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Aidan Smith: Moyes’ Manchester United struggle on

Manchester United manager David Moyes. Picture: Getty

Manchester United manager David Moyes. Picture: Getty

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

TRANSITION is a football buzzword. If your group – the buzzword for team – cannot do transition then you’re way out of date, although if you’ve always been able to move the ball quickly from defence to attack you should be fine because that’s all transition really is.

Except at Old Trafford where it means something totally different and altogether gloomier.

Season 2013-14 is Manchester United’s transition season. The fans always knew this and most of them accepted it. Some – old-school Stretford Enders, who’ve kept the scarves they used to tie round their wrists, if not the Freeman Hardy Willis platform shoes – were secretly hoping for an absolutely seamless handover from the mad, watch-bashing, gum-murdering bequeather of all their dreams to the man he’d chosen as his successor. But when David Moyes fixed them with his first determined stare, accompanied by a lack of vagueness in the burr, they were soon shepherded back into line.

There’s transition, though, and there’s that other slippery character – transition. Yes, the supporters were prepared to kiss goodbye for the meantime to another European Cup. What they didn’t expect, and what Moyes himself can’t have anticipated, is that 2013-14 would mean no Capital One Cup as well.

No FA Cup either. Old Trafford must have hoped for one of those consolation prizes. And steady form in the league, top four or thereabouts. In touch around Christmas and, well, we all know what happens then, don’t we? Those charges from the midway point of a season are justly famous, only this time the others might not be expecting it. But, ach, there you go again, still believing that Man U are Man U, that it’s the old Man U, that the club have a divine right, that Moyes is Sir Alex Ferguson – that chewing gum doesn’t lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight.

A succession of teams, many of whom would previously have been relieved to have hirpled back on to the bus after a routine 3-0 skelping from the most famous club in the world, have been ripping up their lousy records at the Theatre of Dreams. West Bromwich Albion won there for the first time in 35 years and then Everton did it for the first time in 21. Newcastle United took their record – no wins for 41 years – and booted it high into the Salford mist. Ending United interest in the FA Cup was Swansea City’s first-ever Old Trafford success. Last week’s defeat at Stoke City proved that glamour counts for nothing. Even the hard-to-love can beat Manchester United to break a Premier duck.

Today it’s Fulham’s turn to have a go. If they’re also allowed to saunter through large gaps in the home midfield and defence, they’ll achieve something not done for 11 years. Eleven? That’s no biggie. Ah, but Fulham are pretty hopeless right now. And on Wednesday United must travel to league leaders Arsenal. Lose both games and they could just about forget about Champions League football next season, never mind their title.

The title United won by 11 points? Which could have been more if they hadn’t dropped early into holiday mode? The very one. Moyes must wince when he’s reminded of such stats, when he learns of those record-smashing feats by the opposition. He must be dreading another of those post-loss walks from dug-out to tunnel because at Old Trafford it’s a long and unforgiving trudge during which there’s plenty of time for the TV cameras to flick up to Fergie’s position in the posh seats and back down to the pitch – and for the press gallery to catch every tightening grimace on the new man’s face, especially now papers are sending three men to Old Trafford. You’ve got to feel sorry for him.

He’s made some errors, such as not making enough signings in the summer, flirting with impossible ones (Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale), wasting time on unlikely ones (Cesc Fabregas) and ending up at the last minute with just Marouane Fellaini, only for the Belgian to go from aggressively complete footballer to timid misfit – although all of this wasn’t entirely Moyes’ fault. At the same time as they changed managers, United shouldn’t have switched chief executives as well.

Moyes has been unlucky with injuries (Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney) and poorly served by multi-title-winning stars turning in abject performances. Some have quite clearly slackened off from the intensity that they dared not deviate from under Fergie and the fear factor has gone. Moyes, a decent man, showed these players respect from the start – in hindsight, maybe too much. In the political satire The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker keeps a fellow Scottish spin-doctor in reserve, for when extra psycho-swearing is required. Perhaps Moyes, as Fergie’s preferred lieutenant, should have simply maintained the gold-standard for unreconstructed Caledonian disciplinarianism. After all, it hadn’t exactly done Man U any harm.

The problem he’s got now is that by announcing, as he did the other day, that Juan Mata will be the first of many signings, some of those expected to go in the summer will be demotivated even further. All the while Moyes must try to grow into the job. United fans have a conceit that’s often justified: their club won’t chop and change bosses like others with less class. But in return they want him to uphold other Old Trafford traditions, such as being a lot bolder. “Attack! Attack! Attack!” is their chant of old but Moyes’ tactics thus far have hardly been swashbuckling, although Mata should help here.

From the position of having lost eight league games already this season, Fergie’s last championship with pretty much the same team looks incredible. Give praise to the old potentate of Manchester United, then – lots of it – but let’s remember too those periods of questionable signings and then no signings. Of young promise never fully budding, of the veteran-class being – sacrilege, I know – over-praised and of Eric Djemba-Djemba amassing a fleet of ten cars (allegedly). All have contributed to what for Moyes has to be transition.

Famously, hilariously, the hacks who were always at risk of a Fergie banning order dared to doubt the wisdom of £28.1 million being splashed on the languid skills of Juan Sebastian Veron – to which the great man retorted: “Yooz are all f****n’ idiots!”

Jot that one down, David – it might yet come in useful.

 

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