Was anyone surprised at how awfully Manchester United played at Anfield yesterday? For a side that this year claimed its third Premier League title in succession, adding a Champions League crown along the way for good measure, insipid performances in their biggest games have become rather commonplace with Alex Ferguson’s newest side.
Have they every really shaken the impression that they are quite ordinary champions?
That’s three times in succession they have been beaten and outplayed by Liverpool. The football belonged to Arsenal for much of their last three league clashes with the champions, United relying on typical frailties from Wenger’s men to take four points from those games. And in May, Ferguson’s workaday midfield was thoroughly embarrassed by Barcelona.
They have consistently looked second best in head-to-heads with Chelsea, including the Champions League final gifted to them by Terry’s slip.
In the last three seasons, United have only really impressed in a big game during the 3-0 win at Old Trafford over a demoralised Phil Scolari-led Blues, two legs when they ground down Barca in 2008 and the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Arsenal this April.
Even then, two early calamities in the Arsenal defence gifted them the tie.
If your life was hanging on the outcome of a United-Pool or United-Chelsea clash in the morning, would there be many putting their trust in Fergie’s men?
Of course United are a very good side. And, to their credit, they have consistently hovered up the Premier League small fry during their trio of title wins, a test that Liverpool – with their innate negativity, Chelsea – managerial upheaval, and Arsenal – inexperience and fecklessness, have consistently failed.
So for that reason alone, United deserve their medals and there’s much to be admired in their consistency and honesty of application.
But can they go down among the greatest sides when they rarely punch their weight among their peers?
When Arsenal were dominant between 2002 and 2004 – throwing away the 2003 title – they consistently overwhelmed top opposition with the fluency and power of their play.
And Chelsea, under Mourinho – while expensively assembled, dour and winning few friends – brought every attribute a side needed to the big games.
Two factors loom largest in United’s trio of title wins; the emergence of Ronaldo as a force capable of winning all but the biggest games on his own and the erosion of Mourinho’s power base at Stamford Bridge and his subsequent departure.
If Shevchenko and Ballack had never arrived at the Bridge and Mourinho had been allowed to continue his remorseless power-play in peace, it’s tempting to imagine that even Ronaldo couldn’t have propelled Average United back into the ascendancy.