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All apologias

“What else should I be?
 All apologies.
What else could I say? 
Everyone was gay.
 What else could I write? 
I don’t have the right.
 What else should I be? 
All Apologies.”
– Kurt Cobain

In Roman times, the apologia was a form of practiced rhetoric that was used in self-defense or as a vindication of a person. Reds who didn’t labour through a classical education may not have known that, but would nevertheless have seen plenty of apologias, on social media and on blogs, for the first seven months of the David Moyes era at Manchester United Football Club. (Although a cynic might wonder whether bloggers are focused solely on defending Moyes, or more focused on defending themselves for having championed Moyes at the time of his appointment – but I digress.) There are two lines of apologia that I personally find regard as useful for explaining why we are where we are, but which I also regard as of questionable value for suggesting a way out of this morass.

The first is that “Moyes has been unlucky”. While that is true, it provides very little guidance as to where we go from here, in that the only logical response to that proposition is that Moyes therefore needs to be luckier. How does he achieve that? Does he simply wait until the coin flips in his favour? When does that happen? What does the club do in the meantime? The blogs are silent on all these points. If they’re right about Moyes being unlucky, though, Manchester United is a little like the gambler playing blackjack in Vegas at 2am, facing heavy losses but trying to decide whether to stay at the table in the hope of turning the tide or walking away and cutting his loss. What to do, what to do? The dealer stares expectantly, waiting…

The second is that “Moyes was disgracefully not backed by the club in the summer transfer market”. Absolutely true, though to what extent Moyes himself was complicit in this failure remains unclear, however this proposition merely explains in part why we found ourselves in 7th place in January, and out of the FA Cup this season at the first hurdle. On its own, there is no solution to be found in this line of argument. It does, at least, point to a way forward, which is that Moyes needs to be backed by the board in the winter transfer market.

There’s a growing clamour for “Moyes Out”, but let’s face facts: Moyes isn’t getting sacked any time soon. That being the case, what needs to happen for Moyes and Manchester United to turn things around?

The immediate response, as already mentioned, is that Moyes needs to bring players in now. I see multiple issues with this strategy, from both the perspective of United and from the perspective of the players that the club might target.

From the club’s perspective, the board needs to decide how much they trust Moyes. The starting point is that, as fabulously wealthy as Manchester United is by football standards, the transfer funds available to the manager of United are not unlimited. The Glazers are unwilling, and likely unable, to mimic the oil-rich oligarchs and Middle Eastern royal families by injecting money into the club, and so the club must live within its means; moreover, the Glazers have in fact chosen to handicap the club by injecting debt into it, rather than cash (ably assisted by former JP Morgan banker Edward Woodward, whose advice on how to buy the club with debt provided the Glazers with a blueprint for their leveraged buyout as well as paving the path for Woodward’s own ascension to the role of Manchester United Vice-Chairman). So while the Glazers do have some ability to back Moyes, they must decide whether they will, and to what extent, as whatever cash Moyes spends this month is quite literally cash that cannot be replaced.

(As a total aside, the Chelsea and Manchester City strategies of losing mega-millions while squad-building are now prohibited by Financial Fair Play regulations at both the UEFA and Premier League levels. So no easy solutions there.)

If the Glazers have found the first six months of Moyes’ tenure at Manchester United so unpersuasive as to be wavering in their support for him, might they be thinking there’s at least a chance they need to get rid this summer? If so, do they allow Moyes to blow their entire wad of cash on his recommended targets this month, with that fear at the back of their minds that the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor will want another expensive clean-out later?

Look at the problems Liverpool FC created for themselves during the doomed tenures of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, blowing millions on players bought by each manager, who were found wanting and shipped out as soon as the next occupant of the manager’s office had moved in. Paul Konchesky, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam: a grisly roll-call of shame that contributed to dumping the Scousers into a deep, dark hole that they are still to this day climbing out of.

(LFC in fact provides a perfect case study for how a football club can willfully fritter away even the best of luck. Dalglish and his director of football Damian Comolli were handed a golden ticket when Roman Abramovich paid the club 50 million pounds to take Fernando Torres of their hands. Dalglish and Comolli then blew their Euro-millions by wasting 35 million on human cart-horse Andy Carroll, a player so pathetically unworthy of his price-tag that Dalglish later took to arguing that Carroll’s true price was negative 15 million pounds.)

It’s arguable that Moyes and Manchester United already have their own version of this problem, with 10 million pound (plus 5 million of add-ons) signing Wilfried Zaha largely disappearing from trace after a promising pre-season under Moyes. For whatever reason, whether poor training or tactical indiscipline or just plain lack of ability, Moyes doesn’t appear to rate Zaha, but even if he wants rid (and let’s be clear, it’s not certain that he does) Moyes and United would take a huge financial hit on selling a Championship-level player (for that’s Zaha’s proven level, irrespective of his potential) who’s now on Premiership-level wages.

How Moyes must now be regretting the missed opportunity last summer, when the club and board must have been so much more hopeful and willing to spend big.  With his dismal start to life at MUFC, will the fabled 100 million pound war-chest of last summer still be available to Moyes?  Perhaps not, and perhaps that’s what’s driving Moyes playing down expectations at his recent press conferences, where he has been saying that he wanted to do business this month but wasn’t sure who would be available.

The failure of the existing Manchester United squad under Moyes has been so comprehensive that it’s no longer even clear just how many players Moyes needs to bring in to arrest the club’s decline, let alone take United to the next level of European domination.

Last summer, the accepted view was that while areas of the squad could be improved, it was basically fine. The revisionists will now argue that the squad is pathetically inadequate, and always was, but look at the comments by Gary Neville, Red legend and the best pundit in England by a mile, who said in an interview with the Daily Mail on 27 May 2013:

When you’re at Manchester United and you’ve had a manager who has built four great teams – ’94, ’99, 2008 and you can now argue this one that has won the league – people are always going to compare teams.’

The most important thing to say about this team is it’s on an upward curve.

You’ve got players like (David) De Gea, Rafael, (Jonny) Evans, (Chris) Smalling, (Phil) Jones, (Tom) Cleverley, (Danny) Welbeck and (Javier) Hernandez, to name eight players, who are still young and haven’t reached anywhere near their peak.

You’ve also got a mix of players in the middle who are at their peak, then you’ve got the experienced lads at the other end.

This team has still not reached its potential. I’m sure there will be additions to the squad this summer so you’re talking about a team on the up.

It’s true that Gary made these comments with the assumption that the squad would be strengthened, but look at that first sentence – he’s very clearly described the current squad as potentially one of Ferguson’s great teams and “on an upward curve”. He’s very clearly not described it as a team on the wane, and facing humiliation. And where were the bloggers last May calling Gary delusional, questioning why he couldn’t see how wanting the squad was?

But again I digress. However we got here, if the solution is transfers and new bodies, who and where? We used to think it was a primarily central midfielder and a left-back, as matters of priority, but given Moyes’ predilection for crosses from the flanks, do we also need an upgrade to wingers who can consistently beat a man and make an accurate cross? The central midfielder that we buy: is it a creative type or simply a holding midfielder who can win the ball back and give it to a wide-man who’ll make the crosses? Do we go for broke and buy a box-to-box midfielder who can do it all, and has a price-tag to match?

Everyone who reads this will have their own views, and the debate won’t be settled here and now. For now, we might simply say that Moyes needs to make some decisions, give Woodward a list of targets in order of priority, and try to get in as many new bodies as he can within the budget that he’s allotted.

We can then turn to the other side of the equation, which is the perspective of Moyes’ targets. The theme here is, again, how much of a wasted opportunity last summer was. Back then, the idea of joining the defending champions of England for a domestic title defense and a realistic tilt at the Champions League would have been an attractive prospect to the vast majority of players who might in turn have been worthy of the fabled red shirt. Now, with Manchester United seventh in the league table, with question marks over participation in next summer’s Champions League, with a visibly incoherent style of play on the pitch, with headlines about Rooney potentially leaving in the summer, with the first hints of whispers as to Moyes’ own job security starting to be heard, what top, world-class player would leave the security of his current club (in many cases, challenging for honours domestically and in Europe) to join a potentially chaotic situation in the short-term…and in a World Cup year too?

Clearly there will be some players out there who both deserve to be called Manchester United players, and who would be willing to join the club this month. How many of the most-commonly discussed targets occupy that group? Koke, currently challenging for the La Liga title with Atletico Madrid? Gundogan and Reus, for whom this season’s Bundesliga title must surely be out of reach, but who clearly adore working for the charismatic Juergen Klopp, in a cutting-edge attacking team that currently puts Moyes’ tactical set-up to shame? Anything is possible, but not everything is probable.

Which then neatly leads back to the dilemma facing both Moyes and Manchester United. Fans can scream at both to spend as much money as possible in the transfer market this month, but to paraphrase the pet-protection slogan, a player isn’t just for this January, a player is, well, not forever but certainly for the term of his contract. If we accept that the coffers of United aren’t limitless, any player we buy this month isn’t solely for the purpose of bolstering the club’s chances of a top 4 finish this season, that player needs to be capable of taking the club forward over the next 4 or 5 years, at least. Certainly there will be exceptions (Fabio Coentrao on a loan from Real Madrid for the rest of the season, for example) but those exceptions will be few.

If transfers and getting bodies in is the solution, those bodies need to be willing to move now and good value for the long-term. Easy to say, hard to do.

But let’s ask one further question: is an influx of new players the solution?

Those calling for patience with Moyes maintain robustly that he can only be truly judged once he’s brought his own players in.  I understand the basis for that argument, but why?  Why is it unfair to judge Moyes based on what he’s extracting from the current squad? Is there no case for questioning that if he cannot motivate, train and set up a squad of serial winners who are in familiar surroundings, how can he be expected to motivate and extract performances from players who are new to England, new to the league, new to the club?

Take the case of Marouane Fellaini, a player whom Moyes is familiar with from his years at Everton and for whom Moyes has paid a grand total of 42.5 million pounds over the course of two moves. Fellaini is a player that Moyes knows well, and yet the Fellaini who finds himself at Old Trafford is so much less capable and effective than the Fellaini who wore Everton blue. True, a sample size of one is statistically insignificant, but based on the very, very limited evidence to date, one must at least wonder how certain it is that a Reus, Gundogan or Koke, all strangers to the English game, would fare better than Fellaini, who at least is familiar with the league and life in England’s north-west.

And let’s get back to the Gary Neville quotes from last May: how did we get from “potentially one of Ferguson’s finest squads” to 7th in the league after just seven months?

It’s for each of you to make your own decision on this question, but personally I reject the revisionist view that all is as well as it can be with United. Rightly or wrongly, it’s my view that whatever Moyes is doing with the current squad isn’t working.

We can’t turn back time and rehire Rene Meulensteen or Mike Phelan. Let’s instead accept that Moyes needs to look at his training regimen, look at his tactics, look at how he and his staff motivate the existing squad. He must ask himself what isn’t working, and why. Perhaps he even needs to have some secret, closed-door sessions with Ferguson, watching tapes of matches and discussing what’s going wrong and what’s need to be done to rectify it. Look, he probably already is! He’s a good coach and an intelligent man, he surely can’t be saying to himself “I just need to hold out until next summer”, can he? To do otherwise, to simply sit back and wait until next summer as some bloggers seem to be advocating, is so illogical, so willfully blind.

Will any of this be easy? Of course not. But doing nothing and simply hoping (a big word in the Moyes vocabulary, as it happens) that things will sort themselves out – that would be insane.

As an end-note, there is really only one apologia I have any interest in reading, and that’s the apologia of Sir Alex Ferguson himself.  Don’t we all wonder what the true thoughts of the greatest manager ever are on our current predicament?  Wouldn’t we all like to know what he thinks needs to be done?

Sadly, as a director of the club, it’s highly unlikely that he will ever voice those views to us.  No matter – providing he’s voicing those views to the one man who does matter, and that’s David Moyes.

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