Salvation was hard fought and, frankly, pretty lucky, but Manchester United secured a first win in four matches on Tuesday night – and boy did David Moyes need it. Defeats to Everton and Newcastle United were not only damaging to Moyes’ credibility, and United’s confidence, but utterly wretched. That Newcastle, 16th last season, completely outplayed United was a measure of just how far Moyes’ side has sunk.
But the narrow victory over Shaktar Donetsk could be the first in a confidence-boosting run leading up to the new year, with the Reds facing five winnable games before 2013 is out. Indeed, it is not hyperbole to say that Moyes desperately needs United to win each of those five – first against Aston Villa in the Premier League, followed by Stoke City in the Capital One Cup. League matches against West Ham United, Hull City and Norwich City follow. It is a period that will surely define the arc of United’s narrative for months to come.
Tuesday’s fixture could have been so different though. For much of the opening period United suffered for the same lethargy, tactical indiscipline and frightful passing that has plagued the Reds for much of this season. Shaktar, ranked 15th in UEFA’s coefficient and having made it to a Champions League quarter-final just once, passed around and through United with such ease that Moyes’ side should have been two down by the interim. The visitors’ 11 shots brought scant reward for a vibrant opening period.
Familiar failings were clear. Through midfield the odd couple of Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs struggled both to contain Shaktar’s attacking movement and to retain possession.
Jones in particular was guilty of allowing midfield runners past him at will, placing Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans under pressure as the Ukrainians’ Brazilian contingent quickstepped their way through. Only profligate finishing saved Moyes further embarrassment.
In fact Jones made just 33 passes in the opening period, with the game all too often bypassing the 21-year-old Lancastrian. Giggs too struggled to impose himself on the game, erring on the side of caution with his passing, before giving the ball away with the few progressive insertions made.
It is a pattern that clearly frustrates Moyes, although at least partly one of his own making. United’s rigidity has reduced passing options all over the pitch, with Moyes seemingly unaware of how to remedy the problem.
“To be honest, it’s been that way since I came here,” said Moyes of his side’s passing.
“We need to win matches and the players responded well to that encouragement. We passed the ball much better after we had given it away terribly in the first half and that’s not like us. We didn’t play particularly well in the opening 30 minutes, we could have been fortunate still to be 0-0 but we missed a couple of chances just before half-time ourselves but we played much better in the second half.
“I thought there wasn’t much difference to the Everton and Newcastle games. Tonight we got the goal. In those other games, Everton and Newcastle got the goal. There wasn’t an awful lot of difference between them.”
In that Moyes is right – United’s performance was only marginally better than against Everton and Newcastle, although the manager may have been more generous in his assessment. Certainly Moyes’ criticism was more reserved than former player Roy Keane, who was far from reticent in his assessment of United’s failings.
“There has been no reaction from the United players from the disappointment of last week,” said the Irishman.
“They don’t look like a team, just a collection of individuals running around. You can defend players for making mistakes but you cannot defend players for not tackling and not getting close to people.
“David Moyes took the heat off the players before the game by saying it is his responsibility but we are talking about experienced players. There are big question marks over the manager and the players. That for Manchester United is certainly not good enough.”
Indeed, United’s players barely dragged themselves out of a gutter of wretchedness in at least two and a half games over the past 10 days. Victory came against Shaktar, but it could so easily have been a reverse.
Yet, the half-time break brought renewed confidence for the home side, although much of the apparent revival can be found in Shaktar’s inexplicable choice to slow the match down just as the visitors had been on top. Had Mircea Lucescu’s side attacked with equal vigor in the second period United might now be staring at the wrong end of defeat, and a Round of 16 tie with one of Europe’s finest.
In such minor details are matches won and lost; confidence found or forgone. But win United did, and it was a fine goal from Jones, whose energy finally began to compensate for a tactical naïvety that is all too apparent when the youngster is deployed in midfield.
With victory comes a sense of renewed hope not only in European competition, where United will be paired with one of Europe’s lesser lights in the next round, but domestic fixtures to come. In a season of no genuine momentum, where performances have rarely sparkled, a quintet of victories before Tottenham Hotspur arrives on New Years Day might just create a little impetus.
Certainly, United’s 12 game unbeaten run before defeat to Everton last week brought only a modicum of belief. In those dozen games five draws peppered victories that only rarely exceeded the mundane. It was a sequence that underlined a common observation: this is not the United of old. Not even the United of a year ago.
Still, there are few excuses left for short-term failure now. Moyes passes six full months in charge by the end of the year, while of the opponents to come none can claim any real form. In fact each of United’s next four league fixtures is against a team below the Reds in the Premier League table.
Paul Lambert’s Villains were beaten comfortably at relegation threatened Fulham last week. West Ham would join their capital neighbours in the bottom three but for goal difference, while Hull and Norwich have each struggled to find any consistency.
In the cup United will face a Stoke side whose focus is on ensuring Premier League status next season, with knock-out competitions a distant second priority.
Only then comes a difficult January, with Spurs at Old Trafford as the year turns, followed by two fixtures with Swansea City, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and a potential Capital One Cup semi-final. If United hasn’t picked up momentum by then, Moyes’ side surely never will.