Monday, 11 April 2011

So exactly how bad are Manchester United?

So, having briefly opened up a double-digit lead in the title race, Manchester United enter a week that could define their season a healthy seven points clear of second-placed Arsenal.

Of course, this team could still win nothing in which case it will be consigned to the dustbin of history but even if it does pick up a bauble or two, well, then the headlines have already been written; this will officially be the worst Manchester United team to win the title. And that must be true, because it's what the men from the papers say.

Take Matt Dickinson of The Times, on Sky's Sunday Supplement following Manchester United's 4-2 victory over West Ham he was emphatic in his conclusion: "It's a remarkable success story even though we are going to write this is the worst United team to win the title. This is the worst of Man United's teams to win the title - I don't think there's any question of that."

 You're shit 'cos we say you are.

But exactly how bad are United this season? Well, seeing as the treble is still 'on' let's start by comparing this year's vintage with the 1998/99 United. So far The Red Devils have played 32 games and their record reads like this: W 20 D 9 L 3 F 70 A 32 GD +38 Pts 69. After 32 games of the 1998/99 season the glorious treble winners also topped the table with a record which read like this: W 19 D 10 L 3 F 72 A 32 GD +40 Pts 67.

Er, hang on a minute... I don't know about you, but that looks like a very similar record to me. In fact, if my maths is right, this year's United has so far accumulated two more points that the treble winners at the same stage of the season. Golly, some might even say they're better. 

What about the first Manchester United team to win the Premier League, way back in 1993 when dinosaurs still roamed the Sky Sports studios? Well, after 32 games they were top on goal difference from Aston Villa with a record which read: W 17 D 9 L 6 F49 A 25 GD +24 Pts 60.  Gosh, they were even worse than the useless treble winners.

And get this: over the course of the 42-game season they scored just 67 goals - three less than United have already managed in 32 games of this campaign and, let's not forget, after 15 games of that first Premier League season United lay in 10th place. I would say that was a pretty 'bad' side.

In fact, of Manchester United's 11 title-winning teams, five have had a worse points total and seven scored less goals after 32 games than the current league leaders and, while this United side has the third worst defensive record, both of United's and all 18 title-winning sides only three (Arsenal's Invincibles, Chelsea in 2004/05 and United in 1993/94) had lost fewer games at this stage of the season than United have now.

Of course, some will say that this spewing up of facts doesn't take into account the quality of other title contenders this season and that this year has been poor all round, serving only to underline further Manchester United's lack of quality. However, take the 1996/97 season, then after 32 games United (who were top) had a record like this: W 18 D 9 L 5 F 63 A 36 GD +27 Pts 63. Stinkers on every level - fewer points accrued, fewer goals scored, fewer wins, more conceded and more defeats than so far this campaign.

But, hey, I bet that was a really competitive year, right? Well, er... wrong. While that team ultimately notched up 75 points they actually needed only 69 to win the title as Newcastle in second (and Arsenal and Liverpool in third and fourth) could only manage 68. Although they didn't know it at the time United were champions after 34 games - two more than it has taken them to get 69 points this season. So, were the 1996/97 champions really a better side than this year's United?

Undeniably the best ever. Maybe.

Of course, in the pantheon of champions, this United team, should they win, would not stand atop the highest pedestal but it's hard to see them on the lowest one either.  What Dickinson and other journalists are guilty of is something the author Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News calls the 'bias against truth'.

In his wide-ranging critique of the shortcomings of the British media, one of the problems Davies identifies is a persistent failure to provide context for stories - thus creating the aforementioned bias. Not only does this affect the decisions about which stories are printed, he suggests, but also how the stories which are printed are written. As Davies argues, this leads to a preference for: "[...] the current over the historic; for simplicity rather than complexity; for certainty rather than doubt."

Now, to be fair to Matt Dickinson, he did say United's season was "a remarkable success story" but this was quickly brushed a side to make room for the pre-determined narrative; "this is the worst United team to win the title".

It's far easier to take that line off the shelf and articulate it with confidence than it is to make a proper case based on the facts; that would require looking back over 18 years of Premier League history, it might be complicated and it might create doubt. And we can't have that now, can we?

1 comment:

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