The goal was so good it was almost offensive. Obnoxious because Danny Welbeck’s superb strike at the Hawthorns on Saturday exposed the real talent in Manchester United’s midst; a talent so desperately underused in David Moyes’ counter-revolution this season. Indeed, while much of United’s play over the past eight months harks back to a basic tactical approach largely superseded by the game’s élite, Welbeck’s fine team goal uncovered genuine potential for something more, but only if Moyes is prepared to release it.
Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Marouanne Fellaini and Wayne Rooney were involved in an 18-pass move before Welbeck’s classy 82nd minute finish sealed a comfortable United win at West Bromwich Albion. And while the goal can be celebrated as a rare moment of real class in an otherwise hugely disappointing campaign, frustration stems from the knowledge that Welbeck’s strike is likely to be another false dawn. The sight of United’s multi-faceted attack passing through rather than over Albion’s defence is countered by the back-to-basics approach used for much of the campaign.
This observation is fundamental to the philosophy underpinning manager Moyes’ career at the top; one that the Scot transposed to United rapidly, with almost universally disastrous consequences. After all, Moyes’ strict adherence to the crossing game is largely counter-intuitive to the presence of touch players such as Mata, Rooney, Kagawa and Welbeck in the United squad.
Throw starlet Adnan Januzaj into the mix and it is not so much a wonder that United’s approach has been so agricultural at times this season, but that Moyes’ rigidly taught approach has so rarely flexed. The players at Moyes’ disposal surely demand more.
United’s narrow formation against Albion and a more constructive build up should auger well given the personnel available to the Scot. Yet, we have been here before – and recently too. United’s relatively cocksure performance in victory at Crystal Palace last month came with both Mata and Januzaj in the side and greater focus on attacking flexibility.
Four days afterwards, Moyes’ outfit spent much of the 90 at Olympiakos launching hopeful long balls, or recycling possession wide at the earliest opportunity, only for another aimless cross to miss its target.
Indeed, in the men selected in wide positions often present United’s approach in microcosm. Technical players such as Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj on one pole; Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on the other. Moyes cannot have it both ways, yet rarely seems to trust to a fully creative approach.
Kagawa’s late introduction was significant at the Hawthorns even if it came at Januzaj’s expense. The Japanese international occupied the centre of the park, rather than hugging the touchline, and proved to be a catalyst for an entertaining final 20 minutes. Yet, he is unlikely to start many games before the season concludes.
Still, Moyes was entitled to feel pleased with a confident second half performance in the Midlands, even if the context was victory against a side whose form is significantly worse than any other in the division.
“The pitch was very lively, it was drying out a little bit and it wasn’t that easy to pass the ball, but we looked much more potent going forward and looked more likely to score than we have in other games,” said Moyes. “I made the point about us trying to attack more and have better play going forward and I think we did that.”
Next weekend’s match against Liverpool at Old Trafford is another level still; and a challenge that will test Moyes’ faith in a plethora of flexible creative players. With Valencia and Young both available, history suggests that the Scot will be unable to resist the temptation to start one or both against Brendan Rodgers’ improving side. In the battle between structure and creativity the former normally wins Moyes’ heart.
United’s challenge extends beyond tactics for next Sunday’s fixture. Whether the Scot’s side reverts back to a more rudimentary approach or otherwise Welbeck’s star cameo in the midlands also exposed Robin van Persie’s worrying lack of form, and a potentially destructive attitude.
The Dutchman has made no secret, at least through intermediaries, that he is unhappy with life at Old Trafford. It is a process months in the making – beginning with Moyes’ decision to “over train” the 30-year-old striker last summer, extending through the manager’s frustration with the player’s fitness, and augmented by Moyes’ decision to build a team around Rooney.
More pointedly van Persie benefits little from the type of aimless delivery that has characterised a season, although his intelligence around the box ensures that the Dutchman scores plenty when the ball is delivered from wide areas with a little more precision.
van Persie cut a dejected figure in the midlands, with the player’s state of mind such that his movement was minimal and impact limited. That Rooney and van Persie exchanged just four passes, and the Dutchman enjoyed only 16 touches in an hour on the pitch, is both a symptom and a contributor to the player’s malaise.
Moyes has little answer to the problem though. The Scot certainly appears reluctant to indulge the former Arsenal forward in the sycophantic manner to which Rooney’s ego has been massaged this season. While the alternative could be cataclysmic to van Persie’s deteriorating relationship with the Scot; that the Dutchman is dropped for Sunday’s fixture with Liverpool and Welbeck or Rooney leads the line.
It is a move some fans might support given van Persie’s perceived attitude. Certainly Welbeck’s touch and movement is conducive to an expansive game, although the Englishman’s finishing is a level or two below van Persie’s class. The ease with which Welbeck scored on Saturday is an exception to a generally more profligate contribution.
“When he was played in down the side, he opened up and finished terrifically well,” said Moyes. “I’m pleased Danny is looking sharper. We’re going to need him.”
Whether that comes on Sunday might just be pivotal for more than one member of Moyes’ squad ahead of a tough month. Sunday’s match is rapidly followed the second leg of United’s Champions League Round of 16 clash with Olympiakos, then West Ham United away and Manchester City at home. The Scot will need a positive result in at least one of the big three fixtures to keep the pressure at bay.
“It is a crucial month for us and, to be honest, I am very positive about it,” said Mata, who enjoyed a positive contribution from the right on Saturday. “We know that we have to win as many games as we can and we have to start this month.”
Whether United continues in the vein of Saturday’s second half or reverts to a season’s type might just dictate how far the team goes in the remaining weeks of the season.
David Moyes is withstanding significant criticism due to the listless performances of Manchester United under his management this season. The former Everton manager has continued to garner support from within; including Sir Alex Ferguson, meaning the United manager is likely to continue in charge of the reigning English champion for the foreseeable future.
Whispers to the contrary, however, are picking up. Indeed, changing manager now leaves little to lose regarding United’s hunt for trophies and the rapid appointment of a new man could allow early assessment of the squad ahead of the summer transfer window. After all, Moyes’ lack of time in the job has been offered as one excuse for United’s failure in the market last summer. A second Maroune Felliani-style farce cannot be tolerated given next season’s importance to United’s long-term future.
Reports that Moyes has lost the dressing room have emerged, while Robin van Persie’s open criticism of United’s tactics has added fuel to the fire. Realistically, the Scot will not suddenly grow into a manager that commands respect of some of the planet’s finest talents and a new man – Louis van Gaal is the latest suggestion – could at least fire up the playing staff, if only temporarily.
Andre Villas-Boas is another manager linked with Old Trafford, having been sacked at Tottenham Hotspur despite boasting the best winning percentage in the club’s Premier League history. The former Porto manager is famous for favouring a ‘score one more than the opposition’ approach and the Stretford End would probably embrace the style should an unlikely appointment take place.
Villas-Boas popularized the term “high block” and his fanatical obsession with a high defensive line cost the 36-year-old the Chelsea job in 2012. The “Football Manager” aficionado considers the second ball critical in attacking football and deploys a sometimes ludicrously high line to regain lost possession as quickly as possible.
The quintessential Villas-Boas side features dizzyingly fast transition from back to front, and his forwards are allowed freedom to express themselves. Should the first salvo fail to bear fruit, the ‘high block’ enables his midfielders to press and regain possession. As such, Villas-Boas’ teams take advantage of any opposition dragged out of shape by the first phase of play.
Moyes is another manager appreciative of opportunities provided by the second ball. However, unlike the Portuguese manager Moyes prefers his team to maintain its defensive shape and rely on crosses to initiate attacks.
Villas-Boas is not likely to replace the Scot, but Moyes has much to gain by recognizing the key element of the Portuguese manager’s philosophy – speed. United boasts one of most potent forward line-ups in Europe and goals could come aplenty should the Reds focus the play in more advanced areas.
However, John Terry’s struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ methods suggests that United defenders will not be able to maintain a high line either – at least not with the current ageing personnel. In addition, United’s engine room has been stuck in the first gear since 2007, and thus duplicating the former Tottenham manager’s template is simply not feasible.
Instead of successions of quick, short passes into the lone striker, United could adopt a more British approach to deliver the ball from back to front – the long ball! United has already become much more direct under Moyes, but there is an argument for taking the long ball game to another level.
By launching the ball long, quickly, United can retain defensive shape, cope with a static midfield, and rely less on full-backs carrying the ball forward, while involving van Persie, Mata and Wayne Rooney more in the final third. The holding midfield duo can free Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to run past markers in attacking areas, receiving the ball from van Persie, who has the first touch to control hopeful punts forward.
While there is little height in the final third, Rooney and his fellow forwards are “number 10s” at heart and could tiki-taka their way into the box from an advanced position. Midfielders sitting deep can work the second ball by pelting clearances back into the final third or utilizing advancing full-backs to create width.
In theory, a more direct game can solidify the defence, suit United’s forwards’ natural game, and quicken the tempo, while providing two ways to take advantage from clearances – via a plethora of ‘number 10s’ or full-backs on the run.
Moyes seems to be fully aware of the problems caused by a cautious transition and the former Everton manager has experimented with various tactical systems to utilize central areas of the pitch. Yet, United’s continuing woes have forced the Scot into bypassing midfield entirely to build up the tempo. One suspects Moyes would not hesitate skipping even the transitional build-up phase with points now needed desperately.
Indeed, the Scot has built his career as a pragmatist and his experience is needed at this crucial moment. Tottenham is being managed by a caretaker boss, while in the past two seasons Liverpool and Arsenal have failed to sustain early season form. United could yet fluke into the top four, but only with a plan. Sir Alex took considerable risks to force a favorable result when needed – it is now time for Moyes to emulate his predecessor.
The imagination runs wild; it is often thus amid the waterfall of conjecture generated by the modern game. Yet, it is the message between the lines has become ever more intriguing this season, brief and counter brief shaping the narrative as never before. David Gill’s subtle approach to media management at Manchester United has been replaced by Ed Woodward’s seemingly incorrigible need to call in a story. But at a time of great uncertainty, Woodward’s quirk offers at least some insight into the club’s strategy, if not mode of execution.
Take the Reds’ summer transfer plans, which are spectacular if Woodward’s word is to be believed. True, supporters are now well educated to be cautious; this promise has been made more than once over the past eight years, not least in the fallout from Wayne Rooney’s previous contract negotiations in October 2010. But time will tell whether United have the funds, will and means to revolutionise David Moyes’ squad in the summer, as is Woodward’s apparent promise. It is a triumvirate that has only once come together in the months since Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson departed last May.
More intriguing still is Moyes’ future, with Woodward privately insisting that the ruling Glazer family intends to stand by the man Ferguson anointed king last spring. Yet, for all Sir Alex’ will the club would still be remiss not to plan for an altogether different outcome. Indeed, as Moyes’ odds of being sacked tumbled last week, a fresh picture has begun to emerge. One that assumes United is courting alternative options amid an increasingly fractious dressing room atmosphere.
Robin van Persie’s recent tetchy interview with a Dutch television station, for example, brought an implied criticism of his team mates, Moyes’ tactics and then a quick-fire apology. Yet, as an insight into the Dutchman’s frustration it offered much. After all, rumours that the striker is happy under Moyes’ direction have rarely sunk below the surface this season.
Neither did Michael Carrick’s non-committal interview, following defeat to Olympiacos in Athens last week, convince anybody that Moyes’ squad is lined-up to support the 50-year-old manager. “I know you’re looking for me to blame someone,” Carrick told interviewer Gabriel Clarke, before the Geordie pointedly failed to back his manager.
More speculative still, some pundits have come to believe that United’s squad is turning against the new man, with the club almost certain to finish the campaign trophyless and out of next season’s Champions League.
”I spoke to somebody who is very close to the squad after the Olympiacos game,” claimed journalist Rafael Honigstein this week.
“He said the situation is a lot worse than it has been reported. He said ‘he has completely lost the dressing room and has to go now’. If a squad doesn’t like a manager, that is one thing but if they really stop believing in him then it is a serious problem because they will find a way, collectively, to get rid of him.”
Meanwhile, a rash of stories appeared across the British press over the weekend suggesting the board will approach Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal after the World Cup – it is unlikely to be the last feverish speculation regarding Moyes’ future.
For the moment the party line remains reasonably firm – the Glazer family will support Moyes to the tune of more than £100 million in the summer transfer market. It will take little for the pressure to increase once again though, with United’s upcoming fixture list offering a potentially brutal period for Moyes’ squad.
March begins with United’s visit to West Bromwich Albion. Moyes’ side then faces Liverpool, Olympiacos, West Ham United and Manchester City in 10 days that could well decide the Scot’s fate. Heavy defeat to Liverpool and City, together with European exit, will substantially increase the pressure for change at Old Trafford.
And with just 11 Premier League fixtures to go United’s European participation next season rests on Moyes’ squad finishing above Everton come May. City’s victory over Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final adds an extra Europa League place to whomever finishes sixth. Even that may not be enough to nullify the groundswell supporter opinion in social media, which has seemingly turned sharply against Moyes in recent weeks.
Still, there are plenty surprised at United’s resilience to outside pressure; that the long-game is more than simply spin. The view that Moyes would have been dismissed at almost any other club is given credence by those within the game. “In Italy, managers are judged simply by results,” former Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli told BBC Radio 4. “David Moyes, in Italy, would have been sacked three times now.”
“I’d change the manager if Real Madrid finished sixth and failed to reach the Champions League the next season. Of course I would,” adds former Real president Ramon Calderon. “It’s a real disaster in every sense. Sponsorship deals are linked to the Champions League. There’s no difference in the contracts of Real Madrid and Manchester United. They will have to deal with losing as much as £100 million.”
Ferguson, a non-executive director, has rarely offered Moyes audible support this season, but is presumably central to his protege’s future. Sir Alex’ call last May for Old Trafford regulars to “get behind the new manager” remains prescient.
“They [United] will be all right,” said Ferguson, speaking in Los Angeles where he attended Sunday’s Oscars. “It’s early days and there have been a lot of changes. He needs time. I was there for 27 years, so with a new manager, it takes time. But they’ll be okay.”
It is an assessment that remains popular among United’s core support, although one that is eroded with each new defeat. It might take a series of extraordinary results, but the thought that supporters’ will could break in March is visceral. After all, while time is a commodity proffered Moyes through a six-year contract, patience is one dissipated quickly, especially where Liverpool and City are tightly woven into the narrative. Should fans turn, United’s board might find it hard to resist.
It leaves the Scot in an increasingly difficult position. While Moyes descent from Old Trafford’s ‘chosen one’ to a man odds-on to lose his job this summer has been piecemeal, his dismissal, if it comes at all, will be abrupt. Or to bastardise that old Hemmingway line about how a man goes bankrupt: there are two ways, gradually and then suddenly.
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 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.
The inner chimp, says sports psychologist Dr. Steve Peters, dominates. The chimp is primitive. The chimp is emotion. The chimp is basic needs: power, sex, territory, food. The chimp is 99 per cent of our psyche. This chimp is angry at Manchester United’s performances this season. More specifically, at David Moyes.
The one per cent is logic. The one per cent says ‘give him time’. It says ‘let it stew, allow the rage to pass.’ It hopes that Moyes may turn a disastrous season around. Strange thing, but this rage seems only to have intensified. The chimp has battered logic into submission.
Catalysed by the debate surrounding Moyes’ inept tactics; egged-on by former United coach Rene Meulenstein’s to-the-point analysis of the Reds’ shortcomings. Stirred by a 21-year-old Fulham defender likening United’s approach to ‘Conference level football’. The anger rises to boiling point and above. And it rises, simply, because it is all so true.
Yet, there is a new, as yet unseen, level of chagrin with United’s current predicament. Frustration heaped on growing resentment because United’s fall from grace was all so predictable; fait accompli the moment Moyes was anointed to the job by Sir Alex Ferguson last May. From Moyes’ over-training summer boot camp, and United’s subsequent injury crisis, to the Scot’s penchant for percentage football that coloured so much of his time in charge at Everton. Nothing, bar perhaps United’s disastrous string of results, was beyond the scope of prediction.
United’s draw with Fulham on Sunday night played out like a précis, albeit in extremis, for much of the season gone. United’s possession was recycled quickly into wide areas, with the strategy of delivering countless deep, at times aimless, crosses in the belief that delivery alone will create a chance or prompt a mistake. It is classic Charles Hughes; of a bygone era, a masterclass long consigned to history.
Despite this approach also being the one routinely practiced by Moyes’ sides during a decade at Goodison Park many United fans have rationalised – pushing an abstract theorem that somehow the Scot might change. That with better players at his disposal Moyes will transform a philosophy decades in the making. Fulham debunks that myth if any confirmation was really needed.
With £37 million playmaker Juan Mata essentially deployed on the right-wing, United set up in a wholly orthodox 4-4-2 system, delivering 82 crosses into the Fulham box. The miracle wasn’t, as Moyes suggested in the aftermath, that United failed to score more, but that 21 per cent of those deliveries actually connected with a United player. Against Stoke City a fortnight ago United delivered just 15 per cent of balls accurately from wide areas.
Those 18 accurate crosses against Fulham produced just seven shots and no goals. Or to put that more concretely: United wasted possession on 82 occasions. Little wonder Fulham defender Dan Burn, who was playing for Conference side Darlington Rovers just three years ago, lapped up United’s delivery. The 6′ 7″ defender headed away 22 of the Reds’ 82 crosses alone.
“We knew that was going to happen and I was happy for them to play like that,” said Burn. “I was saying to the lads that I’ve never headed that many balls since I was playing in the Conference. I’m six foot seven so it helps when dealing with those sort of balls. United know they should be doing better. They didn’t have many chances.”
Yet, the frustration with Moyes is that his philosophy is so deeply ingrained that the Scot neither believed United had concentrated on crossing as the primary – some might say only – strategy to break down a stubborn opponent, nor saw any contradiction in the approach.
On the same weekend European Champions Bayern Munich started with two wide players in Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller; they delivered just 11 crosses. Real Madrid’s number was 17, Atletico Madrid racked up 19, Chelsea also 19, Juventus just 21 and Borussia Dortmund fired in 24 balls from wide areas.
It is not that crossing is somehow inherently a proxy for failure, nor that delivery from the wings is absent from the armoury of the very best teams, both contemporary and in the game’s history, but that one-dimensional play will always be easier to repel. It twas ever thus under Moyes’ direction. Indeed, the better the opposition, the more variety United will need if the club is to progress from what is the lowest point to which United has sunk for 25 years.
“Their game plan was straightforward. They put crosses in from wide angles. We defended it well,” said Fulham manager Meulensteen, who left United’s coaching staff last summer.
“If you’re well organised and the goalkeeper is in good positions then, yes, it can be easy. You need a little bit of creativity and a bit of variety at times to open teams up.
“I do think that a few teams have come here with a different approach. Teams have come to Old Trafford and got something. Teams are thinking that there is a chink in United’s armour. We set out as everyone can see, we made it very difficult for them. They have some problems.”
Nor is United’s approach likely to change post Mata’s arrival at Old Trafford. Not unless the manager changes, of course. It certainly hasn’t in the three matches the Spaniard has started to date. Nor, so the word has it on the street, is Moyes even remotely interested in spending time coaching attacking variety during training.
Yet, in Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie United boasts some of the most talented and flexible attacking options in European football. What might some of the continent’s best coaches do with the riches on offer? It is an opportunity wasted.
And whatever the complaint about United’s style of football, the approach has not been successful either. There is no rejoinder to the criticism other than United supporters should ‘wait and see’. While it is clear that many of Moyes’ squad are under performing for the new coach, it takes not a crystal ball to believe that the Scot is unlikely to get the best out of his roster of creative talent with the approach currently employed.
United’s 10 defeats in all competitions this season leaves Moyes hanging on to the Champions League as his only hope of silverware in the coming weeks. The odds on a successful United victory at Estádio da Luz in May is now 20/1 according to some bookmakers. It’s a far better deal than the 4/6 being offered on Moyes finishing his time with United trophyless. No, Rant doesn’t count the Community Shield.
Then comes the summer and Moyes’ reported £100 million budget. He’ll spend that on three new defenders and a midfielder of note alone; to replace the departing Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, and to augment United’s weakest position. Indeed, the Scot may need a far greater budget if he is to transform the squad into one that maps against his philosophy more closely.
Yet, in that there are few guarantees new signings will change United’s fortune. Less still, it seems, that Moyes is prepared to bend his approach. Fear rarely does that, and with United’s management insistent that Moyes will be given significant time, there are likely to be many more games like Monday’s. The chimp will surely stir again.
Sunday saw yet another abysmal performance from “Moyes Boys” at Old Trafford, with three crucial points heading down the drain after Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Fulham. So poor was United’s performance that plenty leaving the stadium expressed a belief that the Premier League champions may now be due a ‘proper manager’ at the helm.
Replacing Moyes is now a question on many supporters lips, with some asking how the Scot can expect to keep his job when United has lost 40 per cent of home games this season. Effectively out of the race for a top four place and with it Champions League qualification, some fans now believe that United must now regroup under a new manager; one with a better understanding of the game and more tactical nous than David Moyes. It may be unlikely, but should the Glazer family fire Moyes, enter the candidates:
The 67-year-old Dutchman was recently fired by crazy Anzhi Makhachkala owner Suleyman Kerimov, and is thus available on the market as a short-term fix. The vastly experienced manager is known for his attacking sensibility and holds Premier League experience after leading Chelsea to an FA Cup final win in 2009 with an impressive 74 per cent win record after taking over from Luis Felipe Scolari. United couldn’t benefit from this maagerial great in the long-term as he will take over the Netherlands national side after this summer’s World Cup.
Likelihood: 7/10 Rant score: 10/10 Current job: Unemployed History: PSV Eindhoven, Fenerbahçe, Valencia, Netherlands, Real Madrid, Real Betis, South Korea, Australia, Russia, Chelsea, Turkey, Anzhi Makhachkala
The 74-year-old Italian is still going strong, proving like United’s former manager that age really is a state of mind. Trapattoni is available after the leaving is post as manager of the Republic of Ireland in September. A great player in the sixties with AC Milan, Trapattoni speaks four languages – with certain charming mistakes – and is one of the most decorated managers in history. He has won 10 league titles – in four countries – and all three major European club titles. Perhaps the fiery Italian could transform United’s season?
A part of the current playing squad, 40-year-old Giggs is the only active player in the world who holds every single coaching badge available including the UEFA Pro Elite badge. Could the most decorated player in world football begin his managerial career as United’s version of Pep Guardiola? Certainly his peers would respect Giggs many times more than they seem to respect United’s current manager. And perhaps Giggs would do the sensible thing and hire a few decent coaches to help him out at Carrington!
Likelihood: 9/10 Rant score: 6/10 Current job: Player-coach, Manchester United History: Manchester United
Former United fan favourite ‘Larry White’ is a keen student of the game and has already shaken up the French league by winning the title with underdog Bordeaux in 2009 – much like Sir Alex Ferguson did with Aberdeen thirty years ago in Scotland. The 48-year-old, nicknamed Le Président, would relish the chance to manage United, but won’t come cheap as he is under contract with mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain.
Likelihood: 2/10 Rant score: 9/10 Current job: Paris Saint-Germain History: Bordeaux, France, Paris Saint-Germain
Charismatic Croatian rock ‘n’ roll manager Bilic speaks fluent English and holds a law degree. Bilic spent six years as manager of Croatia and has a record of inspiring his teams, while offering few dire excuses. After a successful stint as national team manager he is perhaps ready for the step up to a bigger challenge having frequently been linked to jobs in England.
Likelihood: 1/10 Rant score: 5/10 Current job: History: Hajduk Split, Croatia, Lokomotiv Moscow, Beşiktaş
Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Ole has set about charming the Sky Sports presenters, is highly focused and chews gum incessantly on the sidelines during matches. Does the Babyfaced Assassin remind you of anybody? Finally back in the Premier League, where he surely belongs, there are few willing to bet against Solskjær achieving at least relative success with Cardiff City. Named Olegend by his peers in the Old Trafford dressing room, the 40-year-old would love to take charge of United.
Likelihood: 2/10 Rant score: 7/10 Current job: Cardiff City History: Molde, Cardiff City
Klopp holds a diploma in Sport Science and a liking for heavy metal – just a couple of the master motivator’s traits. There’s never a dull moment around with Brick Top, and neither with his attacking Borussia Dortmund side. Klopp secured two league titles on the trot in 2011 and 2012, which is a phenomenal achievement given just how many players Dortmand have lost in recent years, including to hated rivals Bayern Munich. Fed up with the German press’ favouritism of Munich, and a lack of funds to keep his players – such as Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa – Klopp could yet be tempted to take the reigns at United.
The German genius managed to get ego-centric players such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery tp honour their defensive duties at Bayern Munich, with the side claiming a treble in Heynckes’ last season with the club. Heynckes was a marvellous striker in his pomp in the ’70s, winning both the European Championship and the World Cup. Now 68-years-old, Heynckes deserves another stint at the very top even though Munich wanted somebody younger. Let the Bavarians’ loss be United’s gain!
Mr Cool would do anything for United and therein lies at least one problem: there’s little chance Ed Woodward and the Glazer family would sanction free bird Cantona’s appointment as boss. Imagine what Eric might publicly say about the club’s state of affairs and the bean-counters in charge? And picture Luis Suarez back at Old Trafford in March, with Eric once literally kicking racism out of football! Eric was most recently sporting director at the New York Cosmos, but has said that he’d love to manage United. At least fans could expect some impressive attacking displays!
Likelihood: 1/10 Rant score: 9/10 Current job: Unemployed History: France (beach), New York Cosmos (Director of Soccer)
Sir Alex Ferguson
“I enjoy watching them play”, said United’s former manager of his former players. But how long can the Master sit tight and watch his successor ruin 27 years of hard work? Sir Alex is still very much active, and has travelled to almost all of United’s away games this season, in addition to holding a book tour, a lecture tour and giving countless interviews. Ferguson’s energy and enthusiasm will seemingly never diminish. Please come back, Sir, United might need you more now than we did in 1986!
Likelihood: 3/10 Rant score: 10/10 Current job: Retired History: East Stirlingshire, St. Mirren, Aberdeen, Manchester United
There’s an old adage oft-employed by footy fans when discussing players they deem dispensable to their club: “I’d have personally given him a lift to the airport myself.” It’s a phrase heard bandied about boozers nationwide. Whilst most vehicle owners can accommodate a quartet of passengers, if this rule is applied to every Manchester United player fans wanted to offload during the transfer window, somebody would need to get on the blower to Salford Van Hire to see how they were fixed for minibuses.
David Moyes has gone on record as stating that he isn’t partial to a January signing, prompting low expectations among Reds that the window would prove a thriving period of activity. But all along Moyes, the cheeky scamp, must have been joking – either that, or his New Year’s Resolution was to blow his previously prudent policy completely out of the water with the record signing of a Juan Mata.
Moyes must have almost felt compelled to buy in January, not only to temporarily silence his burgeoning cohort of detractors, but also to support Adnan Januzaj, on whom United have evidently been growing ever more reliant in the absence of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. Moyes thus needed to think of this as his Januzary transfer window, and mercifully the manager delivered.
The Ian Hislop – Ed Woodward doppelgänger has been noted, and until the Mata coup, it was starting to appear as if United’s vice chairman didn’t have time to squander on negotiations, being indisposed filming the latest series of ‘Have I (Not) Got (Transfer) News For You.’
Now that Woodward’s finally shattered the perception that he can’t pull off a major signing, the United chief is now strutting around Old Trafford on matchday with the type of SWAG that bags the WAGS. Wavering Woodward has instantaneously morphed into Wild Woodward, splashing cash on the world football transfer scene with reckless abandon. With his partner-in-crime, Dangerous Dave – we can now dismiss his Everton moniker of Dithering Dave in toe, a depraved duo has been unleashed unto the world.
Reports indicated that Moyes had a £150-million transfer kitty at his disposal, enabling the Scot to budge on his transfer budgeting. Moyes could finally swing his spending manhood around with some clout. Furthering the analogy, instead of being hung like a budgie, as he was at Everton, he is now hung like the proverbial donkey. Well-endowed with the Glazer dowry.
Back to the real world and the Wilfried Zaha situation remains most peculiar; a baffling conundrum that bemused even the most discerning Reds. Yes, everybody has heard about the alleged trysts with Moyes’ daughter, but it was beginning to appear as if Wilfried might have also had a tickle with Moyes’ wife, such was the extent of the apparent grudge.
Following on from a promising pre-season, Zaha was so criminally underutilized that he might have well spent January in the Celebrity Big Brother house – handcuffed to Marouanne Fellaini – giving Lee Ryan a run for his money with the ladies.
Zaha’s now on loan at Cardiff City and it would be a veritable travesty if the youngster is never afforded an opportunity at United to prove whether he’s legitimately the real thing. Of all men, surely Moyes can empathise with the concept?
To further obscure the mystery, Moyes had offered supporters a solitary explanation for Zaha’s persistent absence, citing the player’s questionable commitment in training. Plenty of flair players have a reputation as poor trainers, but produce when it really matters – on a matchday. That’s all fans truly care about, not whether Wilfried puts it in during the 100-metre dash. The mind boggles that Zaha has been loaned out whilst the services of other ineffective wingers have been retained. Some of these perennial Saturday-underperformers must look like Cristiano Ronaldo on the hallowed turf at Carrington.
Fabio da Silva’s fast, furious and ultimately final cameo versus Swansea City most likely sealed his fate. He was understandably eager to impress, but his rashly-overzealous challenge only resulted in more pressure being heaped on Moyes. However, it could work to United’s advantage with Fabio now at another club in this country. This requires an imaginative leap of faith, but hypothetically, if his brother gets injured at a crucial stage of the season, when with Moyes side suffering from a spate of crocked defenders, Fabio could then come and fill in for us. Nobody can tell them apart, and United will offload the wage to boot.
Woodward is a genius. Vir-Gill guided the club through Hell; now Woodward will lead United to the Promised Land. This literary allegory would have worked so beautifully had United actually signed Dante.
Moving on, Anderson was always destined for an Italian club the moment that image circulated in 2012 of him proudly sporting a Ferrero Rocher like a bandana. Let’s be honest – that tiny gold-wrapped sphere of frivolity is the closest Ando will ever get to a Ballon d’Or.
Like the school reports of underachieving rebels, Anderson’s spell at United can be summarized by the following: “could have done better.” The annual August press release proclaiming that “this will be his year” will certainly be conspicuous by its absence come the summer.
Fans will also miss the loveable rogue in other ways. He was one of those rare players who managed to hold a dear place in the heart despite not living up to his potential. In some ways Anderson essentially became akin to a club mascot, which is fitting since he was as effective on the pitch as Fred The Red.
‘Andow’ will surely accede to his calling and open up his own chain of piquant poultry eateries! Similar to Nando’s, but much like Ando’s consistency, only occasionally tasty. And ‘Andow’ – what on earth is that all about?! It evokes the popular catchphrase of equally paunchy Homer Simpson, and thus should be spelt And’oh.
On the heels of his polemical Twitter activity – something about a frustration at lack of first team starts – rumours continued to circulate regarding Javier Hernández’ prospective departure. It would sadden Hip-Hop loving Reds immensely if Lil’p left; the goalmouth gangsta.
On the incoming front one Twitter account was set up to monitor the plethora of players reportedly linked with a move to M16. More than 50 players were counted during January alone. Arturo Vidal, Ilkay Gundogan, Chieck Tioté, Toni Kroos, Edison Cavani, and Fabio Coentrao were amongst those bruited in connection with United. It’s much easier on the old heart strings to adopt a monk-like mindset; stay stoic in the face of speculation.
Whilst engrossing, it’s a struggle to remain au fait with United’s affairs during the club’s current plight, let alone be well-versed in the world’s emerging prospects. It’s much easier to rely on YouTube snippets to assess mooted transfer targets, and sceptics might suspect that those who profess to offer an informed opinion on every single one of United’s targets is either fibbing, watching an inordinate amount of televised sport, or receiving tip-offs as to the whereabouts of United scouts.
Perhaps most perplexing amid the catalogue of surnames were those of United alumni Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison, both recent departees of the club under circumstances that didn’t appear entirely amicable – a wage dispute and off-field indiscretions respectively.
There has subsequently been the vain hope amongst Reds that these two precocious starlets would one day find their way back to their old stomping ground, although the wounds from premature exits have barely even healed over. Pogba and Morrison in concert could address multiple glaring deficiencies at United, adding ample virility to a barren midfield that craves creativity and prowess. Or “more reason to shop for Morrison” as some might sing.
But for one player the gossip actually materialised. Perhaps, as befits a 1930s Lorca play, Mr. Woodward was lying on his luxury cashmere John Lewis mattress one night, when all of a sudden, the words of José Fernández – or any of the innumerable artists to cover “Guantanamera” – filled his ear, serving as a melodic imploration for him to act. “Juan Mata-Edward, please sign us Juan Mata-Edward, Juan Mata-Edward, just sign us Juan Mata-Edward.”
Of course, the move was not without its deliberations, and all the coquettish to-and-froing inherent to the modern day marquee transfer. About 200,000 Reds immediately followed Juan Mata on Twitter when rumours commenced, leading some to grow concerned that it was all some elaborate ploy from Mata’s social media PR team.
By no means will the signing of Mata exclusively return the club to the zenith of world football, but it’s a decent start; the catalyst for the Matamorphosis about to ensue at Old Trafford. The Matamatics proved irrelevant, as the cost didn’t mata to anyone.
Mata’s undoubtedly an absolute joy. The fact that the Spaniard isn’t particularly quick enables supporters to marvel at his majesty in slow-motion. And then of course when cheering on the club’s newest acquisition, fans can all feel very authentic by enunciating the guttural jota in Juan; an incredibly visceral intonation that is an incredibly satisfying thing to do. It’s the simple things, after all.
Parallels between Juan and Paul Scholes seem premature at this juncture, but there are certainly similarities. Using the renowned SatNav analogy, Scholes was a Garmin, Mata a TomTom, but with time and room to ascend up the spectrum of premium midfield GPS devices.
Like a cognitive reflex reaction, the Mata-based wordplay was rife amongst aspiring wordsmiths and budding songsmiths alike on Twitter, furiously endeavouring to out-pun each other at every available opportunity. What self-respecting pun artiste could resist getting involved?
Lyricists attempted to out-cheese each other – Chesney Hawkes’ “The Juan and Only”/Grease “You’re the Juan that I want” – or out-Manc each other – The Charlatans’ “The only Juan I know”/The Stone Roses’ “This is the Juan”. It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds.
Mata won’t be overly concerned with how the Old Trafford faithful decide to serenade him though. The guy positively oozes class, both on and off the pitch, and will progressively prove impactful with pitch-time. The player’s welcoming press conference was a graceful PR masterclass. Mata has read the United manifesto in its entirety, and he evidently gets it. Similarly admirable was Mata’s refusal to budge when probed by relentless reporters to provide them with a polemical soundbite regarding his former employers.
Juan will assimilate nicely in Manchester. He’ll immediately feel right at home upon paying his first visit to Deansgate’s El Rincon de Rafa, where he can sample classic tapas such as Boquerooneys. The midfielder will also like the fact that there are mainstream clothing retailers up North. The day his pal signed, David De Gea took to Twitter to offer a gentle dig at his compatriot’s sartorial selection. Does Juan perhaps shop at Mata(lan)?
It’s been amply discussed that Mata occupies a berth in which United possesses an extensive number of options: Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Fellaini et al. But Mata’s addition may mean that the side does not require the complete overhaul as some have intimated. Another three players would likely suffice – a left-back, centre-back and central midfielder, perhaps, in addition to the recalled Zaha and Nick Powell in the summer.
Then there’s always ‘number seven’ Bébé, whose recent volley was actually more impressive than Scholes’ similar strike versus Aston Villa back in 2006, given that the winger had to backtrack and adjust his body position before striking the ball.
Moyes must be aware of the areas that need addressing. The manager’s public proclamations on the heels of a disappointing defeat to Stoke City were surely displays of defiance, belying his true sentiments. After all, managers seldom express their dismay openly, and it would certainly be disconcerting if the manager actually believed that his side had played well and created plenty.
The Stoke defeat was one that hit most fans hard; a sudden crash back down to earth that highlights the considerable task ahead. It was particularly chastening following the intoxicating euphoria of Mata’s signing.
It was a defeat that embodied all United’s woes this season; unfavourable deflections, poor refereeing decisions and an endless stream of injuries to important players. Factor in the coup de grâce – that ex-United alumni are now cropping up to the club’s detriment, whereas previously they had a beautiful tendency to come to the side’s aid – and there appears to be an all-encompassing misfortune looming over the club at present.
This is compounding the side’s lack of confidence and form, but this is the plight of many Premier League clubs. In fact, this is football full stop. Moyes’ side must be able to deal with such adversity, and, as the old adage instructs, create its own luck.
Reds preoccupying themselves with the centre-half conundrum need but remember that these duos emerge cyclically. Of course it’s an unenviable task attempting to supplant Rio Ferdinand – Nemanja Vidić axis, but bear in mind that they succeeded Japp Stam / Ronnie Johnsen, and Steve Bruce / Gary Pallister. Phil Jones could become a United stalwart with a consistent centre-half berth. Chris Smalling is looking progressively solid, and Jonny Evans has bags of experience to draw upon, so a catastrophe isn’t quite upon the club yet.
The general consensus on Moyes is that he requires time to prove himself either way. Some believe three transfer windows should suffice. Others, including Henry Winter, say four. Gary Neville, five. The issue of whether Moyes can be entrusted with sizeable sums polarizes fans, but it’s another crucial facet of the managerial role on which the manager will be gauged.
Both Evertonians and United fans will offer broadly contrasting opinions on whether Moyes successfully harnesses youth-team prospects and whether his signings prove fruitful. That’s a discussion for another article. But one thing is certain; whoever Moyes brings in, he needs to forget the old Fergie-ism of throwing tea cups. Moyes needs to be chucking tea urns to get his marvels into gear.
“I can see why they were champions,” said David Moyes back in September. “I thought we were really good today. We did an awful lot of good things.” His side had lost at Anfield in abject fashion only moments earlier. Yet, Moyes’ assessment of Manchester United’s performance in losing 1-0 to Liverpool – a match in which the visitors forced ‘keeper Simon Mignolet into just four saves – is a pattern fastidiously pursued by the Scot this season. He was fooling nobody then; fewer still today.
United’s eighth Premier League loss of the season to Stoke City on Saturday – a 10th defeat in 35 competitive matches – is a record unmatched by the Scot’s forebears. In the preceding months his side has lost at home to West Bromwich Albion for the first time since 1978 and to Newcastle United for the first time since 1972. United hadn’t lost to Everton since 1992 and to Swansea City, well, ever.
While the records keep tumbling, the excuse remains the same. United’s 2-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium was the first since 1984. “I don’t know what we have to do to win,” claimed Moyes in the aftermath.
“I thought we were extremely unlucky. We played well,” he added. Few of the 3,000 travelling Reds concurred with the Scot. Aside from delivering just five of 33 attempted crosses, in another glaring confirmation Moyes’ sole tactical approach, United also succeeded with just 13 of 47 long balls launched into the swirling Potteries wind.
Yet, Moyes’ affirmation of United’s performance at Stoke serves only to underline the Scot’s failing credibility. It is perhaps so damaged that the predictable post-match analysis has become the nation’s favourite sitcom. Except this one isn’t funny; a farce that has long since past it’s scheduled end in a series with such deep roots that the gag has become pastiche.
The Scot slipped into denial early though, pressure building from the moment he stepped across Carrington’s threshold and into the goldfish bowl. “It is one game,” said Moyes in September, after Manchester City had thrashed United 4-1 at Eastlands. “There are plenty more to come and plenty of time to fix it.” There were plenty more to come. Fix it Moyes has not.
Later that month the Scot mused that United had “controlled the game” in the Reds’ 2-1 home defeat to West Brom, before adding a few weeks later that the loss to Everton “was very similar to the one against Newcastle,” which came in early December. “If we had come out on top in both games I don’t think anybody would have said an awful lot about it,” he reflected with that unerring Glaswegian stare. Part threatening, part rabbit in caught in the brightest of headlights.
As a chaotic 2013 tumbled into the New Year Moyes believed that his side “deserved to win” in defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. “I thought the team played really well, certainly should have had a penalty.”
Spurs, winning in Manchester for the second season running, enjoyed a 22 per cent conversion rate compared to the home side’s five. In such details are games won and lost; a reputation for integrity built or shattered.
Neither did United “deserve to lose” to Swansea City in the FA Cup a week later, claimed the Scot. Except once again the former Everton manager betrayed his lack of ambition, adding only that United needed “to be hard to play against.” The 50-year-old coach had teed up the Reds’ Premier League loss to Newcastle with the hope that his outfit would “make it difficult” for the travelling Geordies. Ever the underdog it seems.
But so much worse was to come. Moyes’ side was wretched in defeat to Sunderland in the Capital One Cup first leg at the Stadium of Light in early January. The 2-1 loss against the Premier League’s bottom side was United’s third in succession. Another record: the Reds hadn’t secured that prize for 13 years.
Defeat on Wearside also revealed Moyes’ penchant for blame. Attribute defeat to the players, the weather, luck, the Gods, and especially officialdom. Certainly not, however, to the manager.
“We are having to play referees as well as the opposition at the moment,” claimed Moyes after Fabio Borini’s 64th minute penalty. “We’re actually beginning to laugh at them, that’s the thing. It’s really terrible, it really is.”
Less than a fortnight later Moyes would claim, to José Mourinho’s palpable humour, that United would not “throw in the towel” and that his side’s job was to “finish first” before promising that “we’ll try to do that. This is a project and I know what I’m going to do.”
“I don’t think David will be upset if I say the reality,” was Mourinho’s predictable rejoinder.
Few supporters who suffered through United’s 3 – 1 defeat to Chelsea on 19 January shared Moyes’ faith. That the west Londonders barely raised a sweat in brushing Moyes’ outfit aside only compounded the mockery dripping from the Shed End.
It is not only in the aftermath of defeat that Moyes proffers the air of a man out of his depth. In the summer the Scot repeatedly refused to deny that United had bid for Gareth Bale – months after Real Madrid and the Welshman had agreed a deal. Moyes’ public naivety continued through the club’s failed attempt to lure Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas, Anders Herrera, and Leighton Baines to Old Trafford.
Nor did the manager inspire confidence in claiming of Shinji Kagawa that “they keep telling me how good he is.” Or that “everybody tells me that last year Robin van Persie came up with the goods.” External assessment was not required of the Premier League’s top goalscorer. “They keep telling me that he needed to change his number,” added the Scot of Antonio Valencia.
Yet, Stoke could be a nadir, not only in United’s performances, but Moyes’ approach to the job. It is hard to imagine United’s star falling from here, or Moyes credibility sinking deeper into the gutter. With the club seventh in the Premier League – seven points and goal difference behind Liverpool – United is unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Still, “they” have not yet told the manager of a tactical plan B, with the Scot’s one-dimensional approach pervading in the Potteries: “It was our downfall we didn’t score from chances,” said Moyes after United’s latest defeat. “But we must have got to the byline eight or nine times.”
Not that United’s new man would heed the advice. After all “they” told the Scot that criticism is “a trait at Manchester United.”
What exactly does David Moyes stand for? It is an open question that has touched the lips of many Manchester United supporters this season. For so long the Scot has been considered one of the Premier Leagues more reactionary managers in an era when the philosopher-coach has dominated. It is a précis of Moyes’ time at the top-level as much as a contemporary observation – one that has seemingly carried over to the 50-year-old’s first season with United.
Moyes reputation lies in relief to many of the game’s top managers; those that build teams conforming to a predetermined style. Pep Guardiola’s tika taka; Jurgen Klopp’s hard pressing game; Manuel Pellegrini’s intricate possession play; Arsene Wenger’s passing carousel. Even Brendan Rodgers has transferred his preference for possession football from Swansea City to Liverpool, as has Roberto Martinez to Everton.
Moyes, by contrast, has no philosophy of note; except the hugely predictable crossing game that has proven so ineffective this season. Predicated on quickly recycling possession into wide areas, overloading the flanks, and delivering crosses, United has scored just 38 Premier League goals this season. That’s 19 fewer than at the same time last season.
Yet, the £37.1 million acquisition of Juan Mata threatens to break the mold; to undermine critics of Moyes’ style. Characterised by some as a poor relation to modern football’s best, Moyes is now afforded the opportunity to adapt his philosophy with Mata in the side. The coach will have to if he is to get the best out of his new signing. Unless, of course, Mata breaks first.
There is, of course, legitimate discourse in Mata’s value to United. Not that there is any doubt in the 25-year-old Spaniard’s quality. In two full seasons with Chelsea the Spanish international twice claimed the club’s Player of the Year prize.
But at a time when the Reds’ vulnerability in central midfield – and at the back – has been stark, Mata is luxurious quality when Moyes could also do with a little more steel. It is problem United did not correct this window.
Still, in acquiring another creative talent, one that doesn’t fit into Moyes’ typical pattern, the manager faces a fascinating choice: to shape Mata into the Scot’s preferred system, or to evolve the habit of the past decade.
Indeed, Mata was deployed in a loose number 10 role against Cardiff City on Tuesday night and enjoyed 51 touches, but the Spaniard spent much of the night delivering cross-field passes to either flank. The contrast to Mata’s short-passing game at Chelsea, particularly under Rafael Benítez last season, is marked.
World-class playmaker or not, Moyes’ gameplan is still Moyes’ gameplan.
But that, of course, is where the debate really lies. Whether the Scot is ready to take his game on from a decade at Goodison Park. To use Mata, alongside Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and perhaps even Shinji Kagawa, in a more fluid, less structured formation.
Time will provide the answer, although the manager’s history dictates it is an unlikely scenario. In fact Mata’s role will change again on Saturday, with United visiting Stoke City in the Premier League where the Spaniard is likely to start on the left in support of Rooney and van Persie in what looks much like Moyes’ 4-4-2 of old.
Whatever formation Moyes eventually adopts Mata’s capture has at least proffered the Scot more confidence than any of his victories with United this season. Perhaps more importantly the Spaniard’s introduction into the United dressing is the first step in what Moyes hopes is a transition away from a group of players who have largely failed him this season.
“I am disappointed we are not in a much stronger position,” admitted Moyes after capturing the Spaniard last weekend.
“I am disappointed with how we have played. I take the rap for that. But what I will do is make it right. I am going to get better players in.
“I have given every player the opportunity to show what they can do. If they want to be here they have to show it in the games. The message this sends is that we’re going for all the best players in the world.”
Even if the Glazer family’s predilection for parsimony has ended building a new side is no simple task. More so given Moyes’ total lack of experience in creating a team at the very highest level, if that is indeed the club’s summer plan. After all, the club’s market capitalisation on the New York exchange has lost more than 10 per cent since Moyes took control, seemingly prompting a new strategy to spend heavily for the first time in more than eight years.
First though United must surely qualify for next season’s Champions League. Without it dreams of signing Toni Kroos, Arturo Vidal, Luke Shaw or any of the many names brought up in the nation’s red tops will dissipate before a player walks through Old Trafford’s doors, let alone drags Moyes’ outfit kicking and screaming to a league title.
And that is where Moyes’ approach counts; where the shackles that have dominated United’s season can now fall. Those 38 goals scored to date might ordinarily suggest just 60 to 65 in the full campaign. To put that in perspective United scored 86 and 89 in the past two seasons under Ferguson. Everton failed to score more than 60 in any campaign during Moyes’ reign on Merseyside.
Goals are but a proxy for a more expansive style of course, although any observation of Moyes conservatism is hardly new. Rooney’s substitution for Chris Smalling in United’s draw with Southampton is just one example of many this season. Given a choice between a risk and a safer bet the Scot always takes the latter.
van Persie’s return to fitness will help United’s cause of course, as will Rooney’s reintroduction to the side after a month out. Yet, the Reds start Saturday’s fixture against Stoke six points adrift of Liverpool. Effectively seven with the Merseysiders’ vastly superior goal difference. It is a situation that requires United to win many of the 15 games remaining this season.
In that Mata is both a bold buy and a key player. It is not just that Mata could both create and score liberally as the season draws to a close, but that he might just prompt the manager into a rethink. In that there is but a small hope.