Giggs: The secret to closing out a Premier League title race
Whenever the Manchester United teams that I played in were competing for a league title, and that was most seasons, Sir Alex Ferguson would remind us that at some point we would have to accept that we would lose.
His normal way of going about it would be to say, “You’ve got 15 games left – you won’t win them all, but it is how you react when you do lose one that counts”. He said we had to be able to put that behind us and make sure we won the next one. It was his way of talking us through the process of closing out a title-winning season, of preparing us mentally for the challenges that would come.
He saw it as his job to anticipate the obstacles we would encounter, and to get us ready for them. It might sound unwise for a manager to predict a defeat for his team but the intention was to make sure we were ready to go again. At that stage of the season it is keeping the momentum, and when Chelsea players prepare to face Arsenal on Saturday, they will know that the momentum is with them.
Antonio Conte will also have looked at the fixture list and recognised that there are games in there that his side could well lose, against clubs desperate for points, and it is about how they come back from those results that will count.
At United we were good at getting over the line in the title race, but it did not work every time. A week into February in the 1997-1998 season we were 16 points clear of the eventual champions Arsenal, then in fifth place, and all they had in their favour was a game in hand. In March, by the time Arsenal had moved up to second, we were 11 points clear of them, albeit having played two more. Yet we still lost the title.
What happened? We had terrible injury problems to key players, including Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and myself for a while. We were beaten home and away by Arsenal, the second of those two games at Old Trafford came later that March. Suddenly the defeats started to eat away at our confidence and the kind of games we would expect to win became that bit more difficult.
We learned a lot from that season, and although none of us were ever complacent we never took anything for granted after that. Chelsea will know how quickly the picture can change, and playing against Arsenal is one of those days when a title challenger has the capacity to make up real ground on you. Lose that one, and suddenly the league table looks different.
A lot of foreign managers are told that when they come to the Premier League there are no easy games, that every three points have to be won the hard way, and that they cannot expect to have easy afternoons in the way they do in other leagues. I expect there are a few who roll their eyes at this theory in private and feel it does other countries a disservice.
All I can say from my position as a coach and assistant over the previous three seasons is that the level of competition in the Premier League at this stage of the season is incredible. Everyone is fighting for something. There are relegation battles to be avoided or top ten places to be won. Every manager knows his reputation goes up or down each weekend and none of them can take for granted their jobs.
The sooner a team trying to win the league accepts that ever weekend will be a battle, the better. Conte looks like a man who prepares for every game with the same intensity. You only need to look at the last round of results – Arsenal beaten at home by Watford, Tottenham held to a draw at Sunderland - to see what can happen if you let things slip.
The real pressure in a title race would often come at United when we had a bad result midweek in Europe that left us tired and drained. In March 1998 we drew away at Monaco in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions League – they would eliminate us on away goals - and then lost to Sheffield Wednesday the following Saturday.
Conte is probably tired of people telling him that he is lucky not to be playing European football - it is not as if it is his fault he team are not in the competition. In his first season at Juventus, 2011-2012, he did not have Champions League football either and concentrated on winning the first of his three Serie A titles.
In his second season, he handled it without a problem, getting through to the quarter-finals where they lost to Bayern Munich. Along the way Juventus even beat Chelsea, then the defending champions, 3-0 in the group stages. In the third title-winning season Juventus ended up in the Europa League after Christmas and still went to the semi-finals. I don’t think there is any question that Conte could handle the added pressure of Europe, but in the meantime he is using the lack of it to his advantage.
At some point in every season, you might get a blip – it could last one game or it could be more – and it is how the team respond. For Chelsea, that might come against Arsenal but even if they do lose they will still wake up the next morning top of the table and the favourites to win. From that point it will be about how they respond, and judging by their manager, he is already two steps ahead when it comes to that.
More from Ryan Giggs:
- Archery, the right suit and teamwork: how to win a cup final
- Arsenal can still thrive – even if Arsene Wenger departs
- I wish Manchester United had signed N'Golo Kante
- The secret to closing out a Premier League title race
- Danny Rose has all the qualities of my old Man Utd mate Patrice Evra
- Why Manchester City's struggles are no surprise
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic has the same aura as Eric Cantona - and is just as lethal
- The night Antonio Conte provoked me into confronting Sir Alex Ferguson - it didn't end well
- Why old-school defending is a dying art
- Mauricio Pochettino has given Spurs a steel they used to lack
- Marcus Rashford can be Manchester United's next No. 9
- The day Pep Guardiola almost forced me to quit football
- Why Man Utd vs Arsenal was my ultimate grudge match
- How going long can beat Jurgen Klopp's gegenpress
- Why I fear this could be Liverpool's year in the Premier League title race
- I have discovered that even Arsenal players can be great company!
- Sir Alex Ferguson left a huge void at Manchester United but decline was not inevitable