There was, Old Trafford would surely agree, an essential truth on Wednesday night as Manchester United hosted Liverpool in the League Cup. There have been few occasions in recent years on which the nation’s secondary cup has taken on such importance. No, David Moyes’ priorities have not shifted at all this season. After all the Premier League, Europe and then domestic cups follow in that order of importance. But a third defeat of the season, to a major rival at that, was beyond countenance.
Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford, so soon after United’s devastating loss to Manchester City last Sunday, could not have come at a more critical time. Or opportune, depending on the perspective. While the League Cup might ordinarily provide fodder for United’s youth manager David Moyes could hardly afford another crushing defeat.
It was understandable, if unfortunate timing, that Moyes should change eight men for Liverpool’s visit, although it was to the squad rather than kids that the Scot turned. Three of United’s old-guard in the back-four simply had to be offered a rest, while Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva were all short of minutes in recent weeks. Sound logic at play then.
But it is not always the science of reason that pervades in football; a sport of wildly contrasting emotions and a tendency towards the hyperbolic that is utterly deep-seated. In that it proved a decidedly brave decision by Moyes to swap around his entrenched first choice players, if ultimately successful, even if so many conspicuously failed at the Etihad.
On the pitch United barely edged Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Brendan Rogers’ traveling outfit – a match in which the hosts defended resiliently for periods when Liverpool hogged possession. Little wonder, with the Merseysiders’ at full-strength for the 30 mile journey east.
Yet, just as United had secured a narrow victory in the Premier League following City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford two year’s ago, so the Reds dug in to knock Liverpool out of the League Cup. United will meet Norwich City in the fourth round as part of a decidedly winnable run of games during October.
Beyond Wednesday’s victory United’s mixed start to the new campaign has proffered a conclusion: that the Reds are a little short of previous vintages, and quite some way adrift of the continent’s very best. Indeed, Moyes chose the eve of victory against the Merseysiders to remind all that he had sought at least two further reinforcements in the summer past.
As it happens United’s over-priced acquisition of Marouanne Fellaini is all the manager has to show for a summer of not inconsiderable frustration. Quite probably incompetence. It was a period in which United’s executive let the new man down when he needed the greatest support.
Moyes remains defiant in the face of early criticism of his new regime; a finicky assessment that is, of course, far too premature. More to the point Wednesday’s narrow win suggests Moyes is accurate in his assessment that while the Scot’s first choice side is short, United’s squad is replete with decent quality. Just enough.
“Where we’ve got work to do is bring players in to go right into the team – that’s the slightly different equation,” said the 50-year-old on Tuesday.
“We needed one or two who might have just gone in, but that will happen. We always said it was going to be a tough one and it was going to take a little bit more time.
“Not for a minute did I think this job was going to be easy. There will be days like we had on Sunday and there might be more of them because we are in a period where there will be transition. If people thought this was going to be easy and smooth after Sir Alex, I don’t think that was ever going to be the case.”
Admirable honesty one might say, although not entirely a mea culpa of course. Ed Woodward’s ability to navigate the January transfer market might be tested once again. And might define a campaign more than the new manager would ever have liked.
It is the nature of transition fascinates, with the principle change in the opening months of Moyes’ regime appearing to be an odd conservative bent. One demonstrated again on Wednesday, with Moyes swapping goalscorer Javier Hernández for midfielder Michael Carrick with 15 minutes to go. It could so easily have backfired.
Yet, with United’s “toughest start for 20 years” now out of the way the real work starts. Moyes’ ability to use his squad is key. Indeed, the fatigue demonstrated by Messrs. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra on Sunday ensures more time for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the weeks to come.
Whether Moyes can integrate creative players, including Kagawa and Nani, will be tested as the Champions League bites into United’s schedule. The short-term futures of Wilfried Zaha and the prodigiously talented Adnan Januzaj will beguile many. The Belgian featured as a late substitute at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Zaha didn’t leave the bench.
The suggestion that the Scot does not always trust creative players will persist until the more inventive among his squad are used in more challenging games.
Still, there can be no doubt of the relief ringing around Old Trafford by the end – a bouyant crowd pushing the home side over the line. More excitement for a League Cup third round tie than for many a year. And much of it had little to do with the competition or even opponents at play.
It is, perhaps, a realisation that after 25 years, United’s face is human again. Moyes seemingly knows it, although the brass undercarriage demonstrated on Wednesday night augurs well for future moments of pressure at least. There are likely to be many.