Alex Ferguson mastered the art of squad rotation as his side claimed a third successive league title.
By Gavin Hamilton in London
Their tactical shortcomings may have been cruelly exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League Final, but Manchester United’s domestic dominance remains as strong as ever.
Alex Ferguson’s side equalled Liverpool’s record of 18 league titles when they won a third successive Premier League crown by a comfortable margin from Liverpool, with Chelsea a distant third and Arsenal a poor fourth.
The stars of the triumph were numerous and reflected in multiple nominations for United players in the end-of-season awards. Six United players – Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Carrick – featured in the top-eight voting for the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award. The split vote allowed Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard to take the prize, just as Tottenham’s David Ginola did in 1999 when United won a League, Cup and European treble.
It’s almost impossible to name United’s first-choice XI, such has been the success of Ferguson in perfecting the art of squad rotation. Old hands Giggs and Paul Scholes still played key roles, while the likes of Gary Neville were overtaken by newcomers such as Brazilian twins Fabio and Rafael.
Further changes are expected this summer, when tough decisions will have to be made about some of the squad. Cristiano Ronaldo was seemingly non-committal over his future after the Champions League Final and United’s hierarchy appear reluctant to pay the £22million demanded by the third-party owners of Carlos Tevez’s contract in order sign him on a permanent basis.
While some United signings were less than successful, with Dimitar Berbatov failing to justify his £28m fee from Tottenham, their rivals will have to raise their game if they are to stop United overtaking Liverpool’s record.
Liverpool themselves were too reliant on the injury prone Gerrard and Fernando Torres, while Chelsea revived under interim coach Guus Hiddink but could not close the gap.
Arsenal’s season ended with manager Arsene Wenger publicly criticising fans for their unrealistic expectations. His refusal to completely reject renewed interest from Real Madrid may have been an attempt to remind Arsenal directors that his patience is not infinite.
Wenger is too much of a perfectionist to subject himself to the chaotic short-termism that dominates in Madrid, but there is no doubt that Arsenal are in need of reinforcements, notably in central defence and midfield where dominant personalities are lacking.
Aston Villa, who at one stage had threatened Arsenal’s fourth spot, trailed off but will challenge again next year, as will sixth-place Everton.
Fulham enjoyed their highest-ever league position thanks to manager Roy Hodgson’s no-star ethic. He gambled on the sale of Jimmy Bullard to Hull and made some important transfers from Scandinavia, notably defensive colossus Brede Hangeland.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle’s demise dominated the headlines on the final day of the season. Owner Mike Ashley issued a public apology for his numerous mistakes but he must now steer the club away from financial meltdown by getting as many high-earners off the payroll as possible.
Newcastle will not find life easy in the lower division. The demise of Southampton and Norwich, both relegated from the Championship, provided proof of how apparently well-run former top-flight sides can come a cropper when the Premier League parachute payments run out.