SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 02: Robin Van Persie of Manchester United celebrates the winning goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchestrer United at St Mary's Stadium on September 2, 2012 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Neither Manchester United or Manchester City look like being particularly efficient in beating weaker teams, but is it inconsistency, or the sign of a strong league?
When Robin Van Persie flicked home United's winning goal against Southampton in injury-time, it was a special moment, but not a surprising one. United have, after all, been doing this for a long time, right through Ferguson's reign, beginning with Steve Bruce's famous pair of headers against Sheffield Wednesday, peaking with that final in 1999, and including a cast from Eric Cantona to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Federico Macheda. It's in their DNA, we are told.
Lately, however, Manchester City have been doing the same. Aguero's title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers will go down as one of the most spectacular late goals in Premier League history, and they've had to bail themselves out late on this season, too.
There is a difference, however. Famous late winners from top clubs are nothing new, but they've usually come in titanic struggles, a last-gasp victory achieved after 90 minutes of battle. Michael Thomas' famous winner against a great Liverpool side, Solskjaer against Bayern Munich, and Cantona finishing off a determined Liverpool in the FA Cup all had the euphoric sensation heightened by the quality of the opposition. Having to do it against newly-promoted Southampton doesn't quite have the same ring to it. True, the home side performed well, but there can be no doubt that the balance of the game owed more to United's ineptitude rather than the Saints' ability. There is a difference in a comeback to finish an epic struggle and one to avoid an embarrassing defeat which should never have been allowed to materialise.
The classic title-races of recent history haven't been like this. The common story is one of two teams playing at the top of their game, before one runs out of steam, and injuries or loss of form cause them to fall away towards the end of the season. There have been notable exceptions, mostly in the early 2000s when Manchester United and Arsenal crushed all before them and played out some of the most ferocious encounters modern football has ever seen. In 2009, too, United and Liverpool took advantage of a weak league by racking up astonishingly high points totals, as the balance of power swung to and fro.
United and City, by contrast, almost have the stench of laziness, arrogance, or complacency about them. It's difficult to identify it for sure, but it can't be denied that both teams have been guilty of a criminal lack of efficiency, allowing far lesser teams to take the lead, and only really playing well when chasing the game. The 2-0 win, the ability to kill the game off, reliably and patiently picking apart smaller teams all seem to be lost arts.
This is not a bad thing, of course. It will likely make for a fascinating title-race, and it's probably also suggestive of a strong Premier League. People like to suggest the league is uncompetetive, and at the highest level it certainly is, but we forget the dross of the early 2000s too easily, the days when Stern John could call himself a Premier League striker, Mourinho's Chelsea steamrolled all but a few teams with ease, and 'top four' was shorthand for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
In addition to being stronger, the league is also much more tilted towards attacking football than it once was. We don't need to go too far back to remember teams like Gary Megson's Bolton, Sam Allardyce's Blackburn, Mick McCarthy's Wolves and Alex McLeish's Birmingham. All four are now making up the numbers in the Championship, having been replaced by the likes of Swansea and Norwich, exciting and forward-thinking young teams. This makes a to-and-fro affair far more likely when they collide with one of the title-chasers, rather than games which end up as a sort of training exercise in breaking down a packed defence, as 70% of Manchester United's games once consisted of.
There's no doubt that no Premier League title-race has ever had such quality concentrated within it's top two, yet such a total lack of efficiency from both teams. There's also no doubt that those teams themselves are partly to blame, astonishingly naive and inconsistent for two title-chasers. Yet when it makes for a more exciting and stronger league, there's no cause for complaint. Whatever happens this season, it's difficult to imagine it being a procession.