By Michael Owen
For anyone dissecting the post-match comments of Robin van Persie following Manchester United’s midweek Champions League defeat, there is something you must consider.
Seriously. When you are winning games and part of a successful side, everything is hunky-dory. The manager is the best you have worked for, the training is so enjoyable you give the impression you skip to work each day and the tactics are the most effective you have ever had the pleasure to put into action.
Start losing games and the story changes. There is no excuse a player will not willingly hide behind.
That is when the whispers start. The manager does not have a clue, the training is too repetitive and boring, and the tactics are not getting the best out of those available. There is always someone to blame.
It only needed Van Persie to mention team-mates running into his space for everyone to start analysing the heat maps and further questions to be asked about whether we have been given an insight into what’s going wrong at United.
To some degree, Van Persie is a good starting point for explaining the complex legacy David Moyes inherited at Old Trafford.
This time last year, no week could pass without ex-Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini pointing to the signing of Van Persie as the reason United won the league title.
It was an unusual step for Sir Alex Ferguson to pay £22 million for a 29-year-old who, for all his class, he knew had only three or four years left at the top and would have no sell on value (when he signed me I was on a free transfer!).
Van Persie repaid every penny of that fee by shooting United to the title. It wouldn’t matter if he never won another trophy at Old Trafford. He justified the deal.
A year on, however, Moyes must see Van Persie as part of his dilemma of how to rebuild United. When he is looking to the future this summer, he must be asking himself if he will have to sacrifice some of the quality in attack in order to strengthen in midfield and defence.
Wayne Rooney has just committed his future to the club so if Moyes is going to stick with Van Persie (and why wouldn’t he as he is one of the best strikers in the world?) how do you construct the team around them?
What was exposed in the defeat to Olympiakos is how imbalanced the United side is. They still have plenty of world-class players; just not enough in key areas to impose the style of football Moyes must want to play.
If you asked supporters to name the best United players, Van Persie, Rooney, Adnan Januzaj and recent signing Juan Mata would be top of the list. Ask what United’s best line-up is, and I’m not convinced you can have all four in it, certainly not in the traditional United system. I suspect Moyes would willingly sacrifice an attacker for a world-class central midfielder right now, which poses the question as to whether Marouane Fellaini and Mata were the correct first signings?
While Moyes works out how to correct the flaw, everyone is scapegoat-hunting, whether it’s the manager, players, chief executive, board or even the former manager being targeted. The reality is there is a perfect storm currently whirling around Old Trafford. There is no single, all encompassing reason for their troubles, but several issues coming to the fore at the same time.
A legendary manager departs, quickly followed by the chief executive, leaving an ageing team with several top class players coming to their twilight years at the highest level, and a new manager who, no matter how good and experienced he is, will inevitably need time to adjust to new surroundings.
The whole club appears to be in the grip of a dilemma of what to do next, with suggestions the solution is a £300 million spending spree.
Even then, there’s an argument if next season starts badly Moyes’s job will be in jeopardy.
I don’t buy that, or I certainly do not believe there is any logic to it.
For a start, I refuse to accept this United team is as poor as recent results and performances suggest. The argument they need at least six first team players defies belief. This is a side that won the title by eleven points last season and should only have needed tinkering, not completely ripped up.
Yes, there are some players who are past their peak and need replacing, but you’re not seriously suggesting they are not still good players, capable of much more than we’ve seen?
The problem in this transitional period appears more to do with having a squad set-up to thrive playing a certain way under Sir Alex which is not equipped to do so the way Moyes wants to play.
There is no doubt the training and approach will be different under Moyes. For a start, Sir Alex delegated the coaching to Rene Meulensteen. Everything we did was with the ball, promoting quick, incisive passing movements and pressing the opponent to get it back.
Ferguson had his playing style and kept to it, primarily 4-4-2 with two wingers and a high tempo attacking game. We didn’t do much tactical work.
For this formation to work you needed a strong central midfield and it has been evident, even when United were winning the title last season, this was the area to strengthen whether you were playing two strikers or one upfront.
Without this, United too often look exposed, unable to keep possession and consistently vulnerable to being overrun.
There will be some who will say why doesn’t Moyes just copy Ferguson? Just adopt the same training methods and tactics?
The counter-argument is what is the point of appointing a manager who has built his reputation at the same club for ten years coaching in a certain way, and telling him to forget all that to follow someone’s blueprint?
United must have known what they were getting when they decided to recruit Moyes. They had enough time to analyse how he sets up a side so they must have bought into his methods when they gave him the job.
The board must believe they will have to accept the short-term pain because they believe longer-term he will deliver. To panic would be an admission they made a fundamental mistake in appointing Moyes in the first place. You certainly can’t give a manager £300 million unless your 100 per cent he’s the right man.
Of course, that won’t stop a whispering campaign getting louder until the results improve.
In the aftermath of Sir Alex’s retirement, last summer was considered the most important in the recent history of Manchester United.
It turns out we were wrong.
This description that will now be afforded to the next close season as United address what has gone wrong over the last few months and how to fix it.