Amid the inevitable hue and cry from the social media crowd over David Moyes’ position as Manchester United manager one wonders quite when the Scot’s pride comes into play. The pride to fix a team fundamentally broken; or the self-respect to walk away before more damage is done. This is, as one supporter put it, no time to talk about dignity – Moyes’ was obliterated in the red-hot Karaiskakis Stadium atmosphere in Piereus on Tuesday night.
Yet, conceit – that most caustic sin – is surely an explicit actor in the Scot’s future. Moyes’ ability to finish a job he has only barely started references inextricably against the harm that may be caused with the 50-year-old remaining in charge.
United’s performance in 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos was as miserable as any this season – and there has seemingly been one nadir followed by another new low over the past six months. United’s only saving grace was that the Greek side, which this winter sold its leading scorer to relegation-bound Fulham, struck only twice. It is the hope that kills, but hope there is indeed for the second leg in three weeks’ time.
Yet, it will take the most unlikely of United victories to save the Reds season. Out of contention in the Premier League, unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, dumped out of both domestic cups, Moyes’ debut campaign now rests on European redemption. Few will bank on the Scot’s team achieving that goal at Old Trafford next month.
Familiar weaknesses were apparent once again in Athens. Possession was gained and lost with so little care and embarrassingly small impact. United’s inability to turn good positions into real creativity was both a facilitator to defeat and a symptom of the reductive style Moyes has imposed.
Once again United drove the ball long to little effect – the play quickly recycled from central to wide areas and almost inevitably towards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack with little precision. What chances the Reds created were squandered, with just one shot hitting the target all night.
In midfield Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were as ineffective as at any time this season – a problem exacerbated by the less than sophisticated approach. Meanwhile at the back Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic sat so deep as to positively encourage Olympiakos forward. How the home side took advantage.
More frustrating still, United’s 11th defeat of the campaign was built from a base of mental negativity so apparently during Moyes’ reign. It is, after all, not the first time that the Scot’s team has sought predominantly to react to an opponent’s style rather impose one of its own. Against such limited opposition supporters might ponder quite where the Reds’ ambition has gone.
Juan Mata may be cup tied in Europe, but inexplicably Moyes overlooked both the prodigious talents of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa, looking instead to the predictable defensive work of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. That Januzaj was left out of the matchday squad altogether baffled many.
Moyes had little choice but to offer contrition for another shocking performance, although once again the Scot offered luck as an excuse. It wears very thin.
“It’s the worst we’ve played in Europe that’s for sure,” said Moyes in the aftermath.
“It was a really poor performance. We didn’t get going from the start. We didn’t deserve anything from tonight. We just didn’t perform well. I’m surprised. I didn’t see that level of performance coming. We came into the game in good form and a good mindset but it didn’t show tonight.”
“I have to say I don’t think we were two goals worse off in the game. They had a shot, which got deflected, but we didn’t offer enough on the night to create a goal really.”
Failure to progress on 19 March will bring the curtain down on the worse United campaign in a quarter-century. Defeat over two legs will also open up the debate about Moyes’ role in United’s slide into mediocrity with ever greater fervour. It will legitimise those already calling for the manager’s head, and add credence to the growing belief that regime change is less painful if both brutally honest and swift.
“We’ll do everything we possibly can to reverse the 2-0 defeat tonight,” added the Scot.
“We’ll put it right, we’re determined to put it right and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the coming weeks. The one good thing is there’s still a second game to come.
“I take responsibility. It’s my team and I’ll always front up. The players are hurting as well. They know how they performed. We’re a team and we stick together.”
Indeed, the momentum now gathering for change may have begun in the heated atmosphere of social media, but has spread to some supporters who are normally a barometer for reason and patience. It is hard not to be reactive when United’s results are so poor and the performances far off a level deemed acceptable.
Still, there is little chance Moyes will be fired before the season is out. It is not much more likely that the Scot will leave in the summer. The word remains that United’s owners are resolutely supportive of a manager who has also been let down by his players.
“There is a lack of confidence and there are some players who just don’t have the quality,” said former United captain Roy Keane, now a pundit on ITV.
“They need six or seven players to rebuild the club. Privately, David Moyes will be shocked at the quality he is working with.”
Those players may come in the summer; whether new talent fixes the problems associated with Moyes’ approach is another question. Little in the season has diverted the former Everton manager from his core belief in the way the game is played, whatever the evidence to the contrary.
It’s that pride thing again.