“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”
As Paul Rideout arced his back to nod home the 1995 FA Cup Final winning goal it was the apex of Joe Royale’s managerial career. Everton broke so quickly, Anders Limpar and Matt Jackson combining to find Graham Stuart lurking around Manchester United’s penalty spot. The forward’s shot canoned off Peter Schmeichel’s crossbar to leave Rideout with the simplest headed finish. The spoils to Everton’s Dogs of War; and United’s hopes ruined for another season. It was the Toffees’ last major trophy.
What Royale’s dogs lacked in talent they alleviated in work ethic. David Watson, Barry Horne, Joe Parkinson and John Ebbrell, who missed the cup final, created a platform for Limpar, Rideout, Stuart and others in the three years from 1994 that proved to be some of Everton’s most successful in the ’90s.
In the years that followed David Moyes imitated Royale’s side in all but name; a competitive approach that so often focused on function over style. For Parkinson read Thomas Gravesen, Watson replaced by Phil Jagielka, Horne transitioned to Leon Osman.
When Moyes secure the Manchester United job this past summer it took only a small leap in logic to assume that the Scot might carry out a similar policy at Old Trafford. After all, while Sir Alex Ferguson left a squad replete with attacking talent it is a group not underpinned by a midfield base of similar quality. It was a stage set for Moyes’ ethic that preaches hard work and structure over fluidity.
Indeed, the first half of United’s campaign has been characterised by performances that have too often been laboured bordering on ugly, with the percentage game at the fore. Slick performances against Swansea City, West Ham United and Bayer Leverkusen have proven to be an exception, so rarely has United come anything close to the rich history of attacking, creative football that supporters have feasted on over the decades.
Still, Royale’s side was defensively sound above all, conceding just 44 times in 38 eight games in the 1996-97 campaign – 11 more than champions United. It was a trait that also characterised Moyes’ time at Goodison Park, with the former Scotland international always viewing the game through a defender’s eyes. For much of this campaign United has been anything but defensively solid; the 22 goals conceded by the Reds in the Premier League more than any of the top four.
Little surprise, then, if Moyes should seek to build from a defensive foundation in the second half of the season, with the turnaround in United’s recent results based as much on a watertight back-four as attacking performances. Four clean sheets have come in the past six games, Hull City proving an exception on Boxing Day.
“We needed the clean sheet and I thought we defended well,” said Moyes following United’s 1-0 victory at Norwich City on Saturday.
“Up until the game at Hull we had been defending really well, we had only conceded one goal in the league game against West Ham. Then we went to Hull and gave two away in 10 minutes.
“But if you look at us over the last month or so, we have actually been quite solid defensively and it was good to see them do it again. I thought they defended brilliantly well in the first half and they got some great blocks in when it looked as though we were in trouble, so they did really well.”
United’s performance at Norwich boasted none of the attacking verve many supporters seek. Often incoherent in midfield, with an attacking formation that broke down a key moments, United relied on an outstanding defensive performance to secure three points against the Canaries.
It is a solidity that has laid the foundations for genuine momentum in recent weeks. Six victories on the spin leaves United in confident mood ahead of the fixture with Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day. Eight points may now separate the Reds from the Premier League leaders, but it is a gap that at least feels relatively insignificant given the troubles that have afflicted Moyes’ side at times this season.
“We have gathered momentum, but the most important thing is to look towards the next game because you can’t get carried away,” said Danny Welbeck who scored United’s winner in East Anglia.
“The two wins are behind us and we just want to keep winning in the coming games. I think during the course of the season, you come across games which aren’t pretty, but you have to get a result. Getting the victory without putting in our best performance is a good sign for us.”
There is an inherent challenge here. United’s is a history built not only on the success of the past quarter century, but an approach to the game that is admired. The Busby Babes inspired a generation with a fresh approach to the game; ’99′s treble winners were underpinned by a carefree attacking policy unmatched on the continent.
Impetus is key, inspiration remains the goal. Indeed, so much of the season’s narrative will be wrapped in an assessment of the new manager. Moyes wasn’t everybody’s choice for the United post – a context that forms an operose challenge at which the Scot may never fully succeed.
Certainly, Moyes could have helped himself at times. The omnishambles of a summer, Moyes’ oft-negative tactics, United’s functional football, and tendency towards foot-in-mouth public relations has been at least partly of Moyes’ making.
Yet, in recent results there are growing signs that United’s players are finally fighting for Moyes’ cause, if not performing at their peak. This United side is a long way from matching the attacking verve of the continent’s best, let alone the neighbours in east Manchester, but its undoubtedly resurgent.
The key challenge for the campaign’s second half is thus whether Moyes is able to get the best out of his creative players. In Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and even the perpetually frustrating Nani, Moyes boasts attacking talent in abundance. It is finally time to unleash more than the dogs.