Even Manchester United’s impossibly dramatic Champions League victory over Olympiakos in midweek could not erase the deeply-etched impression that they have spent the past six months demonstrating one of football’s most frustrating oddities.
Which is that, when David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson in the managerial chair at Old Trafford, he took charge of the same players, but a different team.
United’s performances in general have been so impoverished as to render them unrecognisable as the side which won the Premier League by 11 points last year, even if that triumph owed much to the failures of those who were supposed to be their principal rivals – or even superiors.
While the achievements of the three years before his retirement (two championships, one League Cup, one Champions League final) may be construed as testimony to Ferguson’s incomparable capacity for maximising returns from seemingly under-equipped squads, this merely reinforces the conviction that those who have worn the red shirt under Moyes have lowered their standards of resolve and application to the point of transforming themselves into a different entity. There have been consistent, unmistakable signs of a waning commitment among such veterans as Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra. While players in the same bracket as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, for example, are fundamentally moderate and require the ferocious, uncompromising demands of a Ferguson to inspire them to excel themselves.
To this observer, the embodiment of the collective erosion of will is Robin van Persie. His life-saving hat-trick against the Greeks on Wednesday notwithstanding, the gifted striker has become, throughout the season, progressively disappointing, even if his scoring figures – 11 goals from 18 league appearances, but none in the cups and only one from five Champions League games before this week – could hardly be called negligible.
Van Persie’s uncharacteristic ordinariness gives rise to the possibility that Moyes is having to confront one of the most thankless tasks at the top level of the game – tackling Dutch Syndrome, the ego-driven condition that turns first-class Netherlands footballers into awkward, stubborn paragons of self-interest.
Van Persie himself showed his susceptibility to the contagion in an interview on the eve of captaining a strongly-fancied national team at Euro 2012. Asked about his recent poor returns as a striker for the Oranje, he replied: “Look at the goals of the midfielder behind me.” This was an allusion to Wesley Sneider and, when it was pointed out that the latter had recently been scoring international goals at a rate several times that of van Persie, the striker said, “That tells you of a midfielder who won’t pass the ball to his forward.”
The exchange should have alerted fans to the imminence of another outbreak of the internecine war the Dutch appear to find irresistible. Sure enough, they lost all three group matches and scored a paltry two goals.
This destructive self-interest is what caused Ferguson to be rid of Ruud van Nistelrooy, the prolific striker having demanded a place in United’s League Cup final team, despite the fact that he had not made a single appearance in all the previous rounds. It was also what prompted Jose Mourinho, during his first tour of duty at Chelsea, to storm out of the home dressing room at Stamford Bridge after the latest in a series of collisions with Arjen Robben exclaiming: “That’s it! Never again! No more Dutchmen!”
In Munich, Robben appears to have found an environment to which he is perfectly suited, but Bayern’s nickname – Hollywood FC – confirms that it is a club which has long been recognised as a natural refuge for marauding egos.
The thrill and the manner of United overturning the 2-0 deficit from the first leg against Olympiakos could re-ignite the flame for van Persie and others, but it is impossible to escape the conviction that United’s slide is a more powerful force than the isolated glory of the victory over the Greek champions. In any case, the value of the form of beating Olympiakos, even 3-0, has yet to be determined.
But Moyes seems certain to face serious complications in his attempts to regenerate a flagging United, not least of which will be the consequences of the directors overcooking their endeavours to entice the vastly overrated Wayne Rooney with a contract worth £300,000 per week.
It would be nonsensical to argue that Rooney is a bad player but, when compared to the best even in his own league, which means the utterly extraordinary Luis Suarez of Liverpool and the formidable Sergio Aguero of Manchester City, the former Everton man is made to look like a second – or third – tier forward. In his quest for genuine, top-level players to maintain United’s status as perennial Champions League contenders, Moyes was always going to encounter a problem which even Ferguson had to overcome. That is, the lure of London against Manchester and, in recent times, the money available to their neighbours to tempt potential stars to the east end of town.
Now Moyes will have the additional difficulty of trying to persuade first-class players to come to Old Trafford in the knowledge that they will be earning upwards of £5 million a year (£100,000 a week) less than Rooney.
Moyes could not be said to have made the most auspicious start to his recruitment with the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini from his old club. Fellaini has done nothing since his transfer to alter the view that he is not Manchester United material.
David Moyes will surely be allowed a fair period of time in which to prove his credentials – he will have the support of Ferguson, for one thing – but it seems he may have to find a way of alchemising base metal into gold.