A couple of weeks ago, a group of disgruntled Manchester United supporters clubbed together and chartered a plane to fly over Old Trafford trailing the banner “Wrong One – Moyes Out”. It was intended to counter the “Chosen One” banner that has been draped across the Stretford End since David Moyes was handpicked by Sir Alec Ferguson to be his successor and usher in a new era of Premier League dominance.
Appearing two minutes after the kick-off of a home fixture against Aston Villa, a match that United went on to win comprehensively, the banner was loudly booed by the home fans who, only moments earlier, given the Scot a much needed and respectable chorus of palm clasping. Still, the aerial bound notice of beleaguered dissatisfaction couldn’t help but raise the inconvenient question of whether those responsible had a point. Is Moyes the wrong one or does he simply require a fat dose of what Ferguson had been afforded early in his United career namely, the backing of the Board, time, patience and plenty of it.
The latter is certainly the view of Ferguson himself who spent much of his farewell speech at the end of last season to the Old Trafford faithful strenuously emphasizing the importance of giving Moyes their unconditional support. It was, after all, Ferguson who knew better than anyone exactly what it was Moyes was letting himself in for.
Already hobbled under the burden of succeeding the most successful manager in British football, Moyes inherited a squad largely comprising of competent but aging players starved of any genuine world class talent outside of Robin Van Persie. This was a team of champions that looked like anything other than champions. The magic of Ferguson in that final year was his ability to scrape out results from a consecutive string of uninspiring and lacklustre performances which he achieved with ruthless efficiency. No one ever expected the same of Moyes, but they hadn’t imagined that the fall from grace would happen with quite such haste or quite so spectacularly.
This time last year Manchester United were sitting pretty at the helm of the Premiership and their historical rivals, Liverpool, languishing in seventh. Today, those positions are completely reversed. United were 31 points ahead of their Merseyside rivals at that time, but trail 20 points behind them with less than half a dozen games of the season remaining. Transitional period or not, a 51-point turnaround in the space of 12 months is clear evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong at Manchester United. So what is it exactly?
It all started rather optimistically last summer with rumours of potential big money moves for the likes of Gareth Bale and Edinson Cavani. The yarn spinning rumour mill even tossed up the wild possibility of snatching their former star asset, Christiano Ronaldo back from the clutches of their main rivals in Europe, Real Madrid.
Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward was making all the right noises “There has never been a cut-off price” he said, in relation to available resources for the acquisition of top shelf players, “If David wants to go after a stellar player he can do that.”
By late July, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs and Chelsea had made substantial improvements with heavy investment to revitalise their squad but at United, the transfer policy appeared to be all rumour and no signing. The fans were getting anxious. Already, something felt amiss.
There were three humiliating rejections by Leighton Baines as well as a shambolic attempt to capture Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona before Moyes turned his attentions towards a last minute grab for former colleague Marouane Fellaini. A move made puzzling by the revelation that signing the Belgian prior to 31 July 2014 would have activated a £23.5 million buy-out clause, orchestrated into his contract by none other than Moyes himself, opposed to the bloated £27.5 million they wound up forking out just weeks later.
The football world might be oblivious to the harsh realities of real world austerity but paying an additional £4 million because you can’t make your mind up quickly enough is absurd regardless of which standard it is judged against.
Disappointment with the transfer window aside, Moyes still started the season with the same title winning squad from the previous year, the only notable change being Fellaini replacing the retired Paul Scholes. On the surface, at least, it should have been business as usual.
If United’s summer transfer window left much to be desired, their January exploits didn’t fare much better. The capture of Juan Mata from Chelsea for a club-record fee of £37.1 million sparked a hysterical wave of optimism. The Spaniard, fresh from consecutive Player of the Year accolades at Chelsea, was supposed to be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, the special ingredient that would turn United’s fortunes around.
Even the most ardent Mourinho fans struggled to hide how disgruntled they felt that their best player of the past two seasons was not only being sold but being sold to one of their title rivals. It’s this fact alone that should have set alarm bells ringing at United and prompted Moyes to question whether in fact he was being done up like a kipper.
Would Mourinho ever have sold a major star to Ferguson if he thought that player could come back to haunt him by hurting his own side’s prospects? Never in a million years. Even if Mata was surplus to requirements in a new look Chelsea side, if Mourinho truly believed he was going to galvanize a fledgling United squad, then the only way Mata was leaving Stamford Bridge was for an overseas destination.
Former United full-back, Gary Neville, voiced his concerns early on questioning how Mata could be accommodated in the existing setup. Mata is at his most effective when he plays in the hole behind the front line, a role held almost exclusively by Wayne Rooney.
When it comes to football, it doesn’t matter how big the name you’re buying is, how much you pay for them or how many awards and plaudits they have won in the past. The only attribute that counts, and that a new acquisition is judged solely upon, is what their individual skill set brings to the existing team in order to add benefit.
For all of the excitement surrounding the prospect of having Mata, Rooney and Van Persie, eagerly dubbed ‘The Holy Trinity’, the harsh truth is that the Spaniards additional hasn’t made one iota of difference to United’s fate this season, to their position in the table or to the level of their performances which seem as disjointed and perilous lost as they have been all year. It’s not Mata’s fault, his ability is unquestionable but by signing him with Rooney already in the squad, Moyes only gave himself the headache of finding a way for them to coexist.
In Fellaini and Mata, Moyes spent in the region of £65 million with nothing coming back into the kitty. A lack of resources cannot be used as an excuse for United’s beguiling form this year. It might have stood up to scrutiny in the past with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City’s free spending acting as the catalyst for UEFA introducing financial fair play regulations, but Moyes cannot use it this year to justify the 51 point turnaround between United and Liverpool from 12 months ago.
Brendon Rodgers, in comparison to Moyes’s £65 million spread, had exercised frugality. Last summer he brought in Simon Mignolet from Sunderland for £9 million to replace Pepe Reina, who was loaned out to Napoli, and Mamadou Sakho, a £15 million signing from Paris Saint Germaine to fill the boots of the recently retired Jamie Carragher. Their other signings have barely had any impact on this season’s success. Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto have endured a miserable inauguration to the Kop while Tiago Ilori had such a small role to play he was loaned out to La Liga side Grenada in the January transfer window.
What you have to logically turn to then, is tactics, and that’s where a comparison with the other half of Merseyside and Moyes’s former club comes in handy. Following the departure of Moyes, the general consensus was that Everton would struggle this term, but in less than one season in charge, Roberto Martinez has rejuvenated the club and put them in contention for a place in next season’s Champions League. A fear accomplished without spending barely a penny in the transfer market. Such is the gravitas of Martinez’s achievement that he is already being earmarked as a candidate for a future position as head coach at Barcelona.
The Mata dilemma was evident when Moyes got it all wrong in the 2-2 draw with Fulham on 9 February 2014. Sticking by United’s traditionally favoured wing play, Mata was deployed out wide when what they desperately required was some invention in the middle. Out of position, Mata looked hopelessly lost with the age old chestnut “square peg, round hole” a perfect fit.
Using this system United produced 81 crosses, the most by a team in the Premier League since 2006, the problem being that only 18 of them found their target. In a post-match interview, Fulham defender Dan Burn said he had “never headed that many balls since the Conference.” It was exactly the sort of outdated, route one, old school tactics which Evertonians had become accustomed to under Moyes and it played directly into the hands of Maarten Stekelenburg.
Just eight days earlier, a heat map in the 2-1 defeat against Stoke revealed that United’s frontline was sitting too far too deep. Mata and Rooney were simply too far removed from the Stoke penalty box to be effective and neither possessed the pace to play on the counter-attack.
Contrast this with Liverpool who, when they win the ball from deep, has the players necessary to bomb forward carving up opposition defences with fast and fluid, one-touch football that is easy on the eye. United under Moyes, on the other hand, seem disjointed, frustrated and unsure of themselves even though this is largely the same group of players who have been together for years.
If the manner of the performances is a concern, the results have given rise to nothing less than a full-blown crisis. United have suffered humiliating home defeats this season against Newcastle, Everton, Spurs and West Bromwich Albion.
It’s this dire form at Old Trafford that has resulted in a paltry 24 points, less than Crystal Palace, Hull and Stoke. They have mustered a meagre 22 goals at home in the Premier League despite boasting an abundance of top class striking talent, less than half managed by Liverpool (51) and Manchester City (52). Even West Ham, Stoke and Swansea, three teams that at various points of the season have been involved in relegation scraps have scored more goals at home. A damning indictment indeed – and it gets worse.
In the cup competitions, they lost to a Greek side for the first time in their history after going down 2-0 to Olympiakos in the Champions League. They were knocked out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle by a Swansea side who have never won the competition and only progressed to the fifth round themselves after defeating United. Only once under Fergusons 27 year tenure did United fail to proceed past the third round. They lost over two legs in the League Cup to Sunderland, the side currently rooted to the bottom of the table.
Perhaps most telling of all has been their record against the top sides, recording just one victory in eleven attempts against Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Spurs. All things considered, this sequence of mishap after calamity after error cannot be described as anything other than failure.
Following Crystal Palace’s shock victory against Everton last Wednesday, Moyes still has an outside bet for European competition this year. If he can collect all three points against his old club this coming Sunday, 20 April, and win their game in hand over the Toffees, United will be just three points behind a fifth place Europa League qualification spot. Not only will this be a tall order against a well drilled and no doubt determined Everton side, but more so it is a measure of just how desperate things have become at Manchester United.
Since the rebranding of English football’s top tier to the Premiership in 1992, Manchester United have never finished outside the top three and have appeared in European competition in each consecutive season since 1990. The fact that they are now relying on Spurs and Everton to slip up to give them a slim chance of grabbing fifth is a shocking decline in form in the 10 months Moyes has been in charge.
Of course, people will point toward the fact that Ferguson never won anything in his first few years at United and needed time for his ideals and his own players to bed in before his philosophy yielded results, but football has changed an awful lot since then. Defeat against Everton on Sunday would be United’s eleventh in the Premier League this year and that may well prove to be one too many even for a club that set out a huge statement of faith when they gave their new man in charge the assurance of a six-year managerial contract.
Then again, in this topsiest of turvy seasons, three points for Moyes at Goodison is the sort of stuff where football fairy tales are written and upon which fortunes hinge, but I fear that the Glazers won’t be holding their breath until then.