From first to nowhere in less than a year
One bad season does not equal a trend. It is an observation worth remembering as Manchester United’s campaign inevitably unravels over the next fortnight. Yet, it was not so much the Reds’ 10th defeat of an embarrassing Premier League campaign that hurt on Tuesday night, but the way United capitulated to Manchester City at Old Trafford. It is as if all dignity has been lost amid chaotic tactics and an identity now totally absent.
The blame for United’s disintegration this year is myriad, and hotly debated by supporters, but while David Moyes says he is at the club for the long-term, contingency plans must now be in place for the Scot’s dismissal. It would be so remiss of United’s board not to plan for Moyes’ exit that it is impossible for serious consideration not to be given.
This is true despite Sir Bobby Charlton’s claims this week that he is “absolutely certain” Moyes is the right man for the United job. “It doesn’t mean we are going to change everything,” said the club ambassador.
Yet, in Florida the Glazer family is reportedly waiting on supporter reaction before making a call on Moyes’ future. The Scot may blame himself for United’s decline, but an increasingly large section of United’s supporter base does too.
“I take responsibility for the team, I always will do,” said Moyes, with United having taken just seven points from 13 games against the Premier League’s top nine.
“I thought it would be a tough year for us, but I hoped it would be much more competitive and closer to the top of the league than we are.”
Moyes’ potential dismissal is reality not because United’s decline is already terminal, despite some of the nation’s more hyperbolic media analysis, but that the board cannot afford it to become so. While Sir Alex Ferguson left a squad in decline, and the Glazer family has failed to suitably invest in the team over the past nine years, Moyes’ ability to manage the scenario is patently absent.
In fact Moyes has failed in each area of his remit from strategic transfer planning, to staff and player management, through to tactics; increasingly the former Everton manager appears out of his depth and seeking only to buy time.
“Most people understand that this is something that’s going to take a bit of time to alter,” claimed Moyes. “It’s not going to change dramatically in the short time between now and the end of the season.”
It is a strategy built on a hope alone, one that does not guarantee better performances.
Indeed, United’s comprehensive defeat at home to City concluded four reverses in fixtures against the club’s biggest rivals this season. The Blues also won at the Etihad in September, while Liverpool has secured two victories over the Reds in the Premier League. Tuesday’s reverse was the season in microcosm – ineffective players labouring in a tactical mess entirely of Moyes’ own making.
In this it is easy to ask for time; time for Moyes to build his own team and to recreate United in his own image. It is effortless to blame United’s players for unforgivably poor performances levels. There is merit in both arguments.
Yet, with each new humiliating defeat the former is less attuned to logic, and more to nostalgic hope, while the latter – and the reported £150 million transfer fund – is questionable in Moyes’ hands. Dangerous even given what the Scot has done with more than £75 million spent on Marouanne Fellaini and Juan Mata to date.
Each was prominent in derby day defeat, although not in the manner supporters might hope. Fellaini’s inadequacies were highlighted once again – a player too sluggish and lacking in basic technique to ever reach the class expected at a club of United’s stature.
Not that Moyes has a plan for Fellaini’s improvement. After all, while the Belgian has disappointed from a deep-lying central midfield role at United this season, the only genuine alternative is to deploy the 25-year-old in an advanced position, and resort to the kind of percentage football Moyes knows best.
“He’s not been great, has he? You have to admit that,” was Paul Scholes’ damning indictment of United’s recruit from Everton.
“He did have problems with his wrist and I know he missed a lot of games but, for the money they paid for him, I’d be expecting a lot more, to be honest with you. For a central midfielder at Manchester United for £27 million, I’m expecting a few goals.”
Meanwhile, Mata is a shadow of the player who scored 19 times for Chelsea last season. Largely deployed from wide areas since his arrival in January, the Spaniard’s confidence already appears shot.
Moreover, Mata is increasingly ineffective; an observation that says more about how the £37 million playmaker is deployed than the player’s essential quality. After all, while Mata completed 57 passes against City, less than a third were in attacking areas of the pitch. The Spaniard, who is yet to score for United, took just two shots on goal.
The player’s role on the right wing against City was just part of the tactical mess foisted on United by Moyes. The Scot’s bizarre decision to use three central midfielders was born of an essential truth that City’s quality in midfield is superior.
Yet, the rejig served only to undermined United’s defensive shape, while reducing the team to a strategy of counter-attack. That Yaya Touré and Fernandinho dominated United’s trio anyway is the sad irony in Moyes’ cautious approach.
Of course, the Scot can take some credit for a reworking United’s shape in the second half, where Shinji Kagawa offered greater balance than the much maligned Tom Cleverley. Yet, even this served only to underline the error United’s coach made in the first place.
It was ever thus this season, where United has so often been reduced to a reactive strategy built on neither nuance, nor sophistication. It is a team without an identity.
Nor did the half-time change bring United back into the game as an attacking force, even if the defensive balance improved. United simply avoided a beating even more humiliating than the one handed down by Manuel Pellegrini’s title challengers.
In this there is a wider commentary on Moyes’ ambition. In the aftermath the Scot confirmed he is yet to truly understand the club – a misunderstanding of United’s leading role in the football community. One underlined by the club’s 11 point margin of victory in last season’s Premier League.
“I think we’ve played a very good side and it’s the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to,” said the 50-year-old.
“I think we need to play better. We’re needing to come up a couple of levels at the moment and we’re not quite there.”
It is an aspiration – to be more like City – that few United fans can stomach. This coming from a manager who has seemingly run last season’s champion club into the ground.
One bad season does not equal a trend, but it can quickly become so. After all, it has taken Moyes less than a year to preside over significant decline. The worst season in 25 years.