If Wigan had hosted United in mid-August rather than mid-May, they might have thought they had a chance to hold onto the draw as the 80th minute mark passed. Ten minutes to go. A one all scoreline. Why not? But this season has been a long lesson on Manchester’s late resolve, and so Michael Carrick’s 87th minute winner came as no surprise to Steve Bruce or the Wigan players or anyone else. It was part of the almost scripted year of tight scorelines and late wins for the men who now need no more than a point to clinch the title.
This season , 14 of United’s 25 wins (so far) were by a mere goal. (Last season that number was 9 out of 27 total wins). Nine of United’s wins this season were one to nil. Five of their wins came from a winning goal scored in the 83nd minute or later. Three of their winners came in stoppage time.
Are they toying with us, or what?
All season it’s felt like United have been saving the goals for when they need them. They’ve only beaten two teams by more than three goals: Stoke (5-0) and West Brom (4-0) and on two specific (somewhat jaw-dropping) occasions, they went from being the far lesser side in the first half to winning the match in the second:
United v. Aston Villa, 5 April: Manchester scored early, but Villa absolutely dominated through most of the match. Goals from John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor looked to seal victory for the visitors. But multiple dubious offsides calls took the wind from Villa’s sails including a whistle blown unjustly on Ashley Young who would have found himself one-on-one with Edwin van der Sar had the flag stayed down.
United did not appear to have the gas in their tanks and though pundits said throughout the week before, the recent international break would give them a chance to collect themselves after back to back losses against Liverpool and Fulham, their internationals looked tired and their defense seemed lost with Vidic suspended and Ferdinand injured.
But all it took was one spark in the 81st when Ronaldo hit a blast from distance. United became a different team. They turned on the pressure and kept Villa off balance until new kid Federico Macheda, who came on in the 61st, curled the ball home in stoppage time.
United v. Spurs, 25 April: Again, the visiting team looked the far better side, especially in the first half. Around the half hour mark Darren Bent and Luka Modric found the back of the net and all the momentum was behind Tottenham.
But, as with the Villa match, all it took was a spark and United switched on. This time it came in the form of a bad penalty call from Howard Webb. Ronaldo converted and from then on the dominance of Spurs vanished as United went on to score four more goals in stunning fashion. With goals scored in the 65th, 68th, 71st and 79th, the United comeback was as swift as it was brutal.
In both situations, one spent the first half wondering how this team ever one the championship and the final minutes wondering where they got the extra burst of nitrous to finish in such a manner. Is there a switch under Sir Alex’s chair and he simply flips on the quality when they need it?
This season’s United do not look as consistently dominant as they have in years past. But they are consistently able to muster up the needed spirit at the key moment, pulling matches out of the abyss in late minutes and collecting wins on slim margins.
I don’t know if this means they are shifting away from dominance and Liverpool, Chelsea, and others are going to be able to capitalize on this in the coming years. Or if United simply save the gas in the tanks as a measure of fuel economy. Maybe holding onto it until they need it is a deliberate tactic like a camel storing water in the desert.
I just don’t know.