Chris McGrath: Never mind the 'Big Four', Ferguson's rivals need to learn from the 'Big One'

United's chasers are in the same spirit as 12 months ago – call it 'next season' syndrome

Wednesday 29 January 2014 04:06

From below, the petrification of the top four clubs now seems complete. Such alluvial shifts as occur beneath are perceived merely as establishing the competence of men such as David Moyes or Martin O'Neill to preserve that block – or bloc – against future erosion. Indeed, the stratum occupied by their present teams is increasingly recognised as a barrier against further progress. For the new Europa League promises to make still more exorbitant demands of squads already inadequate to prise open the sort of fissures that appeared in Arsenal earlier this season.

But how about within the top four? Are there signs that their own, relative status is beginning to coagulate?

None, perhaps, that will survive the eventual departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from Old Trafford. After all, Liverpool rallied magnificently after that fatal wobble in the new year, and Manchester United's mediocre record against their peers this season betrayed a dependence on metronomic success against such teams as Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Manchester City and Fulham, who all cost their hosts two points apiece at Anfield.

At the same time, however, United's three credible challengers all find themselves approaching the summer in precisely the same spirit as 12 months ago – call it "next season" syndrome, or call it a grand delusion.

Chelsea's ageing squad will again have a new manager to start the 2009-10 campaign, and he will know that the fan belt may well start whining during his tenure. If he starts well, remember, and finds the bookmakers making his team hot favourites for the title during the autumn, he will have done no more than Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Over the past month, meanwhile, disaffected Arsenal fans have twice left their team to finish big games in a half-empty stadium. Some of them view the continued admiration of neutrals as naïve, but their exasperation has made Arsène Wenger feel so "like a murderer" that he now admits the Real Madrid job is "interesting".

As for Liverpool themselves, it remains to be seen whether this season will prove a foundation stone, or millstone. It was certainly hard to know, as Jamie Carragher squared up to Alvaro Arbeloa on Sunday. Likewise, when Rafael Benitez persevered, after the game, in the peevish, graceless nonsense he has exchanged with Ferguson all season – to the lasting discredit of both men.

Like Ferguson himself, Benitez has steadily improved the squad he first inherited, but it palpably lacks the depth nowadays at his rival's disposal. His trading last summer, moreover, was pretty calamitous. Robbie Keane's surreal sojourn apart, by all accounts Benitez's pursuit of Gareth Barry might well have prompted him to discard Alonso, who went on to become the bedrock of the title challenge. Albert Riera proved a perfectly respectable recruit, in fairness, but Benitez will want to do a good deal better this time round. As things stand, players such as Lucas Leiva and David N'Gog remain at least two cadres closer to the first XI than they would be at Old Trafford.

After his earlier tactical vacillations, at least Benitez has discovered how best to deploy his most precious resources, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. It may well be true that their respective absences ultimately decided the title, but even footballing supermen are made of flesh – not least in the groin and hamstrings.

At their best, Liverpool were irresistible, if seldom a thing of beauty. Their pluck and endeavour, distilled by Dirk Kuyt, won them many friends, and many late goals. United again produced plenty of the same, of course, not least last Wednesday, when Wigan hinted at what might still be achieved, if only teams took to the field against the top four without dread in the soles of their boots.

But the standards required in the elite tier of the Premier League have been changed by Jose Mourinho and, previously, the Arsenal "Invincibles". And the consequences are nowhere more obvious than for the man who oversaw that immaculate season.

Wenger remains a beacon for those who mistrust both the financial and footballing tumescence of a league that has taken a hybrid, marauding version of the game to heights unmanageable by nearly every other club in Europe. As it happens, the one bastion that retains the opportunity to bring the British champions to heel is also the one that best exemplifies the aspirations of Wenger's current Arsenal side. Barcelona versus Arsenal would certainly have provided a pretty climax to the Champions League, but being so much closer to the pinnacle sought by Wenger's young team did not enable Barcelona to cope at all persuasively with the unfamiliar rigour they have met in successive semi-finals against British teams.

As for Wenger's putative departure to Barcelona's great rivals, that will doubtless prove a red herring – albeit one that might usefully concentrate the minds of any losing the faith. It would be gripping, of course, to see how Wenger might set about a galactico project at Real Madrid, akin to watching an anchorite suddenly decide that, on the whole, he would rather spend his time in a brothel than on some beautiful hilltop. Assuming he stays, however, Wenger faces another vexing summer, tensed between an ascetic approach off the field, and a sybaritic one on it.

When he finally spent, he spent exceedingly well on Andrei Arshavin. However, he hardly stifled the mutterings about a team of invertebrates. Injuries distorted that debate, not least untimely ones this spring to William Gallas, and then Johan Djourou, after the defence had convincingly overcome its early-season derangement. Doubts meanwhile persist about the base of the midfield, but there are signs Emmanuel Adebayor's lack of commitment, in word and deed, will make a new focus for the team's myriad creative talents the first priority.

It may yet prove that the Arsenal prism needs very little adjustment. After all, even the Ferguson dynasty – this paragon of sustainability – is continually flexed and challenged, as we are seeing afresh with Messrs Tevez and Ronaldo. But Ferguson makes a habit of finding solidity in change, and that is where his pursuers must emulate him now. Otherwise next season will seem to last an eon. On Merseyside, above all, a 20th barren year would seem to break new ground in the paleontology of football.

For his next trick, O'Driscoll can give Lions some teeth

It was always said Leinster had the style, Munster the substance. Rather like the national side, Leinster were nearly men. Ironic, then, that their mutual example in green – under the ex-Munster coach, Declan Kidney – may well have given Leinster the belief to beat their old rivals at their own game in the Heineken Cup semi-final.

Of course, the common denominator in both cases was Brian O'Driscoll, whose own career sets a template. To begin with he was admired as a coruscating offensive force, as when Leinster first seemed to reach out for this trophy by eviscerating Toulouse in an away quarter-final in 2006. But now he is revered, as much as anything, for his defensive presence.

In the meantime he had been repeatedly dismissed as over the hill and frayed by injury. So who knows? Should Leinster beat Leicester in the final on Saturday, O'Driscoll's personal annus mirabilis may yet infect the Lions with the same, overdue conviction.

Brawn before beauty works at Stoke

Stoke City at home are not just a handful, thanks to the inspired pragmatism of Tony Pulis, but an earful too. Roaring fans have made a tangible contribution. Between the physical barrage on the pitch and the sheer noise, even the best teams are in for an intimidating afternoon. Not so at West Brom, where the league's finest are naively played on their own terms. These respective fortunes place the self-regard of the Premier League in an interesting perspective.

James Lawton is away

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