MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 08: Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson takes a bow at the end of the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on May 8, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
In a bitty and broken season, only one man at Old Trafford has remained consistent. The manager.
The tag of "worst Manchester United team to win the title" is a strange kind of insult, like being the ugliest person to marry Marilyn Monroe, or the stupidest person to land on the moon. The point is not what you look like or how quickly you can solve a Rubik cube; the point is that you were attractive enough or clever enough to achieve what you set out to. However bad this Manchester United side is, it was better than all the rest of the teams in the division, and that's the point of the whole shebang. Football, blessedly, does not determine its champions on artistic merit. (And ice-dancing will never be sport until there's tackling.)
Of course, it is probably true that the first XI from this campaign -- whether the one at the beginning of the season (Van der Sar; Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Rafael; Giggs, Scholes, Fletcher, Valencia; Rooney, Berbatov) or the one at the end (same back five; Carrick, Giggs; Nani/Park, Rooney, Valencia; Hernandez) -- is unlikely to go down in history as one of Ferguson's finest sides. As Ethan Dean-Richards has written elsewhere in this parish, this United have been unusually vulnerable for title-winners: frequently-stiff performances, a hideous away record, a remarkable lack of goals from midfield.
But another way of considering this season's title is by treating all of that as indicative of the character of the win, of the nature of the achievement. To win the league with the best team in the country is always excellent; to win it with a squad that is in some places ageing, in others callow, in yet others frankly inadequate, is little short of remarkable. And this is why Manchester United's player of the season has been their manager, Alex Ferguson.
To watch Ferguson this season has been to watch a manager who knows that the players he has -- for all their undoubted talent and focus and drive -- are not capable of destroying even average teams in the same manner as their predecessors. Given the absence of a full-powered Rooney for so much of the season, there hasn't been anybody with the brutal, stark efficacy of Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cristiano Ronaldo, or the inspiration of Eric Cantona, or the devastation of the Yorke-Cole axis, let alone anything to hold a candle to epoch-defining Hallowed Quartet of Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham. Though that last one's a little unfair; that's one of the greatest four-man midfields in the History of All Football.
This, I suspect, is at the heart of the criticisms: there is no glamorous figurehead or aspect of United that can be neatly reduced into a celebratory montage and so explain how the league was won. The only two consistent performers have been Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic, and that ain't such stuff as glitz is made of. The delicate square dance of Rio Ferdinand, Rio Ferdinand's back, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans has been crucial but doesn't exactly stir the soul. And United's attacking talents have waxed and waned in complementary inconsistency.
Nani spent the first half of the season tearing defences to pieces, only to diminish as Antonio Valencia returned to fitness. Paul Scholes began the campaign alongside Darren Fletcher, quarterbacking like the ghost of Andrea Pirlo; like the Italian, he's spent the second half of the season watching from the sidelines, while Fletcher's been shedding stones in the treatment room. Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick have taken control of the centre. And Dimitar Berbatov may well end the season having won the Golden Boot and lost his place, thanks to the emergence of Javier Hernandez, the glorious lovechild of Pippo Inzaghi and a Cabbage Patch Doll.
Behind all of this, Ferguson prowls and chews, managing. Managing hard. Prior to the weekend's game against Blackburn, he'd made 112 changes over the course of the season, more than any other Premier League manager. He has ended the season with a tactical shape and a first-team markedly different to that with which he began; while it might be argued that this is a result of circumstance, good management is nothing but the maximisation of circumstance in light of available resources. And if those resources are insufficient for a team to bend circumstances to its will, then the team itself must be made to bend, flex, and make do.
And then, of course, Wayne Rooney. Last season's top scorer had what might be described at the very least as an interesting season, and at the very most as a kind of tragicomic farce. He began the season in the worst form of his life, stumbling and yammering after the embarrassment of being associated with/responsible for (as you like)England's South African misadventure; then he went toe-to-toe with Ferguson and demanded a move, deriding his teammates and openly flirting with Manchester City; then he volte-faced -- bottled it/got the pay raise he'd been angling for all along/looked deep into his heart and found the face of Eric gazing back at him (as you like) -- then he got sent to the USA to lose weight; then he returned and played a bit of football; then he got quite hilariously banned for swearing at/into a TV camera (as you like), ruining Mother's Day for the whole nation; then he (re-)discovered that he was meant to be Manchester United's #10 all along and has emerged out the other end a more rounded player, having either taken the next step in his development or gone back to his roots as a roaming second-striker. (As you like.) Not bad going for nine months work.
Again, the only person who comes out of that lot with any credit is Ferguson, Rooney himself having danced around the edges of an apology without actually being gracious enough to acknowledge and decry his own sluttishness. But Ferguson not only managed the "saga" itself with masterly poise, gently and quietly drawing the venom from Rooney's criticisms of the squad and leaving him looking hollow-toothed and self-serving, but then oversaw the reintegration of Rooney into the very team he'd insulted, and the affections of (most of) the fans. And while there remains the suspicion that Rooney may be less firmly-rooted at Old Trafford than is acknowledged, and that this summer may bring more rumblings, this title wouldn't and couldn't have been won without him playing.
Whatever your personal opinions of Ferguson - he's scarcely loved outside United fans, while plenty of them have never forgiven him for his acquiescence to and comments following the Glazer takeover - as a manager, he's rarely been more fascinating to watch. Looking at his most managerial titles, those for whom he can take the most direct credit, the eye is always drawn to three: the First in 1993, the Kids in 1996, and the Treble in 1999. This doesn't touch those: it wasn't won in the autoclave of the 26-year wait like the First; it didn't need the chutzpah of the Kids; it isn't the same scale of achievement as the Treble.
But it has a decent claim to a quieter kind of impressiveness: the impressiveness that comes from taking motley, imperfect and rebellious materiel and forging something that, while frequently spluttering and rarely beautiful, nevertheless manages to get all the way to the finish ahead of everyone else. However you look at the season, and however you like the man, he's played a blinder.