Broken. That’s the one word that sums up Manchester United right now.
There’s a lot that’s broken. The fans’ faith for one. After Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace, there was a new sense of belief. Rooney had signed a new contract, scored a lovely goal and the team seemed to want to play football. That hope, that incredibly small glimmer of hope, was shattered into a thousand pieces last night when Gianluca Rocchi blew the final whistle in the Karaiskákis Stadium.
Many fans, myself included, saw last night as the point of no return for David Moyes. The team, sauntering around the pitch, failed to close down and challenge an Olympiakos side who, albeit incredibly good at home, should never have posed a threat to a team like Manchester United. The problem is, they did. Manchester United made Olympiakos feel like they were the team to be feared.
The last point has been one of the major issues all season, repeated over and over again by bloggers, journalists and pundits. The fear factor has disappeared. The only team, this season, who have seemed remotely scared of Manchester United were Leverkusen, and look what happened. The fans were blessed with a rare, exciting performance under David Moyes.
The defeats against Newcastle, West Brom, Everton and so forth exemplify this. Something needs to change.
I think I speak for the vast majority of supporters when I say that last night really hurt. Just like breaking a leg, watching your favoured team collapse in front of you is painful.
The players look like they have given up on their manager and last night felt like a message. The Champions League was the last straw for Manchester United fans to clutch at and Olympiakos got to it first to help them take their own victory sip. Even Van Persie, normally as relaxed as they come, vented a bit of frustration after the match, stating that other players were getting in his way and were hindering his game. Whether this was a dig at Moyes’ tactics or at his teammates, it’s not exactly clear, but it shows how low the morale is in Manchester United’s dressing room.
Sacking Moyes now seems like the easy way out. I wrote a piece after the Swansea defeat in the FA Cup on this very website asking for fans to stay behind David Moyes and support him whilst he is here, but I would be lying if I said that, since then, the thought of him leaving hadn’t crossed my mind.
Getting rid of Moyes before the West Brom game would certainly go against everything the club has said over the past year about giving the new manager time. The lack of eligible candidates to replace him is also a problem. Many have suggested Heynckes. Unfortunately, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach striker has retired from football after leaving on a high and would be foolish to taint such a perfect ending to a managerial career by helping Manchester United try and reach 5th in the Premier League.
The only realistic and eligible option is Hiddink, but with the club, barring a miracle in the return leg at Old Trafford, already on its way out of the Champions League, there is really nothing left for an interim manager to play for. Whether the club gets a Europa League spot or not is not something many Manchester United fans care about and, let’s be honest, it would probably hinder next season a fair bit.
If Moyes is to leave, the summer is the best time. The season will be over and other managers will be more willing to leave their current clubs and try and be the one to turn things around at one of the greatest football clubs in the world.
Moyes is not entirely to blame for this season’s failures (Elijah’s very good piece from a week or so ago analyses how problems at the club go a lot deeper than just the manager), but it does seem like the Scotsman has come in and become some sort of Wreck-It Ralph. The lack of Fix-It Felixes out there means that all we can do is hope that Moyes manages to end the season on a good vein of form and let the club analyse this season with plenty of time to make a level-headed decision in the summer.
They say patience is a virtue. Well, it seems now has come the time to become very virtuous.
There was a pleasant return to winning ways for David Moyes and Manchester United this evening as the team won away from home for the first time this year. Goals courtesy of Van Persie from the spot and Rooney on the half volley ensured that the team jet off to Athens on a high. Read more…
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.
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?
Rooney has been replaced. He looks on grim-faced as the young pretender relishes the opportunity and rapidly graduates from little known understudy to the main event whilst the team’s former talisman looks on. Rooney faces the reality that his best days are past. No longer do his team mates and supporters entrust him with their hopes and dreams. As much as they revere the part he has played in the club’s history; it is clear to all that the future belongs to others.
Fortunately for the man who goes by a teenager’s nickname, the Rooney in question is Jack rather than ’Wazza’. This scene from Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday plays like a disconcerting premonition of things to come for United’s number ten.
Like Jack, having got used to being the main man, Wayne has found his billing reduced. Not only has Robin van Persie usurped him as the team’s star attraction, but both Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have in the eyes of many fans emerged as the men most likely. Like in all his films, Stone’s message lacks subtlety but rings true regardless. Everyone can be replaced. Today’s star can become Yesterday’s man before he even knows it.
In Wayne’s case, you can inevitably trace the beginning of his fall from grace to that distasteful episode where in league with his agent he either a) extorted the club or b) took on the Glazers, depending on your view of the man. Regardless of the motivation, his appeal for the acquisition of world class talent has both enhanced the team and diluted his influence. Proven high quality arrived in the form of Robin van Persie, along with potential greatness in De Gea, Jones and Kagawa. The last title-winning side – so reliant upon its talisman – was remoulded, no longer centred upon Rooney. He is not alone in finding himself a functional sentry where once he was a centurion. Both Nani, and even Valencia , have found themselves at odds with the manager’s tactical vision.
To describe Rooney as having a poor season would be ridiculous. He provided a staggering number of assists, delivered a reasonable return in front of goal and earned plaudits for his willingness to adapt to deeper roles. This last element is where the questions lie. Arguments rage over Rooney’s potential to become a central midfielder but the fact these debates continue as he finishes his eighth season at the club is proof of the state of flux in which he finds himself. In the wake of Ronaldo’s sale, expectations rose that Rooney would fulfil his promise to emerge as a player equal to the greatest in world football. For a time he threatened to do so; memorably eviscerating a Milan side who had no answer to his combination of explosive power and intelligent movement. This was not to be sustained, as inconsistency in performance (if not output) convinced his manager to look elsewhere. The call for more goals to fight back against City brought a new face rather than a renewal of faith in the existing star. To paraphrase OFSTED, Rooney has been ‘good, with outstanding features.’
Should Rooney have become the player we hoped? Perhaps we asked for too much. The teen prodigy has edged close to becoming the record goalscorer for one of the world’s greatest clubs. Precious few precocious sportsmen have ever gone on to fulfil the lofty expectations lavished upon them – I give you Robinho for example. Yet like Robinho, the suspicions remain that lifestyle choices away from the field have undermined his achievements on it. None too subtle regular references to his ‘conditioning’ suggest his manager agrees. Even those Reds who defended his actions in the contract saga could not defend his return from the summer clearly overweight. We hoped the arrival of RvP and Kagawa would fuel his appetite to prove his worth, but sadly it seemed only to have fuelled his appetite. On the field Rooney has cut an unusually isolated figure at times this season; appearances punctuated by unforced errors and the now familiar throwing up of the arms when things don’t go his way. Life on the football field frequently looks a chore rather than the pleasure it once was.
Apologists might point to his manager as the reason for a failure to press on. The tombola has forced Rooney to play markedly different roles from week to week. It is an oft heard lament that Rooney’s selfless flexibility has been exploited at the cost of excelling in one particular role. ‘He can play anywhere’ is meant as a compliment, yet the great players don’t. For them it is an endorsement of capability as oppose to a statement of intention. Robson and Keane were both praised as such yet positional changes for those two only came in the darkest of injury crises. The reality for Rooney is that despite being given opportunities to establish himself as both a striker and a creator, he has not convinced his manager of his ability to excel in either role. In the two biggest matches of the season, he was used either as a grafter or not at all. As much as supporters tried to underplay the significance of both selections, the inescapable fact was that Wayne Rooney is no longer considered essential to success. The era of ‘the big man’ is over.
The perverse reality is that in the month that he has added yet another title to his burgeoning collection, Rooney is perceived to be mulling over his next move. Stay, sign a new deal and fight for his desired place? All power to him if he does, but Ferguson’s fluttering of eyelashes at Dortmund’s lethal Pole don’t suggest a man preparing to restore Rooney to frontline service. Nor does the pointed praise of Kagawa and promises of a big future ahead suggest Rooney’s future role will replicate that of his shirt number. An alternative then is stay, sign a new deal and continue to serve in a variety of roles. Those who claim that Rooney could convert to a champions league quality central midfielder after ten draining years have admirable faith I sadly lack. His expensive use of the ball and frequent heavy touch don’t meet the criteria for the mobile, technical number 8 Ferguson craves.
The real alternative could be out of Rooney’s hands, yet ruefully I feel it best for the player and most probably the club. His contribution to our club derserves respect; at times he has carried us. Yet despite the occasional moments of brilliance; the consistent excellence that characterises the true greats has proved elusive once again this season. If a suitor is prepared to cross the Glazers palms with sufficient silver; a new club, with a new manager, could be precisely the fresh challenge needed to make the next five years of Rooney’s career the peak rather than the epilogue.
Following United’s successful progression into the next round of the FA Cup, this week’s Can They Score podcast looks back at our 2-1 victory against Reading before previewing our next PL match against Queens Park Rangers. We’ll be critiquing Nani’s performance, defending Ashley Young, looking at a bit of Brazilian magic and talking about the legendary Emile Heskey. We also pick our players of week, do a red’s recall on Ray Wilkins and give our predictions. Joining me in the studio is Steven and Frenchy.
Twelve points. Not since May 2001 has the gap between the Premiership leaders and their nearest challengers been so gaping. Manchester United have garnered the highest points tally (65) after 26 games than any other outfit in the Premiership era.
Yet this is a side which receives very little love from the media. Every journalist or pundit stresses to clarify that this is far from a vintage Manchester United side. They’re not blowing teams away every week and their level of performance is far from spectacular. They will go out of the Champions League to Real Madrid and any domestic success will be as a result of the perceived low standard of the competition.
Now, I’m old enough to remember back to May last year. Manchester United ‘blew it’ in ‘the most exciting title race ever’. Manchester City had a seemingly endless chequebook, and by all accounts had a far superior starting eleven and greater strength in depth. Radio phone-in’s across the land and internet football forums were gleeful that not only were United no longer the biggest club in the world, but they weren’t even going to be the biggest in their own city. Then there was Chelsea – European champions and ready to launch a fresh assault on the Manchester dominance. Read more…
Although Fulham put up a fight (and knocked off the lights), United reaped the rewards of their ambition after picking up a hard-fought three points at Craven Cottage last night. Thanks to a moment of expert incision from Wayne Rooney, United find themselves nine points clear at the top of the table with 13 games to go.
Rio Ferdinand Has Still Got It
Alongside the equally imperious Jonny Evans, Rio was a rock at the back. When Fulham were piling on the pressure, it was the 34-year-old veteran from Peckham who stood tall and cleared the danger. Making a succession of vital headers in the closing minutes, he encapsulates the determination shown by the old guard this season to win back the title and is making an impressive case for a contract extension this summer.
Other than suffering a rush of blood to the head in the second half, Rio was almost faultless at the back. Although he reminded all those present how foolish Roy Hodgson’s footballing reasons were last summer, Sir Alex will be relieved that he’s not involved in the England squad this week as he gives him time to recover and decide whether or not to play him against Everton next Sunday, considering United are away in Madrid that Wednesday. Considering the options we have, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smalling and Vidic step in, like they did against Southampton, with Rio and Evans playing in the Bernabeu.
Tom Cleverley is Progressing Smoothly
As the Super Bowl dawns upon this evening, I can’t help but draw comparisons between Cleverley and the 49ers Kaepernick. Both were considered second-tier talents at the start of their young careers, unfavoured in the academy and the draft respectively, and both now find themselves excelling on the biggest stage.
Thanks to their professionalism and enthusiasm, both have become unlikely heroes in their respective campaigns and integral to their team’s success. Just as I wouldn’t fancy the 49ers chances with a bet on the super bowl without Kaepernick, I wouldn’t bet on United’s chances in the Bernabeau without Cleverley. The young Englishman is maturing nicely both tactically and physically alongside Carrick and is a far superior option to our other alternatives. After his injury hit campaign last term, Cleverley’s fitness this time around may be key to our success in this final third of the season this time around.
Wins Make Champions
Although the Red Devils are notably more cautious now in comparison to their kamikaze start to the season, Sir Alex is still prepared to take risks. With the scores level, Ferguson made the positive move of bringing on Hernandez and Giggs. He recognised the importance of getting all three points and went for it. This attitude saw United take the lead and earned them their 20th win of the season (20W, 2D, 3L).
Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini has taken the more pragmatic approach this season and frustrated fans with his defensive substitutions this season. Although City have lost one less game than United this season, they now find themselves 9 points behind having drawn 6 more games and it seems fortune has favoured the brave this season.
Rooney was Ronaldo-esque
Missing penalties, looking podgy, ripping his shirts and sat on the bench, Rooney has been in for a lot of criticism over the last few months. Looking slow and sloppy in comparison to Shinji Kagawa when he came on at White Hart Lane, a lot of people, myself included, wondered whether he’d make an impact on the title race this season. However, in the past week, he has unequivocally proved his doubted wrong.
Whilst Robin van Persie has fired blanks in consecutive games, Rooney has earned us six points in the last few days. Reaching 10 goals for the 8 season in a row, he’s reminded everyone who had temporarily forgot that he’s still a class act. In fact, it’s a testament to the standards he has set that his performances are being brought into question has been involved in 68 goals in United’s last 66 games (47 goals & 21 assists).
“It was similar to when we played here a few years ago when Cristiano scored near the end and we went on to have an undefeated run after that, it was around the same time too.” Sir Alex via The Telegraph
Drawing comparison to Ronaldo’s famous winner a few years, Rooney picked the ball up on the left, following a misjudged header by Senderos, and ran confidently towards the Fulham goal before calmly curling the ball low beyond the grasp of Schwarzer. Belatedly, it seems United’s talismanic English forward is finally finding his fifth gear as the Madrid fixture looms large just down the road.
The summer of 2006. The balance of power in English seemingly shifting to London as Chelsea had secured their first back-to-back league titles in their history, while Arsenal had come within twenty minutes of their first Champions League trophy. Shevchenko and Ballack – both in their pomp – agreed moves to Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United appeared to be on the verge of turmoil as a solitary League Cup success was mere sticking plaster to cover the gaping wounds of no league title in three years – United’s longest barren spell since the Premiership was created. They had been eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League too. Ruud van Nistelrooy had become the latest high profile name to depart the club. Rumours were rife that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out following the English media’s brutal and relentless witch-hunt of the teenage prodigy. Football pundits across the land were relishing in United’s apparent downfall and many predicted them to finish outside the top four, with Ferguson bowing out of the game. Read more…
8th April 2010 was a day of stark contrast in Manchester United’s history. On the one hand, the Red Devils had just been knocked out of the Champions League the day after losing on away goals to Bayern München (a 3-2 win at Old Trafford proved insufficient to overcome a 2-1 loss in Germany) and on the other hand a virtually unknown Mexican striker, nicknamed “little pea,” was unveiled as a new Manchester United player.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández Balcázar was signed from Club Deportivo Guadalajara (widely known as “Chivas”), arguably Mexico’s most successful team, for a reported fee of £6 million. At the time, he was unknown Mexican whose signing didn’t garner too much attention but in the years since there is no question that United’s scouts did a great job in plucking Chicharito from relative European obscurity. Read more…