Warm weather, cold hearts
It was at least part holiday camp, perhaps a little boot camp: Manchester United’s ‘warm weather’ training sojourn to Dubai in the past week. As David Moyes’ players made their way home on Tuesday more than a few observers were given pause for thought. What exactly did the squad achieve in five days away from Manchester’s ample, albeit wintry, charms?
Indeed, social media offered more than a glimpse into United’s schedule over the past week: Alex Buttner’s less-than-bronzed body adorning Dubai’s beaches, cocktails at a hotel-adjacent bar, time spent with Diego Maradona, one of the finest players to grace the game. And a notorious cocaine addict, some might add.
They ran into Michel Salgado and son, posted seemingly endless Instagram pictures – Buttner again – and gave the impression, perhaps unwittingly, that the 7,000 mile round-trip was little more than a mid-season break.
The physical benefits may, or may not, be felt in the weeks to come, although if Moyes’ pre-season fitness camp is anything to go by, fans are fair warned to express a note of caution. The mental benefits of relaxation and time together are more ephemeral benefits still.
United’s £37 million acquisition Juan Mata spoke of a greater sense of togetherness, and a squad prepared to kick on and challenge for fourth spot in the league – and Champions League qualification next season. Ominously, the Spaniard also spoke of corporate requirements also taxing squad time.
Mata’s objective is a little different than his team-mates of course. He needs not only to perform strongly in the coming weeks to make Spain’s World Cup squad, but to acclimatise rapidly to his new environment.
“These kind of breaks always help to make the group even stronger and to switch off a bit from the different competitions and the tight schedule,” said Mata on his personal blog this week.
“These days are good for me to settle even more in the team and share these moments with my team-mates and also, obviously, to train hard and get used to the new working patterns after just three weeks in the club. These are long days, with training sessions and events with sponsors; we spend a lot of time together.”
Elsewhere, it is a squad largely unchanged from the one that secured the Premier League title by 11 points last season. Togetherness should not be an issue, although Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Nani and others might beg to disagree.
Fourth place in the Premier League is a full 11 points away. Yet, this much is known: Moyes’ team has just 12 Premier League games to right the wrongs of a season nearly past. Then there is the Round of 16 Champions League tie against runaway Greek league leaders Olympiakos beginning in late February.
The Scot’s outfit has shown little in the campaign to date to suggest that either task is likely to be completed without further drama. After all, United has lost eight times in the league to date, while being eliminated from domestic cup competitions by Sunderland and Swansea City, two of England’s relegation-threatened lesser lights.
Nor is there much evidence that Moyes’ side is improving. January passed as a disaster without mitigation, while the three games preceding United’s trip to the Middle East brought humbling defeat at Stoke City and an embarrassing draw with bottom club Fulham at Old Trafford.
Pride may have been partly restored by a point against Arsenal at the Emirates, but at the price of another conservative performance from the Scot’s side when, in truth, only a win would do. It remains an open question whether Moyes visible frustration in north London was born of Michael Carrick’s backwards pass in the dying seconds, or that Patrice Evra didn’t launch another aimless punt into the Londoners’ penalty area.
Still, the Reds schedule kicks off once again against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday, with the squad then heading out to Greece for Tuesday’s Champions League tie. In the context of a hugely disappointing season neither tie is a formality; both are crucial to whatever hopes and dreams remain this season.
Tony Pullis’ side has achieved a remarkable turnaround. Once regarded as certainties for the drop, Palace has pulled away from fellow relegation fodder Fulham, Cardiff City and Sunderland, with seven wins following since the 56-year-old took over from Ian Holloway in November. Palace’s home record under Pullis includes five victories, with January signings Tom Ince, Joe Ledly and Scott Dann already contributing to buoyant optimism among the south Londoners’ fan base.
Neither Cardiff, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, nor Fulham with the now departed Rene Muelensteen have achieved near the same level of consistency despite a winter change of management.
Meanwhile, United’s European record this season suggests that Moyes’ side is capable of progressing to the Champions League quarter-final against a side shorn of its top goalscorer, Kostas Mitroglou, who joined Fulham for £11 million in January.
Draws at Real Sociedad and Shakhtar Donetsk, were achieved with the same cautious control that Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams displayed in recent season. There has been little of the flair that characterised United’s 1999 Champions League winning side, or – to a lesser extent – that of 2008, although the handsome 5-0 win at starstruck Bayer Leverkusen somewhat betrays the theory.
Yet, with Mata cup tied it will be remarkable indeed if Moyes’ side does not seek to close out a tight draw in Athens in a week’s time.
More than better results, however, United’s supporters seek evidence of progress in the coming matches. That somehow this week’s sunshine break was an opportunity to reassess the failings that have brought the club to its lowest point in a quarter century, in addition to recharging batteries.
In that the players’ seemingly relaxed attitude in Dubai poses a central question: can Moyes’ squad eliminate the complacency that has marked the campaign? Will United recover an edge lost, amid fresh ideas springing, like an oasis, from the Emirati desert?
This is a challenge not only for Moyes’ squad, but for the manager too. He is, after all, a man under considerable pressure. And while this pressure is almost exclusively external – from the fourth estate and an increasingly rowdy minority of supporters – the Scot must now demonstrate that he can handle a crisis and navigate United to more stable ground.
In that fans also seek evidence of Moyes flexibility, not just his commitment. The Scot’s voracious work ethic – in contrast to that of his players’ cynics might add – amounts to little if results continue to go against United.
Defeat to Stoke and draws with Fulham and Arsenal were frustrating not only for dropped points, but strong evidence that Moyes is unwilling or unable to adapt in the face of failure. United’s repeated use of the long-ball at Stoke; the now infamous 82 crosses against the Cottagers; a negative attitude from the off in north London.
Should this observation become an essential truth of the Scot’s tenure, if there truly is no alternative plan, then no winter warmth, masseur’s hand, cocktail hour or celebrity haunt will correct United’s course. There are few excuses left.
Supporters do not want to believe that five-star luxury is a squad’s reward for failure, but should United slip once again at the weekend then some might just voice that opinion.