by Jamie Jackson
There was a moment among the wreckage of Manchester United’s 3-0 trouncing by Liverpool when David Moyes was forced to confront reality.
He was asked if being the manager of the 20-times champions was more difficult than he had thought. “The job was always going to be hard,” he said. When pushed if the post was not just hard, but harder than he had hoped, the man who has overseen a 43-point swing to United’s fiercest enemy, had to reply in the affirmative. “Harder? Yes I would say so, yes.”
With each demoralising defeat the ire and concerns of United fans focus more on Moyes and whether he is the man for the job. The manner of the defeats the 50-year-old is overseeing is the chief charge against him. All teams lose but to go down constantly by playing like a team of strangers seven months into his inaugural season offers scant hope of optimism.
Supporters want to look at the Moyes project and see a glimmer that things are coming together. Instead, the evidence of the dire 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos three weeks ago in the Champions League and Sunday’s equally abysmal reverse to Brendan Rodgers’s dazzling Liverpool suggests that United are going backwards under Moyes.
Tactically, Rodgers had no compunction playing the 19-year-old Raheem Sterling in the No10 slot while Moyes again shunted Juan Mata, his £37.1m club record buy, out wide on the right. Adnan Januzaj, another No10 in-waiting was on the opposite flank, while the £27m Marouane Fellaini continues to look a player sucked under by the challenge of playing in the famous red shirt.
Mata has played seven games under Moyes but whereas the eye can see the Spaniard operating with success in a wide position for Barcelona or Bayern Munich – where the central players are creative – in this United side he has become an auxiliary wingman, who is yet to score, and is being dragged down to the level of the average player.
It begs the questions: what is Moyes’s plan, his blueprint, vision? And, can he arrange Mata, Januzaj, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie into a slick, interchangeable front four who can terrorise teams?
The answer is that no one knows. From the moment Moyes replaced Sir Alex Ferguson he has constantly talked of “transition”. The word has been applied to the club, the squad, the expectations of fans. Yet Moyes is also in transition.
He is the time-served manager who arrived at Old Trafford having spent 11 years in charge of Everton, a club of more modest achievements than the institution of George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Cristiano Ronaldo, three European Cups and a self-professed 659m fans around the globe.
One of football’s great truisms is about it being a results business. Winning convinces everyone – from owner to star player to supporter. A glance at Moyes’s record shows failures in the League Cup and FA Cup, that reverse to Olympiakos, supposedly the round’s “easiest” opposition and a dismal seventh position in the league.
The bad news continues. If United drop one more point in the closing nine games they will return a poorest points tally of the Premier League era, dropping below the 75 of the 1996-97 and the 2003-04 campaigns.
Moyes carries the can for this. To retain the title might have been a stretch but to be 12 points from a Champions League place is perhaps the most damning of the facts that show how far he is falling short.
In a season of disappointments two moments illustrate the gradient of the learning curve Moyes is on. In a mid-December briefing, the manager revealed he had to tell Danny Welbeck to be “last off the training field”, pointing to Wayne Rooney as an example. Moyes also admitted to being a “little bit” surprised at having to urge Welbeck, who is an England striker, to do so.
Moyes said: “I’ve got to say we had a word with him about a month ago and we said that he needs to be the last off the training field. Wayne’s out there practising his finishing each day, whether it’s taking free-kicks, shooting from tight angles or bending them in, whatever it may be Wayne’s practising. I said: ‘Danny, you need to be out there every day finishing, even if it’s 15 minutes at the end.'”
While Moyes went on to say that Welbeck had heeded the advice, it still seemed a strange approach from a manager to go public if he wanted to keep the player onside.
This was confirmed when three days later, Welbeck questioned the veracity of Moyes’s comments. “I have been doing that ever since I have been at United. I have been injured this season so maybe the manager has not seen me on the training pitch as much,” he said. “At Manchester United I want to be working hard and I have been doing that ever since I was a kid. I just want to keep on getting better and improving. Those extra hours on the training pitch, whether it be with the boys or individually, I am just looking to improve.”
Beyond whatever was the truth of the exchange an overriding sense was that Moyes had missed an opportunity. If, say, Ferguson had informed Welbeck of the need to train more you could imagine him spinning the tale on its head. He would have informed journalists that, actually, extra training had all been Welbeck’s idea. In a classic bit of man-management, Welbeck would have been placed in the best light while Ferguson would earn his undying loyalty for doing so.
The second moment came last Friday when Moyes admitted not knowing that Van Persie had done an interview with the United Review in which the striker offered assurances of contentment and that he hoped to stay beyond his contract.
Moyes said: “Well, I didn’t know what was coming out. I’ve only just heard this morning about it.” The mind struggles to imagine Ferguson not knowing that a key player, whose future had been in doubt, was to speak to the club’s in-house magazine and what might be said. Yet if somehow this had slipped under the radar, Ferguson, who understood that control was paramount, would have been loathe to admit as much to the media on the day the interview was aired in the national press.
If United manage to overcome a Champions League first-leg deficit for only the second time in their history on Wednesday against Olympiakos, and progress to the quarter-finals, the picture will change markedly.
“We have to go for the throat to get the win. We won’t be gung-ho but we will certainly go with a mindset to overhaul the deficit as quickly as we can,” Moyes said.
The manager knows he needs a result, perhaps as never before in his career.
Source: The Guardian