude towards at first eleven United players and then later the ten remaining opponents following Jonny Evans’ dismissal. Mario Ballotelli, as frustrating as he can sometimes be, was terrific. His combination of strength, pace and self-belief scared United into submission at times and for me he was the focal point of City’s glorious day, the sort of day that may well have made Sir Alex question why he is still managing a football team.
This isn’t to say that Sir Alex should have packed it in, he is still a marvellous manager, but it really was a horror show and one which would have made any self-respecting Manager question them self. United’s early territory threatened to overwhelm City and Ashley Young looked set to further endear himself to the Old Trafford faithful with a buccaneering wing display but as soon as Ballotelli bagged the opener with great craft United’s challenge fizzled out. Scoring so simply against the run of play inspired City to drive on knowing that they had safely navigated their way through the early torment and come out on top. From this point on City were unrelenting and United pathetic. Few occasions in Sir Alex’s epically long tenure have been so hideous. A few games come to mind though namely the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle (which is celebrating it’s anniversary in Geordie-land this week), the 5-0 loss to Chelsea about a decade ago, and the humiliating 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough that sparked Roy Keane’s acrimonious departure from the club. It is a staggering scoreline reflective of United’s suicidal attitude throughout the match, and was just the latest feather in the Premier League’s goal-rush cap when it comes to the top of the table clashes.
Accompanying this unthinkable result have been United’s comical 8-2 win over Arsenal, United’s 3-1 win over Chelsea (which Ferguson said could honestly have finished “13-12”), United’s 4-0 thrashing of Spurs and City’s own thrashing of Spurs by 5 goals to 1. It is incredible to think that this Premier League season still hasn’t even seen November and that it has already produced so many title-contending clashes played out like basketball matches.
Maybe it is just the new breed of manager’s at the top clubs that are responsible for such results, after all the likes of Harry Redknapp in charge of Spurs are famed for playing football in the spirit of “avin’ a go”. I believe thought that there are two equally if not more significant factors. The first of these maybe that the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have had the honour of facing up to the current Barcelona side and have realised that their only chance of unsettling them is to attack them and put them out of their comfort zone. Last season alone both Arsenal and Manchester United were denied the opportunity of European glory by Barca, and the pick of the confrontations was Arsenal’s gutsy fightback to beat Barca 2-1 at the Emirates.
Having begun the game on the back foot and trying to soak up the Catalan pressure they found themselves trailing by a goal to nil and being run ragged. However, the second half saw Wenger’s men take Barcelona on at their own game and they managed to reap huge rewards for their courageousness. Though they failed to back the win up with progression to the next round, they provided the greatest indication yet that the way to stop the seemingly irrepressible Catalan’s is to play on the front foot and take the game to them. Perhaps then this is the motivation for the top English clubs’ seeming desire to express themselves in big matches, perhaps they are honing in on tactics that they believe could return them to the peak of the European game.
The second, and arguably most logical reason is that the goal-glut has been caused by the increased competition for places at the top of the Premier League. With 6 teams realistically vying for Champions League qualification there are now fewer ‘easy’ games. As a result the big teams are no longer able to store up their fitness, composure and defensive strength for stand-out ties whilst cutting loose in the less demanding fixtures. More games are tough games now, and more games are able to have a genuine say in the title shake up and as such the teams are encouraged to play with similar freedom regardless of the opposition.
Whatever the reason, I certainly hope that the gluttony for goalscoring is a recurring theme in the Premier League’s glamour ties (though as a United fan I’d probably rather avoid 6-1 home defeats to our fiercest rivals). The old days of the Premier League were just as great, but not quite as hair-raising and exciting. The new breed of title-chasing sides are geared to continue in the same vein as they have done thus far this season, and if they do then we could be in for a hell of a ride!