The final day of the Premier League season could have been a tense one, but eight goals in West London made sure it was anything but. As Chelsea wrapped up their first title since 2006 in the most emphatic style, the inquiry into how Carlo Ancelotti’s side pipped Manchester United to the post can begin, and the investigator’s first port of call should be the goals for column of the final league table.
In many ways, the two competitors’ final games of the season sum up a key aspect of their respective success and failure. United recorded a big win, 4-0 over Stoke City, yet Chelsea’s was bigger, as they put eight past Wigan Athletic and while United seemingly had ample firepower to compete for the top prize, Chelsea had more – or at least got more out of it. Both sides boast fearsome leading strikers in Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney respectively, and each contributed more than their fair share of goals to the cause, but the England striker was the only United player to break the 20-goal barrier, whereas Chelsea could count on not only Drogba but Rooney’s international teammate Frank Lampard for goals too. Between them Drogba and Lampard netted 51 times in the league, dwarfing the combined tally of United’s top two scorers, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, who managed a comparatively meagre 38. Add in Florent Malouda’s 12 and Chelsea top 60 goals from three players – Antonio Valencia, United’s third-top league scorer, chipped in with five efforts over the course of the league season. In fact, the combined league totals of Michael Owen (three), Paul Scholes (three) and Nani (three) only just equal that of Nicolas Anelka. The difference between the two sides can be summed up even more plainly: Chelsea scored 103 goals in 38 games to United’s 86.
Even with a slightly meaner defence – United conceded 28 goals to Chelsea’s 32 – Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could not keep pace with Ancelotti’s goal kings and the reasons are manifold. It is too easy to point to the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez as the reasons for United’s sword being blunted, as Ronaldo notched 18 times in 2008/09 and Tevez just five. The Argentinean’s figure was effectively equalled by Valencia, while with £80m sitting in the transfer kitty, 18 goals should have been straightforward to replace. Instead, Ferguson gambled on Owen, and with three league goals and six more in all competitions, from 31 appearances, it is safe to say that was a gamble that failed. Owen, if not scoring goals, is not a player who will contribute in other areas – he has never been known for his assists, nor is he the kind of target man who sacrifices goals for the dirty work outside the box. Without forcing the opposition goalkeeper to pick the ball out of the net more often, Owen was a passenger on United’s ride this season and only heaped more pressure onto the shoulders of Rooney, rather than easing the burden as he was brought in to do. Supplementing the forward firepower must be near the top of Ferguson’s summer to do list and it could be done without breaking the bank – Robbie Keane could be available from Tottenham Hotspur, although how he would link with Rooney remains to be seen, or even Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuian, who, despite scoring 29 goals this season remains low on the Spanish club’s totem pole for having committed the cardinal sin of being signed by the previous President.
Goals from midfield were a problem for the Old Trafford club also. Two Chelsea players together scored over 40 goals from midfield in all competitions this season – Lampard and Malouda, who netted 27 and 15 each – while United’s top goal scorer from midfield was Scholes with seven. After the No 18 come Nani, Valencia and Ryan Giggs, each with a half dozen across the league, the F.A Cup, the League Cup and the Champions League. The combined tally of Scholes and the three players who follow him is only 35 – six less than the pair of Lampard and his French colleague. United’s team contains plenty of threat from wide but centrally, it is a much more static affair. Darren Fletcher, for all his good qualities, and there are many, is not a goal threat and today, neither is Scholes – at least not to the level needed to compete with a team containing Lampard. At Stamford Bridge, Anelka had what could be classed as a disappointing season, at least goal wise, but it did not matter because Lampard took up the slack. There was no such safety net for either Owen or Berbatov and a goal scoring midfielder in the Lampard mould must be brought in over the summer, perhaps as an even higher priority than a striker. Quite who is capable of providing 15-20 goals from midfield is another matter, but finding that player could be the difference between a fourth United title in five years next season, and a second consecutive Chelsea crown.
That is not to suggest Chelsea won the title by default, simply because of United’s failings. Far from it, Chelsea are deserving winners, with Ancelotti deserving great credit for moulding such a well balanced team, one capable of sturdy defending and intense attacking. But Chelsea’s goal tally – and the massive goal difference it brought – was a rare thing and the Blues cannot rely on such an occurrence every year. They too will have to strengthen over the summer and replace a few of their ageing stars. Resting on your laurels is a dangerous tactic in the Premier League and United are sure to come back stronger next season, while Manchester City’s money, a possible Liverpool takeover, a Spurs buoyed by the Champions League and the chance of Arsenal finally fulfilling their potential means the title race could be contested by a few more horses in 2010/11.