If Manchester United’s performance against Olympiakos was shocking at first witness then it is really nothing compared to a second viewing. David Moyes’ side was not only at its apathetic worst in Athens, but the tactics were just about as agricultural as possible in the modern game. It may be United’s worst season in a quarter-century, but the Reds’ approach was straight out Charles Hughes’ coaching book: get it wide, get it in, feed off the second ball. It ought to be truly shocking, but somehow after eight months of Moyes’ influence at Old Trafford, it isn’t.
This is how far United has fallen this season. Yet, the match in Athens also serves as a reminder that whatever the promises on offer from United’s new manager – that change will come and better times lie ahead – the here and now is as desperate as United fans have know it in two generations. It is an observation that clouds every fixture from here until results dramatically improve.
It should be a good fixture this weekend, then. While West Bromwich Albion beat United at Old Trafford earlier this season the Baggies’ game has gone south even faster than that of the Reds’ in the intervening months. In September Steve Clarke remained in charge of the Midlanders, and there was hope at the Hawthorns of a top-half Premier League finish. Fast forward to the spring at Pepe Mel is desperately struggling for relevance just two months into his first job in England.
Indeed, if United cannot take advantage of an opponent that hasn’t won in more than two months and is heading for the drop then Moyes has surely lost his team.
Still, with 10 days off since Athens, Moyes has enjoyed plenty of time to stew on what might just have been United’s worst performance of the season. More than a week in which many of his stars have been on international duty, while the manager has been brooding on a route back to better performances.
Whether the Scot has found the answer remains an open question, but it surely lies in a more open, creative approach. One that is not based on hitting hopeful long balls as was so often the case in Athens.
“I think the key is to improve all things,” said Moyes on Friday.
“I want creativity and think the introduction of Juan Mata and his interplay with Rooney and Robin that I’ve seen recently has helped that creativity. We need to get back to creating more opportunities than we have done. We’ve played quite well in games but not scored and taken our chances.
“I want to make sure when the creative players aren’t getting goals, or the chances aren’t coming, we keep the back door shut and don’t concede because then we have to chase the game. When we’ve tended to score first, we’ve gone on to get positive results.”
However, Moyes will be without striker Javier Hernández for the trip south. The Mexican picked up a knee injury while on international duty, while Jonny Evans is unavailable despite training in the past week.
Better news concerns defender Phil Jones, who could feature despite missing England’s victory over Denmark on Wednesday. Jones has been out since suffering concussion in United’s defeat at Stoke City at the beginning of February.
In Evans’ absence Chris Smalling is likely to partner Inter Milan’s Nemanja Vidić in the centre of defence, while in midfield Marouanne Fellaini will compete with Tom Cleverley for a position alongside Michael Carrick.
Cleverley sat on the bench during England’s midweek victory, a victim not only of an abysmal season at club level, but of a vicious whisper campaign unfurled against the 24-year-old in social media over the past week. Add a gloating tone from many in the traditional fourth estate, and there is little wonder both England manager Roy Hodgson and his club peer have been pressed to support the 24-year-old.
“First and foremost, I’m surprised the media are picking up on something from social media and making a big deal of it in the way it’s come about in the first place,” said Moyes.
“Tom Cleverley is a fantastic young player who is developing all the time. He’s a great trainer here, someone who is the first out every day. He does his best in training and never gives it less than 100 per cent. From my point of view, that is why Tom will be successful.”
Meanwhile, West Brom will assess midfielders Chris Brunt and James Morrison ahead of United’s visit – each suffered injury on international duty last week. Manager Pepe Mel will definitely be without Billy Jones who is injured, but Stephane Sessegnon and Claudio Yacob are both fit.
However, striker Nicolas Anelka will not be available. The Frenchman begins a five-match ban for the ‘quenelle’ gesture made in December. The action brought a strong denial of impropriety from the 34-year-old, but the Frenchman was strongly condemned in a damning 35-page judgement this week. The report unequivocally associated his gesture with the anti-semetic movement in France.
While the Baggies have lost their principal sponsor over the incident immediate priorities are points, and with just seven secured in 2014, Mel’s side is now just a single place above the relegation zone.
United may be less desperate, with the title gone and Champions League football out of reach, but Moyes’ credibility remains on the line. Indeed, results and United’s direct style of play have contributed what is an increasingly fractious dressing room atmosphere, according to some observers.
It is an atmosphere in which Robin van Persie has become increasingly vocal, telling fellow Dutchman Ronaldo de Boer this week that unless United’s result pick up he may seek new opportunities in the summer.
Moyes does not expect van Persie to follow captain Nemanja Vidic out of the club despite Ronald De Boer saying this week that the striker was “not enjoying the football Manchester United play”.
“I couldn’t reply to that and I wouldn’t know how Ronald de Boer would know that,” said Moyes said.
“I travelled back from the [Holland] game with Robin the other night. I went to the game, watched them play and travelled back with him. I hardly feel I need to answer the question.”
The more pressing one is whether Moyes remains suitable for the United job. Three points on Saturday will provide a temporary answer at least.
West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United, Premier League, Hawthorns, 12.45pm, 8 March 2014
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Foster; Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob; Morrison, Gera, Brunt; Anichebe
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Jones, Fletcher, Giggs, Kagawa, Valencia, Young, Cleverley, Welbeck
West Brom: Myhill, Sinclair, Bifouma, Berahino, Dorrans, Tamas, Popov, Daniels, Sessègnon, Amalfitano, Vydra, Dawson
West Brom 41 Draw 30 United 52
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: S Long, A Halliday
Fourth Official: M Dean