About That Game is a series looking at the data stories underpinning classic matches. This edition looks back at the title-deciding Manchester City versus QPR Premier League match in May 2012. There’s not been many Premier League encounters to rival the drama seen on this day before or since.
Manchester City’s victory at home to Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011-12 season is a permanent fixture in the minds of football fans globally for the simple reason that it arguably produced the most dramatic moment in Premier League history. One that words really can’t do justice. But there were hundreds more moments, stories within stories, that led to that stupefying outcome.
Mark Hughes’ primary focus on 13th May 2012, was keeping Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League, but it’s hard to imagine that at the back of his mind he didn’t enjoy the idea of getting one over on his former employer, no less by stopping them from winning a title he failed to deliver himself.
Hughes’ sacking just before Christmas in 2009 wasn’t handled with much grace by the Manchester City hierarchy, with the Welshman allegedly finding out on the day of his final game, prior to kick-off, that was he going to be relieved of his duties later that evening – no matter the result.
City won, but the rumours proved true, and within two hours of the final whistle Roberto Mancini was named as his replacement. Now, two years on, in a curious twist of fate, Hughes had the opportunity to extend City’s drought without a top-flight title, only this time from the opposition dugout.
The shared history didn’t end on the managerial benches either – there were further links in QPR’s starting XI. Thanks to Shaun Wright-Phillips (178), Joey Barton (130) and Nedum Onuoha (95), the Hoops’ team that day had played more Premier League matches for Manchester City as they had for QPR (403 to 251) at the time.
Among the fanbase, Wright-Phillips was and remains one of the most popular Manchester City players of the Premier League era, scoring 46 goals in all competitions for the club across two spells. Wright-Phillips’s second stint in sky blue wasn’t quite as memorable as his first, which is one reason it’s possible to forget that he was still with the club when the 2011-12 season began – an unused sub in the Community Shield defeat to Manchester United in August, sat alongside some new guy called Sergio Agüero.
Joey Barton on the other hand wasn’t quite as popular, leaving the club on bad terms in the summer of 2007 after an exchange of unpleasantries with Ousmane Dabo. In his final season with the club, City failed to score a single home league goal after New Year’s Day, so Barton wasn’t a sight for sore eyes, and the next few hours proved he wasn’t particularly interested in reparations either.
The man with the most curious story of the three, though, is Nedum Onuoha. Onuoha was still a Manchester City player only five months prior to this match, coming off the bench against Wigan in January.
Having played for them and then against them within the same campaign, Onuoha now holds the strange achievement of being the most recent player to appear for and against the Premier League title winners in one season, becoming the fifth player to do so in total. Whether Onuoha views this as an achievement or not is up for debate.
Manchester City came into this match on a run of five successive wins in the league, and it’s no coincidence that the run began with the reintegration of Carlos Tevez against West Brom in April – his second league start of the season, and first since September.
Tevez had notoriously been placed on gardening leave after Mancini alleged that he refused to come on as a substitute against Bayern Munich, with the City boss vowing he would never play for the club again. With no suitors in the January window, two incredibly stubborn men put their differences aside for the run-in, and Tevez’s return reignited the club’s faltering title charge.
For the first time all season, City’s line-up suddenly resembled what was quite clearly their best group of players, with Mancini naming the same side in each of the season’s final four games. In fact, to date, it remains the most recent case of City naming the same starting XI in four successive league matches. Evidently, after some ultra-professional performances against Wolves, Manchester United and Newcastle in the weeks prior, Mancini didn’t want to risk changing a thing.
The game immediately settled into the type of rhythm you would expect when the team with the best home record in the league that season faced the team with the worst away record, though a ball-dominant City weren’t finding the clear openings that they’d been fashioning in previous matches.
The first hint that proceedings wouldn’t be simple came after 20 minutes, when news filtered through that Wayne Rooney had put Manchester United ahead at Sunderland. Cue TV cameras panning to nerve-stricken City fans in the stands, fingernails already chiselled to submission. As it stood, Manchester United were champions.
After half an hour there were further concerns. Yaya Touré hadn’t been moving particularly well throughout the game and eventually dropped to the floor, clutching his hamstring. Touré had already established himself as the go-to ‘we need someone to step up here’ figure at City, scoring the winning goal in both the semi-final and final of the FA Cup the year prior, as well as netting a brace on the penultimate matchday against Newcastle a week before this game.
Touré trudged on, and it was a good job he did, because five minutes later he set up the most unlikely of scorers in Pablo Zabaleta.
Zabaleta had noticed David Silva at the edge of the box on the right of the pitch, continuing his run into the penalty area as Silva quickly found an underlapping Touré. Touré received the ball on the turn and deftly flicked it on into Zabaleta’s path. The Argentinean didn’t find himself in those positions regularly, and given the tension in the air, he wasn’t going to wait for a second opportunity. He struck the ball directly into the taped fingers of Paddy Kenny and watched as it looped up into the air before landing just inside the post for only his fourth goal in 133 appearances for City.
Yaya Touré didn’t even make it to the break, replaced by Nigel De Jong shortly after Zabaleta broke the deadlock. This game took place on Touré’s 29th birthday – he didn’t know it yet and he probably doesn’t know it now, but he’s the only player in Premier League history to win the title on his birthday, which is ironic given he fell out with the club two years later after complaining they didn’t buy him a birthday cake.
As the half-time whistle blew, the job seemed half-done, but it wasn’t even close.
The onus was now on QPR to pull something out of the bag. With Bolton Wanderers leading away to Stoke City at the break, QPR were currently in 18th place and heading back to the Championship.
It didn’t take long. Just two minutes and 33 seconds into the second half, Djibril Cissé scored with QPR’s second shot of the game.
Wright-Phillips, of all people, had floated the ball up into the air, with the faint hope that Bobby Zamora or Cissé may be able to win it. Instead, it was a completely uncontested Joleon Lescott who rose in the air, only for the ball to skim off the top of his head and directly into the path of an unmarked Cissé, the Frenchman smashing a bouncing ball past Joe Hart.
The unfortunate Lescott hadn’t made an error leading to an opposition shot in over three years in the Premier League but was now at risk of blowing City’s title hopes at the final hurdle.
Cissé had spent two years in Greece and six months in Italy since last a Premier League player with Sunderland in 2008-09. In what could be argued as the most chaotic January transfer signing in Premier League history, Cissé either scored (six times) or was sent off (twice) in all eight of his appearances for QPR in 2011-12, with this goal his final addition to the tapestry. By January he was playing in Qatar.
Shortly after QPR drew level, all hell broke loose. At risk of not being the centre of attention, Joey Barton decided to offer Carlos Tevez a swift elbow to the jaw. The linesman saw everything, and referee Mike Dean wasn’t going to turn down the chance to brandish a red card for the 58th time in the Premier League.
Not in the habit of leaving quietly, Barton then kneed Sergio Agüero in the thigh and tried to headbutt the bigger headed but less big-headed Vincent Kompany. Former teammate Micah Richards tried to calm Barton down, while Mario Balotelli, who himself hadn’t made an appearance since being sent off a month prior, tried to do the opposite.
Barton went on to tweet 18 times that evening, and before directing some interesting language at Piers Morgan and Alan Shearer, admitted he was trying to get a City player sent off after his own fate was sealed. Having been sent off twice for City in the Premier League, he’s one of 23 players to be sent off for and against a single club in the competition, and the only player to do so for and against Manchester City.
City had five shots in the space of two frantic minutes after Barton’s sending off, trying to make use of their numerical superiority as quickly as possible.
And then QPR scored again.
Vincent Kompany was out of position on the right having to cover for Zabaleta, who had been caught upfield after City’s own attack had fizzled out surprisingly quickly. Kompany was caught in a foot race with Armand Traoré, who had just replaced Cissé after the Barton dismissal.
Traoré’s previous appearance in Manchester was in August of that season with Arsenal, losing 8-2 at Old Trafford against Manchester United. That probably wasn’t in his thoughts as he beat Kompany for pace and sprayed a swinging cross into the box from the touchline. Gael Clichy had stepped in to cover Kompany’s vacated position alongside Lescott, leaving room for Jamie Mackie to head in at the back post.
“It’s the first time anyone has been brave enough to do a no-look diving header on the last day to keep us up!” 😂— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) May 17, 2020
Jamie Mackie looks back on his goal that put QPR 2-1 up at the Etihad!#SkyWatchalong pic.twitter.com/ovWWdsQSUP
Timed at 65 minutes and eight seconds, it was QPR’s final shot of the match – their opponents would attempt a further 23 from this point.
City were now in everything or nothing mode, with Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli entering the fray. Between them they would go on to attempt 11 shots combined, while only completing five passes as a pair – one of those turning out to be far more important than the others.
Over the following 20 minutes City’s desperation became more and more evident, with each attack as turbulent as the next, and none resembling their offensive fluidity of the 37 games previous.
Stoke had equalised against Bolton, meaning QPR were safe as things stood, leading to absolutely zero intent to attack City themselves. At this stage Joe Hart was having to play the sweeper role with as much audacity as Dick van Dyke, taking three throw-ins in the final 10 minutes so City could keep as many players forward as possible – for perspective, there were only four throw ins taken by goalkeepers in the entirety of the 2011-12 season across the league.
Five minutes of added time were called. Unless Mancini was to wield the power of Bernard’s Watch, that surely wasn’t going to be enough – this was attacking for attacking’s sake.
A Silva corner swung in and found Balotelli, who was as close to the goal line as the six-yard line when he made contact with the ball – any direction but straight and the ball was in. Instead, Kenny somehow kept the ball out of the net and it was a corner once more. City had now attempted 33 shots without success since Zabaleta’s goal after 39 minutes.
When Zabaleta kicked the ball into Taye Taiwo after 90 minutes and 58 seconds, with the ball ricocheting off the Nigerian for corner number 19, Sky Sports’ commentator Martin Tyler offered “…and if they win the title from here, I don’t think it’ll ever be topped.”
There really was no reason to believe this was possible – after all, no team had ever won a Premier League match when trailing going into stoppage time.
When the resultant corner was taken, three minutes and 48 seconds remained. Again, the cross came over from Silva, looping down directly into the centre of the six-yard box, a perfect corner again begging for clean contact.
Up rose Dzeko, higher than Onuoha, to head the ball downwards and just out of Kenny’s reach. Goal. It was on.
Y por supuesto, muchas asistencias de él fueron claves, pero la de aquel juego en 2012 vs QPR…— Man City Twitt 🏴 (@mancitytwitt) July 25, 2020
Su asistencia a Dzeko sería el 2-2 en el marcador, previo al épico AGÜEROOOOOOOOOO: pic.twitter.com/8O2qN7UyRL
Such was their disinterest in scoring again, QPR’s first action from kick-off was to smash to ball out to touch – more akin to a Rugby Union match – instantly affording City another attack.
Two minutes remained. There was noise in the crowd – news had reached that Manchester United had beaten Sunderland. As of full-time in their match they were Premier League champions, only having to wait now to hear confirmation of full-time at the Etihad.
Agüero, who could have hidden away in the box and allowed a more senior player to step up in the moment, came deep to collect the ball from De Jong. Agüero had gone 14 shots without scoring in the league as of that moment, his longest drought at that stage of his career with City.
He found Balotelli on the edge of the box.
“Manchester City are still alive here…”
Balotelli held off Anton Ferdinand, whose brother Rio had just completed 90 minutes against Sunderland for United.
Under the challenge of Ferdinand, he swivelled and fell in one motion, knocking the ball into the path of Agüero, who had continued his run into the box.
This is as good a time as any to point out that Balotelli attempted 1,191 passes in the Premier League. 908 of them found a teammate. 46 of those resulted in a shot. Only one resulted in a goal.
93 minutes and 20 seconds were on the clock – you know what happened next.
Agüero took one touch, remained on his feet under contact of Taiwo, and produced the most remarkable moment in Premier League history.
Two goals in 125 seconds. City were champions, and QPR remained in the Premier League.
As celebrations continued, the stadium cheered once more as the big screen counted down from 44 to zero. That wasn’t to celebrate the 44 shots that City had taken in this match, the most on record in Premier League history – it was confirmation of how many years it had been City last won the top-flight title in 1968, with Manchester United finishing as runners-up that year too.
2011-12 remains the only season in which the Premier League title has been decided on goal difference, with City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford earlier that campaign now taking on even more significance.
At the time, Manchester United’s 89 points were the most by a runner-up in the Premier League, while converting to three-points-per-win all-time, only the 91 by Leeds United in 1970-71, albeit in a 42-game season, could surpass it.
To their credit, Manchester United bounced back the following season, winning the league at a canter before Sir Alex Ferguson bowed out.
But the 2011-12 title win and the way it was achieved no doubt sparked a period of domestic domination for City, the first of five league titles over a 10-year period.
To go toe-to-toe with their rivals and come out on top was an announcement that they belonged at this level and were to be taken seriously. And that belief was needed more internally than it was externally, with the Typical City moniker at risk of becoming an unstoppable force if not for the heroics of Dzeko and Agüero.
Manchester City 3-2 Queens Park Rangers. A game that will never be forgotten.
“I swear, you’ll never see anything like this ever again.”
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