Preview: United v Aston Villa
These are increasingly desperate times for David Moyes. It is not just that the Scot has presided over 13 defeats in all competitions this season as Manchester United’s campaign disintegrated, but the abject manner in which they have come. None more so than United’s defeat to crosstown rivals Manchester City on Tuesday night, which was as miserable as any in the derby – at least in living memory.
Little wonder the pressure is beginning to tell on the former Everton coach, who is desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of neither a job he is qualified to do, nor – it would appear – suitably equipped to undertake.
Fear, in Moyes circumstances, is perhaps understandable. It has been a campaign unravelling before the manager’s eyes and, with players disgruntled and fans revolting, now totally out of the Scot’s control. Yet, there is also something truly pathetic in the manager’s repeated pleas for time and hackneyed excuses for failure. It is the poise of a man neither comfortable in the job, nor demonstrating the aptitude for growth.
And yet Moyes still has the capacity to surprise when sinking to new public relations depths. In the past month alone the Scot suggested United was an underdog in the recent fixture against Liverpool, and then he expressed an “aspiration” that the Reds might reached City’s level.
Neither opinion – whether honest in conception or otherwise – should ever been raised by an incumbent United manager.
Still, there is something so completely off-piste in Moyes’ comments on Friday, suggesting former manager Sir Alex Ferguson would also have struggled this season that the new man has shocked once again.
“If Sir Alex was here it would be difficult for him as well, and I’m sure he’d be aware of it,” said Moyes.
“It could have been the case no matter what this season. But it has been so un-Man United, which is why we have to look to continue a policy of building, improving, getting better. I think people are aware there’s a squad that is a bit more ageing, so I think it would have been a tough season for probably whoever was in charge of Manchester United this year.”
It is a badly misconceived notion; that United, under Ferguson, would have slipped from an 11-point Premier League margin of victory to the lowest points total in a quarter century. No matter how old the squad.
With that Moyes also issued the now standard weekly supplicate for time, reinforcing the party line that the new man is simply on a long-term journey of transformation to the post-Ferguson era. That somehow failure this season was inevitable – understandable even – given the meager resources available and ill luck procured.
Moreover, promises Moyes, while it has been a season of poor harvest, there will be jam tomorrow. Just stick with the Scot as he rids the club of the bad ingredients that are an inhibitor to success.
“It’s a long journey here and this is only the start of it,” said Moyes. “You work hard to get here in the first place but I’ve got to say I’m more driven to succeed than ever because I want the team to turn around.
“We’ve got a great club, which gives you the chance to do that because of the people we can attract and the players we can attract to the club. But it’s just going to take a little bit of time to get it sorted.
“There’s a rebuilding plan underway and anybody who has an understanding of the game understands that will happen.”
Results matter though and performances, whatever the rebuilding promised in the summer, have been so wretched to date as to render Moyes’ analysis redundant. The Scot was left with an ageing squad, and far too much filler, but there are some coaches – Ferguson included – with the uncanny ability to extract more than the sum of ample parts.
Or in other words, United’s is comfortably a top four squad that achieved even more last season; the difference in performance level is largely the responsibility of the man now in charge.
So to the weekend and Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford – a venue in which United has already lost seven times this season.
On the field Moyes will select a team to face Villa in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off mindful both of United’s performance against City, and the Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich to come.
Captain Nemanja Vidic returns after a two-game suspension, although Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Robin van Persie remain on the sidelines with injury. Moyes could rest Wayne Rooney even if he has been reluctant to do so in the campaign to date.
So few United’s stars impressed against City that Moyes may be tempted to make wholesale changes on Saturday, although supporter unrest will surely reach a tipping point if United lose at home once again. It is a dichotomy of prioritisation that Moyes is ill-equipped to make.
After all, Moyes has bought time with positive results against mediocre opposition this season: Arsenal remains the only side in the Premier League’s top nine to have succumbed to United this season. And yet few expect anything other than heavy defeat to Bayern.
Indeed, there are few teams that define mediocre better than Villa; a side too good to go down, and yet nowhere near a threat to the country’s leading clubs.
Still, it is also at Old Trafford where United has struggled most this season, reflected in the points tally – just 18 from 15 home matches, which is less than 14th-placed Norwich City.
It is a weakness that Villa can exploit despite Paul Lambert’s side sinking to a humiliating home defeat against Stoke City last weekend. Lambert believes that United’s poor campaign is a “major disaster” that will play into the visitors’ hands.
“We have to use that to try and keep the crowd quiet,” said Lambert
“When you have a big following with expectancy levels and you don’t perform it can happen. Every club has down time at some point. I think what has happened to United is they lost a really successful boss. Somebody had to do the job. But there is a generation of their fans who haven’t been used to losing.”
Meanwhile, Lambert will be without Karim El Ahmadi for the journey north, although Andreas Weimann is available despite being substituted with injury in last weekend’s defeat to Stoke.
Still, whatever United’s form – even at home – anything less than comfortable victory against the Midlanders could be near terminally fatal for the United boss. In the circumstances, victory – almost any victory – must be found if supporter unrest is not to gather momentum. It is, after all, very much what a Ferguson side would do.
Manchester United v Aston Villa, Premier League, Old Trafford, 12.45pm, 29 March 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Buttner; Young, Fellaini, Fletcher, Kagawa; Mata; Rooney
Villa (4-5-1): Guzman; Lowton, Baker, Vlaar, Bertrand; Westwood, Delph, Albrighton; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann
United: Lindegaard, Evra, Ferdinand, Giggs, Januzaj, Carrick, Hernandez, Welbeck
Villa: Steer, Clark, Luna, Bennett, Bacuna, Sylla, Tonev, Holt, Helenius
Head to Head
United 94 Draw 38 Villa 49
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth Official: C Pawson
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