On Monday night, with the Premier League title for the taking, United quickly and hungrily carved open one of the worst defenses in the Premier League. It took the lead in the second minute, added a second after 13 minutes and a third in the 33rd minute. And it was all the result of Robin van Persie, who went past Luis Suarez with a leading 24 league goals this season. That was all United needed. It beat Aston Villa 3-0 to win the title with four games to play.
The third goal was emblematic of the single quality that has separated United from their main rivals this season. Ryan Giggs, at 39 chasing his 25th medal as a United player, could have shot at goal. Instead he set up van Persie, who completed his hat trick.
There are some tricky egos in this team, notably Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra (who made a biting gesture on his arm after the match, a nod to Luis Suarez, whom he has a history with). But while Chelsea and Manchester City have been beset by tensions in the locker room or the dugout, United's stars have uncomplainingly accepted Alex Ferguson's team rotation and tactical juggling and stayed focused on regaining the title. After losing the title to City with the final kick of last season, United simply wanted to erase the pain.
"Disappointment can help you in some ways," Giggs told Sky, which broadcast the game in Britain, after the match.
It is United's record 20th English championship. The team is still on course for its record points total. Yet that does not mean this is the best-ever United team, or even the best team of the Ferguson era. Of the starting lineup Monday, perhaps only two would make the all-time Ferguson 11, and one of them is Giggs, who has been in pretty much every Ferguson 11.
"Nostalgia plays tricks on people's minds," said Ferguson, not exactly dismissing the suggestion. But, he added, "put it in context, we now have 84 points with four games left (United's league record is 92). We've never done that."
Villa, struggling near the foot of the table, created enough good scoring chances to again highlight United's inability to truly dominate even the weakest opponent. The way in which City crushed United a week earlier and Chelsea, having been dominated for 45 minutes in an FA Cup quarterfinal, came back to dominate United in turn and win the tie, suggests that even at its best, United is not as good as its main rivals are at the their best.
All too often this season, City and Chelsea have not been at their best. Both have looked jaded and uninterested at times. United never has. Not once in the league this season has United capitulated in the way City did in the final 20 minutes at Spurs on Sunday.
One of the reasons United is on course for a record points total is that, from top to bottom, so many Premier League clubs have disappointed this season. It would be interesting to conduct a poll of Premier League fans and ask them if they feel their clubs have achieved all they could in the league this season. Setting aside cup runs, probably only fans of Everton, Swansea, West Brom, West Ham, Southampton and Norwich might answer yes, and those clubs are all mired in the middle of a mediocre league.
A team can only beat the opposition it faces. That opposition might be, collectively, the weakest in recent Premier League history. But despite a stuttering start, United has never wavered in its concentration as it has beaten them all (with the exception of Tottenham).
"Consistency has won us the league," Ferguson said. "The focus of the team was good. The focus on the challenge of City."
This is, for the most part, the same team that did waver last season. It didn't enjoy the feeling. On Monday it corrected that with a display of single-minded ruthlessness that epitomized its season.
Even though his club makes more money than any other, Ferguson does not like overpaying. He knows that the world is full of left backs. If the first one is overpriced he can always find another just as good if he's prepared to be patient.
But last summer, Ferguson clearly decided he had to have van Persie. Manchester City was interested, but Ferguson was ready to pay Arsenal the £24 million, or $36.67 million, it sought and, reportedly, gave the player the £200,000 a week wage that City has made the benchmark.
Given the choice, Van Persie chose United. The money is important, no doubt about it. But he could have made the same elsewhere. At Feyenoord, at Arsenal and with the Dutch national team, van Persie has often been a runner-up. On Monday he was rewarded for choosing United with his first league winner's medal and a place in the famous club's history. He is now a champion.
Van Persie has given United precisely the focus it needed. He is not an imposing physical specimen. He is not as spectacular an all-round striker as Eric Cantona. Yet, when he is healthy, and this season he has stayed healthy, he does everything a modern striker needs to do. He does it well. He can run with the ball, he can pass, he can hold the ball up, he can head, he can tackle and he is a good corner taker. But above all he scores goals. He is both a great goal scorer and a scorer of great goals.
Nothing gives a team confidence like knowing it can count on its striker to score. Hardly had the fans settled into their seats on Monday than van Persie settled their nerves, tapping in without fuss from close range after a sweeping United move. He might have had a dazzling second with a left-foot volley two minutes later but shot just over. In the 12th minute, he did not miss. He scored his trademark goal (above video), a left-foot volley from a ball dropping over his right shoulder. It was breathtaking. The hat-trick goal came when he rescued a slightly inaccurate pass from Giggs, maneuvered a few inches of space in a crowded goalmouth and finished with typical, surgical, certainty.
"He's been unbelievable," Ferguson said. "He was unbelievable tonight."
"We have some young and exciting players," he said, going on to suggest Phil Jones might become the greatest United player (although the context suggested he might just have been talking of the Premier League era).
Of the 18 players on duty for United on Monday, eight were 25 or under and only Giggs and Michael Carrick were over 30. The only significant player from this season's team who will probably be gone next season is Paul Scholes.
Yet, other teams, notably Arsenal, Tottenham and, above all, Chelsea, have a lot of young talent.
United has tremendous depth, but so, too, do City and Chelsea. One advantage United has over both of them is the tactical variety the squad offers, and Ferguson's ability to exploit that flexibility.
Yet everyone has learned the lesson of the van Persie deal. A world-class player, used well and kept happy, can make a huge difference. This summer's transfer market might be strangled by Premier League and UEFA Financial Fair Play rules. Yet, if the whispers are right and Gareth Bale, Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani or, even, Cristiano Ronaldo, become available, it is difficult to see Chelsea and City keeping their wallets in their pockets. Although one thing the van Persie deal showed is that Ferguson is again prepared to match the mega-rich owners and use United's reputation as leverage to clinch blockbuster deals.
Perhaps the biggest edge United has had this season has been on the manager's bench. City's Roberto Mancini has not been able to keep his squad unified and focused. Ferguson has. The managerial merry-go-round at Chelsea destroyed that club as a serious contender again this season. Even if Mancini is replaced, there's no guarantee his successor will be a match for Ferguson. But if José Mourinho ends up back at Stamford Bridge, that could change the whole complexion of the league (or completely blow Chelsea apart).
Ferguson has shown he can adjust and that, like a shark, he's always moving forward.
"That's one of the manager's skills," Giggs said. "The way he evolves, the way he never stands still."