Momentum, at last
Admittedly it is a little churlish, but there’s nothing quite like winning to prove the fickle nature of fandom. With 15 minutes to go, Stoke City 2-1 up at Old Trafford on Saturday, David Moyes was under intense pressure. Little wonder after Manchester United’s most traumatic start to a campaign in the past decade. Two attacking substitutions later and a sense of momentum has developed around the club; comprehensive victory over Norwich City on Tuesday only creates renewed belief after three wins on the spin and a run of six games unbeaten.
The Reds haven’t metamorphosed from Champions to whipping boys, and back again, inside three months, although Moyes’ start to life at Old Trafford has been anything but positive. Indeed, a pervading sense that United had gone backwards this summer was catalysed by an incomprehensibly shambolic approach to the transfer market, and reinforced with three Premier League defeats in the opening six games.
After 25 years of success under Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes – conservative, frustrating Moyes – had not only found a way to lose, but to do it in distinctly un-Manchester United fashion. To paraphrase Guardian journalist Daniel Harris, only three things had changed from the team that won the Premier League by 11 points last season: a player acquired by Moyes, the coaches Moyes brought in, and Moyes.
Yet, the late draw with Southampton, followed by a positive performance against Real Sociedad, and victories over Stoke and Norwich, has put a halt, for the moment at least, to the aura of negativity. After all, while United’s performances over the last six matches have sparkled only in bursts, results do count.
During that period Southampton dominated for much of the second period at Old Trafford, while United’s performance at home to Stoke was one of the most demoralising in recent seasons, save for the final 12 dramatic minutes. Even the Reds’ comfortable victory over La Real in Europe came not without moments of opposition-induced panic.
Yet, Moyes’ outfit now travels to Fulham at the weekend, then Sociedad in midweek, in the belief that qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages can be achieved, and a more solid Premier League footing established.
For a new regime the self belief that victory brings counts; a sense of momentum essential.
“You need to go on runs in this league and this club is the best in the business at building that,” said assistant manager Steve Round after United’s 4-0 victory on Tuesday night.
“This club has a winning mentality. There were no great celebrations after Saturday’s Stoke win and none tonight. There will be teams on the end of some big scores from us because we’ve got that capability and we’ve got that firepower right the way through the squad.”
There is no little irony in United’s new-found confidence stemming, in large part, from the performances of a rookie, but 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj has certainly inspired his more experienced colleagues. Hugely impactful as a second-half substitute against Stoke at the weekend, Januzaj’s headline-grabbing performance in Capital One Cup victory over Norwich on Tuesday was the most assured from a United youngster in some time.
The teenager’s flexibility has played a role too – confidence on the right to fashion late pressured at home to Stoke, while his abundant maturity in possession from a classic number 10 role dominated proceedings against an admittedly timid Norwich. More impressive still, Januzaj ‘s ability to dictate both the tempo and pattern of United’s play on Tuesday came in a manner that Wayne Rooney has not always replicated this season.
It is this flexibility to play across any of the front positions that will ensure Januzaj gains plenty of first team football this season, although fans will hope that it comes without the ensuing pitfalls of failing to settle in any one role.
“We see him as a number seven, 10 or 11. He can play any of those three,” said Round.
“If you ask our Reserves coach [Warren Joyce], who had him last season, he’d say he felt his best position was number nine. He played there for the Reserves. So any of the top four positions he is capable of playing in.
“For a young player like Adnan, we’re trying to give him as much experience as we possibly can and develop him in numerous different positions and give him different ideas and thoughts about the way he should be playing.”
Januzaj has appeared just eight times for the club, including three starts, yet is already being discussed in the same breath as teenage stars Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. The tendency to revert to hyperbole is rife, of course, but on occasion it is surely beholded to supporters to enjoy genuine emergent talent.
Meanwhile, United’s cup win also brought confidence to those players on the fringes this season, including Javier Hernández, Wilfried Zaha and Fabio da Sila.
While the Brazilian did not start, much to many fans’ surprise, his late goal brought a rare moment of joy in an otherwise frustrating season for the youngster. Little more than two years ago Fabio started the Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley. His career has rarely looked so positive since.
Hernández, meanwhile, scored twice to underline the Mexican’s instinctive ability to finish is not lessened by lengthy spells on United’s substitutes bench. That the 25-year-old will almost certainly drop out of the side for the Reds’ visit to Fulham on Saturday is an indication of his continued status within the squad.
Then there was Zaha, whose positive performance was overshadowed by that of Januzaj, but should earn the England international a shot at a place on United’s bench at least.
Zaha remains raw, and his inability to understand when to retain possession, when to pass and when to beat his man, is a frustration. Still, the former Crystal Palace winger remained positive throughout, beating Norwich left-back Javier Garrido inside minutes to stamp some early authority on the game. The talent is present, with responsibility now incumbent on Moyes and his team to coax the best out of the youngster.
“I was really pleased for Wilf to get a start and play so well,” added Round. “He got a bit tired at the end so we replaced him. But this will have done his confidence the world of good and he’s gone out there and experienced what it’s like to win at Old Trafford.”
Indeed, much the same can be said for United after victories over Sociedad, Stoke and Norwich in successive home games. The key to retaining that momentum is to repeat the result in upcoming away fixtures against Fulham and Sociedad, before Arsenal visit in less than a fortnight’s time. Victory over the Gunners would breed confidence in another level again.