UNITED ARE BACK!!! (sort of)
In lieu of a pod this week, here are a jumble of thoughts about United’s week;
Well that was fun. Ninety minutes of the commentary team desperately struggling to apply a formation to a free form display. Paddy McNair on the roam, Big Maoam dishing out lollipops like a rich child desperate for friends; this was jazz football. I loved it.
To borrow the most overused intro in the (brief) history of new media football writing ‘so what did we learn?’
We have some fast players (ADM), we have some slow players (MF), and we have some kind of in the middle players (WR). The equally demoralizing dichotomy of recent displays has been the random switches between prolific procrastination (‘We want to score but we don’t really know if we can so we will just pass it around pretty slowly for a long while and can at least point to dominating possession even if we haven’t managed to do anything remotely interesting with it.’) and hit and hope (‘The ball is hot, the ball is hot, kick it away quick, the ball is hot.’)
Last night had elements of both at times but bit by bit there seemed to be an emerging coherence to what we were trying to do. To labour a weak analogy; my son is rubbish at swimming. It’s acceptable given he is only two but until last weekend trips to the pool principally consisted of him clinging to me for dear life. On Saturday the penny dropped that if he stood on his tip toes his head stayed above the water and BANG – instant love of swimming. No longer fearing instant death he rapidly went through the repertoire of kicking, splashing, jumping in, the works. Barely pausing for a second to even acknowledge my existence he had discovered a new freedom and was damn well going to enjoy it. Perhaps the home comfort of facing a side way below the level of our usual competitors was the encouragement needed for United to embrace the madness and finally engage with the ‘wacky’ Dutch style we had been waiting for.
I’m exaggerating. I know it. Our principle game plan of get it wide and get it in was positively Moyesian; yet the relish with which McNair advanced and continued to support the creation of openings was an indication that a wind of change was a blowing. Di Maria soon joined in on the attack, hitting the nitro injection at every opportunity and having a thoroughly good time doing it. Rojo once again displayed how much more adept a footballer he is than I thought by effortlessly showing a versatility that had echoes of the great Sheasy. They weren’t alone in impressing; Mata played on the half turn all night looking to link up and make things happen. Robin proved you don’t have to score to be of use. Wilson came on and reminded us that it helps if you do. Wayne was pretty good if we gloss over the whole passing thing. Evans looked less like an absolute catastrophe waiting to happen than he has all season. Smalling did some headers. Blind was handsome. (I think that’s everyone?) On a purely personal level I enjoyed the fact that all our goals came from genuinely nice humans. I also thought the gesture of black armbands in memory of Anderson was poignant.
Tougher challenges await; Sunday sees a visit to those charming cockneys who will be sure to fill the air with bonhomie and lovely banter. They are missing loads of players so I think we’ll do well. When a team has to block the departure of Can’t Control you can confidently deduce that they are not at their strongest. We might play five at the back and restate our claim to the least interesting mega bucks side in football history but I hope not.
Ander Herrera has been the name on many a disgruntled Red’s lips in recent weeks. It is probably our most asked pod question – beating even the ever fascinating ‘When will we stop playing a back 3?’ His continued absence has certainly disproved my rib injury related theory and it seems that for whatever reason he is not to our trainer-coach’s taste. Speculation on non-pitch related reasons are best left for the informed articulate forum provided by twitter. On the pitch he hasn’t seemed to do too much wrong; he certainly seemed to vastly improve with every passing match that he wasn’t involved in. To read/hear the thoughts of some you would assume that Roy Keane himself was being left to stew on the sidelines. Last night appeared the ideal time to re-integrate him but again he was reduced to a cameo role. Whilst conclusions about his future should not be jumped to (hands up who thought Ashley Young would be an LVG favourite?), there does seem something amiss. I wouldn’t be surprised if he joins Rafael on Woodward’s secretary’s ‘Sorry your leaving’ card list come the summer. I dearly hope I’m wrong as the lad seems to have the lot – but all the more reason to suspect all is not as it seems.
Transfer deadline day came and went with a whimper. Like most United fans with a minor profile (does under 3k followers even qualify for minor?) I fielded a fair few panicked pleas ‘Why are we not signing anyone?’ The answer seems quite straightforward to me. We are in the champions league places and are doing ok as things stand. Our squad has survived the most debilitating of injury crises meaning we have several players who could legitimately argue they are yet to have a fair chance. All of that would be immaterial of course if one of Woody’s Wonder Targets had become available but that didn’t happen. Whispers of deals arranged for the summer are plausible but unless you really are in dire financial need selling your best defender in January for anything but astronomical fees makes absolutely no sense. For all our legitimate criticism of Jones, Smalling, Evans and Valencia they have proved themselves capable of performing adequately in this league. Where things get interesting is when we consider the challenge of coping with a European campaign and a genuine tilt at the title. Van Gaal knows that the goodwill he has received from United fans this season is based on this promise. It is for that reason that I fully expect one or two of the much anticipated mega-signings to materialise come the summer.
It would be remiss to end without paying tribute to one of the most courageous individuals ever to pull on the famous shirt. Ferguson always used to respond to questions about the possibility of retirement by pointing to his health as the key decision maker. It is a truly horrible experience for your body to begin to fail you at any age. As a young man reliant upon supreme physical fitness to even compete, never mind excel, in your profession; coping with the reality that you will never again be able to reach the levels to which your potential suggested is as much a challenge for the mind as the body. We hoped and he hoped that the odds could be defied but ultimately they couldn’t. A move to a less demanding environment though saddening is a decision I entirely understand. He goes with our best wishes.
Sorry for the lack of pod this week – the irritating reality of doing it for fun and for free means that sometimes we can’t fit it in. Rest assured we haven’t fallen out of love with you magnificent bunch.
Come on you Reds.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Angel di Maria
Tom’s #CTS10pBetClub prediction: 3-1 United.
*OBVIOUSLY I was talking about Super Fletch. An incredible and inspirational human being.
A Broken Manchester United
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.
These Things Take Time
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.