They are ten matches unbeaten and only two stoppage time levellers have prevented them from chalking up six league victories on the trot, including a magnificent display of determination and grit to out-battle and defeat the current league leaders. The club are within three points of second place, only require two points from two games to progress from their Champions League group and have safely negotiated two top-flight opponents in the League Cup.
You can’t argue that things are perfect, that the performances are breathtaking or that they are on a par with the very best sides in the world. But then again, this season was never about that.
When Sir Alex moved upstairs there was going to be a great upheaval in the day-to-day running of the club. 27 years of managerial continuity is stunning in modern day football, and totally unique in the English top flight where Alan Pardew – appointed in December 2010 – is the second longest serving manager.
The new boss was selected unanimously at an early stage to ensure the ethos of continuity and stability were safely maintained. Moyes is a worthy successor having kept Everton punching above their weight despite a shoestring budget in an age of billionaire owners. The fiery Scot who showed unwavering loyalty to his club while instilling confidence, belief and a never-say-die mentality in his playing staff was replaced by, well, a man with the same qualities. The parallels were clear and a long-term six-year deal was signed.
The significance of this deal was crucial. Not only did it show the trust and belief that the club – primarily Ferguson and Charlton – had in the Glaswegian, but it screamed that this was no quick fix. No stop-gap solution until another became available. The chances were that immediate success may have to be temporarily put on hold in greater context, but long-term David Moyes was the man.
Ferguson had been planning it for years. Traditionally, United promote from within and place high importance on possessing a core of home-based players. The last time they played a first-team match without a youth product in the squad was October 1937 – 3,660 matches ago – a figure which swells up a great sense of pride at the club.
Players such as Welbeck, Cleverley and Evans have become mainstays in the squad – they understand the club, they give the club an identity and this quality cannot be trumpeted enough. The most successful period in the club’s history was famously carried by ‘the class of 92. Having a sense of belonging, a sense of understanding and distinctiveness is arguably the greatest factor of United’s on-field success.
Whenever the ability isn’t there in the youth side to cover a position the club automatically looks at other youngsters from within the UK. Chris Smalling is a fine defender while Phil Jones is the most impressively combative, adaptable and full-blooded defensive player in Europe. Only rarely will the club dip into the European market to cover gaps in the squad – David de Gea and Shinji Kagawa are the only contemporary examples.
The emphasis always revolves around youth. Players that will become mainstays of the squad for a decade. They’ll become part of the fabric. This squad re-building and togetherness was seen throughout Moyes’ reign at Everton, the difference at United is he now has the finances to mix this stability with that cutting edge in the final third which often hampered his side at the toughest away venues.
Integrating the newest emerging young crop is a massive challenge in itself. Wilfred Zaha has bags of talent and potential but will firstly need to bulk-up and improve his stamina and decision-making. Others have already been loaned out to help their progress – local Warrington lad Jesse Lingard, Nick Powell and Angelo Henriquez included, with high expectations of their future.
One massive early success for Moyes was the assimilation of the exciting, precautious talent Adnan Januzaj. The youngster’s directness, tenacity and ability give him a big future in the game, but at a tender 18 years of age it took courage to throw him into the starting line-up in a crucial match at Sunderland. His two goals gave United a vital victory to kick-start their season. Despite his age he already has been at United for over two years, and has since committed his long-term future to the club.
The Januzaj achievement has been largely overlooked and it revolves around the tendency of football folk to deal in terms of absolutes. Ferguson was a great manager, but to many he could do no wrong. There is a sense of loyalty amongst many United fans to the man, and rightly so, but that can cloud judgement.
Many United fans, the writer included, were not born during the pre-Fergie era, we knew the club no other way. To many he embodied the club to an extent that he was the club. His successes were so great that eventually, regardless of form, he would not come under pressure from the boardroom. Ferguson being sacked was unthinkable, which creates problems for a successor in that they don’t have his success to fall back on.
Plenty mistake Moyes’ lack of trophies as a vulnerability, which is foolish. Trophies are fantastic for fans but they represent an isolated run of good form and favourable fixtures. Liverpool’s 2012 campaign saw their lowest league finish in 40 years, yet they won the League Cup and reached the FA Cup final. Both Birmingham and Wigan have won trophies in the same year they were relegated. Juande Ramos won Spurs the League Cup and was sacked six months later. Redknapp won Portsmouth the FA Cup but long-term the club was crippled by debt and lack of planning.
It is easy for fans to deal in absolutes. Moyes has never won a major trophy and had a poor record at tough away grounds, yet there is reasonable logic and rational behind this. For instance, Everton’s winless record at Anfield should have ended last year but they had a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed, the game ended 0-0.
They often lacked a cutting edge up front, due to possessing a vastly inferior budget (striker’s are the most expensive position to strength) and as a result were usually narrowly defeated. This gives Moyes the reputation as a negative manager, which is again untrue. Last season, they created more goal scoring opportunities than any other Premiership side, bar United. The lack of a 20-goals-a-season striker slanted the figures.
We live in an age where winning is everything. Players go down easily in the box, often with no contact. Players push and pull shirts from set-pieces to unsettle the opposition. Players even sink to disgusting lows to shout racial abuse to unsettle their opponents. None of this is unique to England and its part of a culture driven towards instant success, where lack of stability means a few bad results costs a manager his job.
Football is about keeping fans happy. If their team loses, they need a scapegoat – more often than not this is the manager. Manchester United are scrutinised more intensely than any other side in world football. Winning every match is expected, playing with verve and panache is always expected. When this does not happen, they are not ‘the Man United of old’ and the media-driven witch-hunt will begin.
Moyes has not had luck on his side. Injuries have hampered him from developing a settled squad. At the time of writing, five first-team players are injured – Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Carrick, van Persie. United have already played at two of the toughest away venues – the Etihad and Anfield – while trips to Swansea, Cardiff and Sunderland often see’s top teams come unstuck too.
Bad luck does not factor into the modern day world of instant success and absolutes, but Moyes and his squad should draw heart from the run of league fixtures ahead of them.
A trip to White Hart Lane is another massive test, but their following six league games include hosting Everton, Newcastle and West Ham alongside trips to Hull, Norwich and Aston Villa. This favourable run of fixtures coinciding with vital players returning gives great hope that the side will be right back in the thick of the title race by the turn of the New Year.
In this modern age of excruciating levels of analysis and categorising individuals as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, a dose of perspective is required to ask for realism and patience. After all, we’re only in November.