Following Manchester United’s second consecutive home defeat without scoring against yet another side which hadn’t tasted success at Old Trafford in a generation, it hasn’t been really difficult to guess where most of the fingers are pointed at, at least from the majority of skeptics, a substantial amount of neutrals and, by now, quite a few of their own fans.
But is blaming David Moyes justified? I don’t think it is. Even though he seems to owe the fans at this point in time, we should all step back a bit, take our hands off his throat, lift him off the floor, let him breathe a bit and wait. Wait until he stands on his own feet, gets himself at least a coat, a tie, a pair of shoes and then come back to get our dues, because right now, he seems to be in rags. And it isn’t quite gentlemanly of us to hit a man in rags.
Say what? I’ll try to be less cryptic. It’s like The Smiths have said – these things take time. But I understand why it might seem unbelievable to some. Though it is universally agreed that replacing a manager like Sir Alex at a club like United is not the easiest job in football, especially when Sir Alex alone brought 7-8 league points for the club through his unique genius, one still can’t help but feel that things have gone a bit too far. This may not be one of United’s finest sides and it was pretty much vulnerable even under Sir Alex but it still walked the league under him. So given the absence of the great man, at this point of the season, maybe the club being at the fourth or fifth position would be understandable.
But the side which won the league eleven points clear is gasping for breath at home against Newcastle, straight after being under the ventilator against Everton. It’s just the beginning of December and United are already languishing on ninth place but more worryingly, they seem to be slowly getting comfortable there. This manager has managed to drag United, a title-winning team, below the likes of Newcastle, Southampton and Everton while consistently getting schooled by clubs who haven’t won at their home ground in decades. One can only blame the squad so much. Maybe David Moyes has to take the blame now. Maybe awarding Moyes a six-year contract wasn’t the best thing to do. Maybe, David Moyes just isn’t the chosen one.
Stop right there and take a deep breath for I’m going to tell you something wonderful, something ridiculous. Something along the lines of – whatever’s happened with Moyes is just…bad luck. Yes, the man has had dreadful luck. Get off his back, give yourself a hug and tell yourself it’s all right. David Moyes, so far, is still the man.
Last season Robin van Persie played 38 league games for United. In most of those, he ended up scoring and even when he didn’t, he had enough class to be of immense use to the team. So far, he has already missed some vital games and hasn’t been fit enough to start in others. Michael Carrick was available to Sir Alex for almost the entirety of previous campaign. And when he wasn’t around, even under Sir Alex, even against relatively ordinary teams, United had struggled. Rafael da Silva was an integral part of that title-winning squad making 28 league appearances, but for most of this season, he too hasn’t been around. Even if Chris Smalling did his best, the right wing just hasn’t been the same. Rarely have three of Manchester United’s most influential players of last season played together.
Sir Alex had had more defensive troubles at this point in the campaign last season than Moyes has had this season. David de Gea was yet to completely pin his position down (though it was looking more and more obvious) and Nemanja Vidic was out for a while. United were letting in goals like a black hole nabs in matter. However, the brilliance of Van Persie often saw them through, along with the occasional exploits of Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans in front of the goal, who have continued to score this season as well. But Evra, Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, while all being beautiful defenders and brilliant servants of United, have all aged yet another year between this season and last (obviously, right?) and after 30, age usually matters. On Saturday, Evra was left sleeping and gasping twice in the match. With, the lengthy absence of Rafael and age catching up with the three elder statesmen, David Moyes has yet again picked up the short end of the straw, especially with the full-backs.
Now we talk about what everybody talks about – the midfield. Last season, at least they had Paul Scholes and, for a while, Darren Fletcher. Moyes brought in Marouane Fellaini to increase the strength in this department. Fellaini hasn’t lit up Old Trafford by any means and he deserves more time. But then there’s Tom Cleverley and Anderson. Former has regressed from last season and the latter is just the same as ever. After filling in well there last season, Wayne Rooney had already made his disillusionment with the midfield role clear. So with Cleverley’s regression, Rooney’s rejection, Scholes’ retirement, Fletcher’s illness and Carrick’s injury – all of whom played a bigger role in midfield last season than they have this season – it is clear Moyes hasn’t been as lucky in this department as Sir Alex was last season, if at all you can call anyone with such a midfield lucky.
Sir Alex had both Van Persie and Rooney at his disposal to choose from and even if Rooney wasn’t this good then, he was still extremely good. His 12 goals and 10 assists in the league attest to that. Combined with a Van Persie firing on all cylinders (something lacking in this season, relatively), Sir Alex had somewhat better options.
Van Persie has struggled so far
All this, combined with the extra points Sir Alex managed to win through his genius, and the outrageously difficult start to the campaign, paints a clearer picture about the misadventures of Manchester United and Moyes. The gaffer has had it rough.
Although it isn’t as exciting as making a top-10 list about reasons to sack a manager, we will now look at things that Moyes has done well. (Yes, he can do good things too!)
Tony Valencia, who was abysmal last season, has been better this time around. He might never reach the level expected of a Manchester United winger but Moyes has managed to ignite something in him that was missing. Nani has been his usual – delight and outrage served together between two slices of bittersweet bread but he still offers more in attack than Tony Valencia ever can. Sorting his contract out was crucial. Moyes has boldly given Adnan Januzaj a chance to shine and the young lad has done well. He knows a thing or two about young players which is why I lay my full trust in him regarding Wilfried Zaha. As was evident from whatever we could see on Saturday, Zaha isn’t as ready as Januzaj.
Now the cherry on David Moyes’ merry cake – Wayne Rooney. Managing to hold on to him, when almost nobody, including me, thought he was donning a red shirt again at Old Trafford, then firing him up, was a masterstroke.
But I don’t mean to say Moyes has done nothing wrong. Shinji Kagawa isn’t the greatest fit in England but he excels in the wing for Japan and is still better than most of United’s wingers. He hasn’t exactly lit up Old Trafford when he has played but none of their traditional wingers have either. I’d play him ahead of Valencia, Nani and obviously, Ashley Young. The other thing Moyes gets consistently wrong is his decisiveness with the substitutions. Whether he wants to attack or defend, he leaves it a bit too late for the subs to have much effect. And sometimes, he gets them on too early. That’s about it, regarding his individual failings.
David Moyes has a long way to go, will probably make a lot more mistakes than he has so far and United can still fall deeper than they are used to, but he isn’t all that bad. He was given a six-year contract for a reason. He might still succeed, he might still fail, but today isn’t the day to judge him. Nor is this season. Let’s give him a couple of transfer windows to get his coat, tie and shoes in order, let him dress up and see how it goes. Only after that is it all right to get the knives out. He may be a bit too clumsy and he may be a bit too straight but given two, three seasons, if not five, he might still turn out to be a Walter White.
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. Read more…
It’s hard to think of a more underwhelming major signing in recent times. The previous big splash of Glazer cash to have failed to hit the heights expected was Dimitar Berbatov; yet even he could always rely on a vocal band of admirers to fight his corner. Fellaini has had no such luck. Whereas the capture of the Bulgarian mercurial enigma (cliché klaxon ago go) represented a thrilling, logic defying pursuit of yet more attacking adventure, our Belgian acquisition is by contrast a depressingly sensible acceptance of functionality over flair.
What a time for a break. You’d certainly forgive David Moyes for taking some time out to enjoy some rest and recuperation following a suffocating opening few months to life as manager of Manchester United. The old adage that ‘everyone thinks they can be manager’ was traditionally aimed at the national team job but in today’s globalised world debate on who should make up the first eleven of Manchester United rages untamed. Southampton at home should represent the most routine of fixtures yet given the contrasting fortunes of the two sides thus far it has emerged as the pick of the weekend fixtures at betting sites like news.coral.co.uk.
Rather than engage in some downtime, it is far more likely that workaholic Moyes spent every waking hour wrestling with the challenges he faces over the next few weeks, months and even years. Whereas Ferguson became an expert at managing in the face of restriction from above, his successor has found himself roundly criticised for attempting to manage expectations of a manically demanding fanbase. The facebook and twitter mafia might be expected to hit the panic button more readily than the wise old match goer; but both sets of fan groups have legitimate concerns which need to be addressed over the coming series of fixtures.
So what are these challenges that Moyes needs to approach head on?
Kevin Levingston examines one of the most hotly debated topics of the early season and argues in favour of a little restraint…
If Wayne Rooney’s future was the main story of the summer around Old Trafford, the situation regarding Shinji Kagawa has jumped to the fore now that the season has begun. To say it is a “situation” is perhaps inappropriate. In truth it is uncertain if there is a situation to address as far as the player or the club is concerned. The facts are as follows; Shinji Kagawa has yet to make a competitive appearance for Manchester United this season. The season is three games old and Kagawa has played no games. And fans of Manchester United and Dortmund alike have absolutely lost their minds. Anyone who used a bwin free bet prior to the season on United and Kagawa to have an influential campaign would have been left regretting their bet already. Read more…
This summer I had to ask myself a question. A question that had just never occurred to me before. Like many people in their early thirties and younger, I was facing my first season as a Manchester United fan with a new manager. After a solid decade of the gaffer telling people ‘Three more years’ whenever retirement was brought up, the question I had to ask myself was ‘Am I a United fan, or an Alex Ferguson fan?’ Read more…
Every team needs that sort of player that make the opposition quake in their boots. The type of player that will force his opponent to commit, gamble and eventually crumble. The type of player that, when the other team’s manager reads out the opposing eleven, you hear a unified sigh throughout the dressing room: you know it’s going to be a long afternoon as soon as you spot his name on the team sheet.
It doesn’t really come down to technical ability or passing range, it comes down to your willingness to combat your opposition to the ground. Roy Keane, even though underrated, was never the most technical player. However, when teams saw his name on the team sheet, they knew what was coming. That alone won games. The fear and the anticipation, knowing that across the pitch stands a man who doesn’t think twice before sacrificing his body for his team. Manchester United have lacked that. A man that can dominate a game just by being who he is. That man can be Marouane Fellaini.
If there’s something fans have complained about for the past years, it’s United’s lack of presence in midfield. Despite catching a lot of grief, Sir Alex Ferguson did try to address the issue several times in his last few seasons at Old Trafford. Owen Hargreaves was unlucky, so was Darren Fletcher and Anderson never fit the role to begin with. The emergence of Tom Cleverley gave United a new perspective to how the midfield was to be run, while Phil Jones, who really is a centre back, was the only pure physical specimen when called upon in midfield. This has left Michael Carrick with the herculean task of controlling a midfield by positioning himself excellently, balancing the midfield and defence and acting as a deep-lying playmaker. A test which he has passed with flying colours, but that perhaps needs a bit revamping under David Moyes.
Although Carrick controls a game from the deep, even he has seem himself being combatted to the ground by the likes Yaya Touré. When faced with intense pressure from teams such as Man City, Liverpool and Everton, that task becomes too great even for Carrick. This is where Marouane Fellaini comes in. At 6’4” and with the frame of a barn door, there’s only one adjective that could describe him at the heart of Manchester United’s midfield: Brobdingnagian. Despite not being credited for it, Fellaini levels out his lack of pace with a high footballing IQ. He’ll position himself where he thinks things will happen. This may also be the reason why David Moyes used him as an offensive midfielder for a great part of the 2012/2013-season. As midfields would be running at Carrick and Fellaini, they’d face a battering ram of gigantic proportions in Fellaini before Michael Carrick elegantly sweeps away what Fellaini misses, somewhat in a similar manner to how Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand made their partnership in the heart of defence function.
But this is midfield, right? And Fellaini adds plenty of things to a Manchester United midfield that severely lacks presence. He’s not a midfield maestro and nor does he need to be. Looking at how Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney interchange in terms of dropping deep and establishing play from the back, Fellaini won’t need to part take in that. He will be called upon to carry the ball between the opposing lines. Again, something which he often did do at Everton, knowing that someone would secure the space left behind.
The undervalued factor, however, is the intimidation he’ll scare out of opposing teams. In his first interview with MUTV after having signed Fellaini, Moyes mentioned how teams absolutely hate playing against Fellaini. United fans will know this all too well having seen United struggle to keep up with the behemoth in the league opener against Everton last season. This is also where the comparison to Roy Keane comes in. Fellaini is no Roy Keane, let’s put that to bed already, but he’s the player you’re looking over your shoulder for. Because you know he’s coming. And you know it’s going to hurt when he gets there.
In what has been a summer of change at Old Trafford, fans have been at pains to point out the clear areas in which the squad needs to be improved. Kevin Levingston examines the current state of affairs as the transfer window draws to a close….
Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing”. At time of writing it is less than sixty hours until the transfer window closes. Let us be frank. Mistakes have been made. The very public pursuit of Cesc Fabregas; a player who had never considered leaving a club who themselves had no intention of selling him. Allowing the release clause in Fellaini’s contract expire and putting ourselves in a position where we will surely pay over the odds for a very good, if less than brilliant midfielder. Offering a sum for Leighton Baines that even his critics would view as paltry. While nowhere never in danger of approaching the bravado emanating from the Emirates, the message from Moyes and Co. very early on in this transfer window was that of money to burn and price being a non factor. With three days to go until the curtain finally falls on the blessed thing, The Reds’ only signing has come in the form of Guillermo Varela, a young right back prospect from Uruguay. Yes, mistakes have surely been made.
A lot can be accomplished in three days, however, and the noises coming from Old Trafford have been cautious, but not inherently negative. It seems that already lessons have been learned from the very public way in which Fabregas was pursued, with the new Gaffer remaining very tight-lipped about potential targets. Reassurance can be taken from the type of players we seem to be targeting. It may turn out to be too late this time round, but it’s clear that Moyes is fully aware of where the squad needs improving. We need midfielders.
With three days to go the time for audacious bids for the likes of Fabregas and Ozil has passed. The new boss has returned to former club Everton one more time with a successful move for Marouane Fellaini looking all the more inevitable. Such a move, while not one to set pulses racing will add a little steel to Michael Carrick’s silk in midfield, while also providing us an able alternative should the Tyne and Wear born playmaker, heaven forbid, be injured. A late bid for Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera, the schemer who tore United’s midfield apart two seasons ago, has been rejected. A sizeable release clause in the player’s contract as well as a hornet’s nest of tax issues therein may ultimately prove to be a deal breaker, but it is without question that the Herrera would provide some much-needed creativity to our engine room. A far more puzzling move for Roma’s Danieli De Rossi has also been reported, though it’s hard to say whether this one would be pursued should the aforementioned deals be completed. Adding Fellaini and Herrera to United’s Carrick and Cleverley would go a long way to solving our midfield woes. It seems that Moyes, while late to the party, has at least brought some pavlova and a bottle of wine – Though it’s fair to say he’s knocked on every other door in the street before finding the right house.
One could be forgiven for casting envious glances towards Tottenham and the swashbuckling way in which they have reacted to the imminent sale of their best player. While it is almost impossible to replace a Gareth Bale in your team, Spurs are giving it a heck of a try, signing two central midfielders, two wingers, a striker and an attacking midfielder. The manner in which Chairman Daniel Levy and Football Director Franco Baldini have conducted business this summer has been nothing short of stunning. It will take time for all the new signings to bed in and gel, but if potential and press are to be believed, it won’t be long before Tottenham are competing for the title, let alone the top four. Time will reveal whether that is the case, but what cannot be denied is the ruthlessly efficient manner in which Spurs have secured their transfer targets. The masterstroke in this regard was the decision to secure the players needed to improve the team before the Bale transfer windfall was burning a hole in their pockets. Tottenham were in the rare position this year of having money to burn without being perceived as such. Kudos.
No such luck with United. The Reds are not, like Tottenham, in a position where they need wholesale changes. This is still a team that ran away with the league comfortably last season. It is vital that any players signed are improving on the current playing staff, or at least have the potential to do so. Such players come at a premium. Add United as the buying club and more often than not, the price goes up even further. For Moyes and Woodward this is perhaps where the inexperience of negotiating such transfers at the highest level has had an effect. A puzzling reluctance to add an extra five million pounds where thirty million has already been bid is particularly frustrating, but it’s not our only worry. It’s hard to believe that United would have been so public in the pursuit of Fabregas had they not been given an indication of interest on the Spaniard’s part, but nevertheless it was an embarrassing lesson in negotiations at footballs top table, and hopefully a lesson learned well. Thankfully a similar move for Real Madrid’s Mezut Ozil was dismissed by the player before a bid could be made.
So now it seems that after giving up on Fabregas, Ozil and the like, Moyes is prepared to take the experience on the chin and bid for more realistic targets to improve our ranks. How much favour with which one looks toward the transfer window as a whole is usually defined by the activity of your team over the summer. For Spurs fans it’s been a fantastic summer. For Arsenal fans it has been a curse. For The Reds it’s looking like being neither hot nor cold, neither amazing nor terrible. It’s not too late to sign the players needed. Aristotle once said that “Patience is bitter, but it’s fruit is sweet.” The next three days will tell how true this is of United’s summer.
Tick Tock David.
Kevin Levingston is a freelance blogger who has contributed to the likes of StrettyNews, TheGloriousUnited and, of course, CanTheyScore? in the past. Follow him on twitter here
“I don’t know what Jose’s thoughts were, but I know what ours were- you could tell by the team we picked.”
-David Moyes, post game Chelsea v Manchester United, August 26, 2013
The newly christened “Chosen One” has now managed, and survived, the first ‘real’ test of his managerial career at Old Trafford. After the match David Moyes took a jab at Jose Mourinho- the undisputed champion of verbal pugilism- when he intimated that perhaps the Portuguese manager did not show as much interest in scoring goals as he did in keeping them out. Read more…
Things done changed. Not only has the G.O.A.T. Moved upstairs but all the obvious major players have new Chiefs. The excitement ahead of the new season was centred around how the new personnel would disrupt the status quo. Moyes’ first few weeks have been spent under a cloud as a shambolic transfer strategy dovetailed with want-away Wayne for attention.
Arguably more significantly, the most important judges of Moyes – the fans – are struggling with the new reality. Paul Ansorge nailed it (as usual) when likening the feeling as that of children getting used to their step-dad. For every aspect connected with the club this has been a challenging time of adjustment. Encouragingly, the clouds feel less heavy today. Last night was the first major test and this morning I’ve woken up with renewed belief that we can defend our title.
Last season was characterised by fun but surprisingly open games between the top sides. Sky gleefully rejoiced that The Best League In The World was producing blockbuster scorelines to thrill the Super Sunday audience. One member of Team Sky who didn’t share in his employers’ jubilation was our own Gary Neville. A familiar theme in his Monday night sermons were lamenting the paucity of quality defending. Even the canniest manager of them all eschewed defending before Christmas having been burned by losing a league on goal difference. The best striker in the league was acquired and ‘attack, attack, attack’ was the clear mantra. Potency proven; 2013 saw a more conservative approach but the theme continued that the team who attacked the best won the big games, and ultimately the league title.
The arrivals of Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini look like shifting the balance. Old Trafford may have hosted a forgettable game last night but the big game lesson was telling – ‘Outscore your opponent’ has become ‘Don’t lose’. The traditional blueprint for league success is cancel out your rivals, and make sure you secure 3pts against the rest. Ferguson showed many times that defeating your foes in one off battles is not necessary to win the war. Mourinho is a firm believer in this maxim; his team last night was unapologetically set up not to lose. There is no shame in that; you would have had to be the most idealistic of Reds not to have relished our successful mission to return unblemished from Camp Nou in 2008. Furthermore, it won’t be lost on Manuel Pellegrini how costly dropping points against Cardiff could ultimately prove. In English football, style is a distant second to success. You only have to look at the uniform praise of Pulis’ approach at Stoke. If it brings wins, who cares how you do it?
As for Moyes, the one characteristic agreed upon about the new boss is his reactivity. Colleagues from Everton have praised his meticulous preparation to identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of each opponent. It became the hallmark of 21st century Fergie; the ability to excel in both test matches and 20-20, chess and hungry hippos, football manager and Fifa. The ability to respond to however your opponent approaches the contest is a great asset. Ideally, teams crave their own identity but in the meantime the capacity to mix and match will serve Moyes well.
This campaign looks set to be fought on two fronts; efficiently dominating lesser sides punctuated by tense cagey encounters with rivals. Our propensity to do the former is superior to any other side. Swansea are a good side but over-achievement should not be confused with true high level quality. They are a team United should and must beat. We did.
It is the second front where the most question marks could be found – helter shelter clashes can be very accommodating to defensive harakiri but in a tight game, a single error (e.g. Chris Smalling allowing Vincent Kompany to get the run on him at Eastlands 2012) is often the difference between victory and defeat. For all the debate over our lack of transfer activity, the area of the team least talked about is defence. Against an admittedly impotent Chelsea team we looked composed, organised and decisive. Compare De Gea to the dandruff-free flapper down the road and there is no contest. To witness Vidic and Ferdinand in tandem is like admiring a supreme feat of engineering. It might not arouse the senses like a Botticelli but its unshakeable dependability is as awesome as a Brunel Bridge. This core was flanked by a makeshift right back and a left full back whose place is seemingly under review. Both carried out their duties admirably – allowing the creative forces they came up against no space to conjure.
Defending is the responsibility of the entire team and the rearguard were duly aided and abetted by five committed foot soldiers in front of them. Valencia’s final ball continues to frustrate yet his industry in supporting Jones was admirable; the Equadorian making more successful tackles than any other player. On the opposite flank, a forward in rich scoring form bore no grudges at being expected to carry out a more disciplined role – perhaps motivated by the expectation of being allowed more freedom against lesser sides.
So what of central midfield – where we are reminded on a daily basis of our inferiority to others? Carrick anticipated any danger as effectively as we have become accustomed to (though his passing was unusually sloppy). His partners in this endeavour have for very different reasons been cause for opprobrium from many Reds over the summer – yet both Rooney and Cleverley contributed to the successful shut out. Rooney showed appetite to close down opponents and allow no tempo setting from deep (it took until midway into the second half for my mother-in-law to notice Lampard was playing!).
Cleverley when tasked with a similar role last season could be accused of failing to track runners and leaving Carrick to fight fires alone. Last night he was a model of discipline and patience. I spoke on the pod this week of my expectation that young players will continue to develop and the signs are good that Cleverley is becoming a more rounded central midfielder. Friend of the site Musa Okwonga wrote well on this topic in his review of the match.
All this was achieved with significant absences; Rafael was the success story of last season and his absence leaves us notably weaker in attack and defence. Much has been made of Kagawa’s non-selection; the idea of what Kagawa represents seems often to outweigh the reality of his performances in a red shirt. If he can prove form and fitness he will be a fine player for us and unlike last night’s opponent we are not blessed with a clutch of capable number 10s. If as I hope Kagawa fulfills our expectations, adding him to last night’s team will increase our threat in such knife edge encounters. The elephant in the room of course continues to be the as yet fruitless pursuit of quality to add to the central midfield. Our lack of depth is rightly of great concern. If we can make one (or even two) additions of comparable or greater talent to what we already have then we have nothing to fear.
It is folly to read too much into two games but the signs are encouraging. If this is to be a season where defending makes a comeback, it is incredibly reassuring to reflect on how much stronger we look in that area compared to our immediate rivals. Throw in the inevitable injuries and we have in Evans, Jones, and Smalling players who are clearly superior to the understudies of our competitors. At the other end of the pitch we have the one thing our rivals crave – a guaranteed source of goals. Aguero has the potential to be that man for City, but at Chelsea there is no one.
It might not always be pretty, but that never bothered our last boss.