As Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote: “when you’ve got your foot on their neck, it’s no time to change your shoes.” [Citation needed.] And so in the summer of 2008, a wise prince called Alex Ferguson looked at his Manchester United side — Premier League winners, Champions League winners, and one dodgy semi-final away from another treble — and decided to drop £30m on Tottenham’s Dimitar Berbatov.
He also persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to stay for one more year, which left United in an interesting position. With Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez already in the squad, Berbatov’s arrival took United to four dedicated goalscorers of one kind or another.
Ferguson, naturally, got around this problem by indulging his inner tinkerman. In the league, Berbatov started more games than Rooney, generally as part of a loose 4-4-2. In Europe, meanwhile, Ferguson tended to stick with the flexible 4-3-3 that worked so well in 07-08; Berbatov only started five games, whereas Rooney was virtually everpresent.
Tevez, meanwhile, tended to end up as the impact substitute, particularly in big games, when Ferguson often used Park Ji-sung as a defensively-inclined wide forward. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining why Tevez was in such a bad mood when stropped his way across Manchester at the end of the season.
Perhaps paradoxically, the impact of this surfeit of strikers was that United’s goalscoring dried up. In 06-07, United won the league with 83 goals; in 07-08, they did the same with 80. But in 08-09, they only scored 68 — only once, United in 92-93, has a side won the Premier League scoring fewer. It didn’t really matter, though. Down the other end Edwin van der Sar was setting a Premier League record for clean sheets. Even though he’d left to take over the Portuguese national team, this was still Carlos Quieroz’s side: well-drilled, flexible, and, thanks to the Vidic-Ferdinand axis, monstrously difficult to beat.
Anyway, what of Rooney? A paradox within a paradox: 2009-09 is one of just four seasons in which Rooney broke the symbolic 20-goal mark. Admittedly, he only managed 12 in the league, but he supplemented this with one in the FA Cup, four in the Champions League, and a stats-inflating three in the FIFA Club World Cup. For this last haul, he was named Most Valuable Player of the final and awarded the competition’s Golden Ball (ahead of Ronaldo, who we assume actually a little bit annoyed). Best in the world: confirmed.
These goals arrived in odd clumps. He didn’t score for United until the end of September, then went on a run of five in five; then he didn’t score again until November 30, which kicked off another five in five. After picking up two in January he missed a month with a hamstring injury, scored four in five on his return in February, and then only managed four more until the end of the season.
He saved the best until last, mind. On April 25, United went in at half-time two goals down to Tottenham, and with their lead at the top of the Premier League wobbling. Ferguson responded by bringing on Tevez, which put all four of his strikers on the field, and Rooney responded by kicking right off.
It was his long, perfectly measured pass that put Michael Carrick through, pulled Heurelho Gomes from his goal, and persuaded Howard Webb to award a penalty. Ronaldo stepped up. 2-1. Then he clipped a shot through the legs of Vedran Corluka and into the net, via Gomes’ weak wrist. 2-2.
One minute later, he fired in a long, sweeping cross from the left flank and Ronaldo faceplanted home a diving header. 3-2, and the title back on track. Not that Rooney was done for the afternoon: he scored United’s fourth, just about, and then set Berbatov up for the fifth.
“Lads, it’s Tottenham” notwithstanding, this performance stands as one of those games when Rooney looked like the all-round destroyer everybody knew he would become. As comfortable running down the wing as through the middle, as happy getting on the end of crosses as slinging them in. It also, perhaps, serves as evidence that this particular United team hadn’t completely quashed their calypso instincts. They’d just calculated — correctly — that they weren’t always necessary.
Perhaps that’s an even greater sin, in some ways: not doing what is beautiful by choice, rather than by necessity. But it did marvelous things to the trophy cabinet, even if it couldn’t quite overcome Barcelona in the Champions League final. And it gave Rooney and United their third title in as many years.
2008-09: 49 games, 20 goals, third Premier League title, only FIFA Club World Cup title