After a sequence of doom laden articles recently I promised one or two readers that this week’s piece would be a far more positive read. Looking back over the last seven days there have been some unquestionably positive events that have occurred, but the mood amongst fans feels subdued, as if no one wants to set themselves up for a fall. Maybe things would feel different were we not facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday without both Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. With both fit it would be a tough gig, without and many fear the worst, not only in terms of the result but also the inevitable media scrum that will follow to declare that it’s ‘Mourinho 1 – Moyes 0’. As Jim Bowen might say, “Look at who you could have had.” A defeat could leave United eight points behind the Champions’ League places, a position from which even the most optimistic of Reds will accept is probably a bridge too far. And we also have the return leg of the Capital One Cup against Sunderland, a win in which would be bittersweet reward. Moyes needs a first trophy at United. We need Moyes to get a first trophy at United. But a fine Manchester City team, looking on fire and swatting away all before them like insects, await us in the final, the first time that has happened in any competition. In normal circumstances it’s a final that fans of both United and City would crave, but with the form of each as it is it’s a tie that leaves many filled with dread.
After the humiliations of the first three matches of 2014 it was certainly nice to get back to winning ways and exact a measure of revenge against Swansea. The first half hinted at more frustration as the away side dominated possession and limited United to half chances, but David Moyes changed the game at half time, swapping Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj to the centre and left respectively. The effect was immediate. Kagawa, whilst remaining extremely frustrating to watch, increased his role from utterly anonymous to intermittently creative and Januzaj had an absolute field day on the left wing. Whilst his best position in the long term looks to be as a Number 10, seeing him dribble and sway past opponents, the ball appearing as if it’s glued to his foot, is reminiscent of the Ryan Giggs of old. The first goal was created by a typically Giggsesque dribble in which he had to have several goes at his opponent before floating a beautiful cross to the far post, from which Valencia scored after Kagawa’s header was saved. Januzaj has been our best player by a mile in recent matches, a situation which both delights and depresses. We clearly have one of the world’s most talented teenagers on our hands, one who has recently committed to five more years at the club. He plays without fear and has an ice cool character. Hearing him speak for the first time on television post-match felt strange, as did his hint of a smile and it was amusing to discover that, at an age when my voice was still scratchy and high, he has a tone that an Ivan Drago impersonator would be proud of. The boy is a magnificent machine. But, as delightful as his commitment to United is, the current trend of him playing at a level above his teammates is a scenario that reminds us how little top quality he has around him. An 18-year-old, no matter how good, should not consistently be our best player, even with Rooney and Van Persie unavailable.
Others impressed in the second half, none more so than Danny Welbeck, who is at last starting to shake off the tag of being a striker who can’t finish. His lack of composure in front of goal for United has been a curiosity for some time. The young lad made his way, ahead of his age group, through the youth teamsscoring goals, a trend which continued for the first team and then on loan at Sunderland. Those who remember his early outings for United are most likely to recall his goals, which demonstrated a range of finishes, and the initial instinct was that we had a true modern forward on our hands. He could score from thirty yards, as he did on his debut against Stoke, clinically from inside the box, which he did after a beautiful one-two with Michael Owen against Wolves, or in the air, as he did at Barnsley. It is a trend which continued at The Stadium of Light and in his first season back at Old Trafford. But then the goals dried up. Those defending him cited Fergie’s insistence on using him as a wide forward, and certainly this reduced his chances in front of goal, but he played a similar role at Sunderland to great effect. Now that he’s begun scoring again it looks most likely that he simply had a long bout of the yips. 9 goals in 19 appearances, rounded off by his recent hot streak, are the best numbers of his career and, with Javier Hernandez acquiring the touch of a Sunday League footballer, he has handled the responsibility of deputising for Rooney and Van Persie extremely well. Roy Hodgson will certainly be delighted to see him scoring such a range of goals. His strike against Swansea was that of a pure finisher, guiding Patrice Evra’s wayward shot past Tremmel with a deft flick of his right boot. This was probably a defining season for Welbeck, as it will also be for many of his teammates, and he has shown his new manager that he deserves to play a large part in the near future of the team.
Just as the last week has seen a few players cement their places in David Moyes’ vision for the future, several others will possibly have sealed their own fate, or left themselves in danger of falling out of the manager’s plans. Javier Hernandez, a player so many are incredibly and rightly fond of, has had a dreadful few weeks despite his goal in the FA Cup game against Swansea. His poor first touch has always been a source of amusement amongst the fans, an impediment which can be forgiven if he is scoring goals. But his touch has now totally deserted him and against Spurs and Swansea his technique and finishing almost totally deserted him. There has always been a debate around him about his overall impact on the team and whether, in the modern game, a top team can afford to carry a forward who offers little outside of the six yard box. Having failed to impress when starting games this season it’s becoming apparent that Moyes agrees and no one would be surprised to see him leave in the summer.
Others must surely be on thin ice. It looks likely that Rio Ferdinand will leave in the summer after some comical performances this season and he is more often than not excluded even from the squad. Patrice Evra has struggled at times and has become even more of a defensive liability than in recent years. The attacking side of his game remains strong but the legs no longer seem to carry him back in to position as opponents counter. Moyes is using Ryan Giggs increasingly sparingly and he must have some serious doubts about Tom Cleverley’s future, the odd flash of what could be regularly receding into negative, safe passing and struggles to maintain possession. These limitations have been highlighted by the remarkable return of Darren Fletcher from long term illness. Against Swansea Fletcher was excellent and it was notable how his body shape and instincts when receiving the ball differ markedly from Cleverley’s, his first touch positioning the ball on front of his forward facing body, ready and looking for a positive, forward pass. Playing the ball sideways or backwards was an option of last resort and in the second half his thrust in midfield contributed to the upturn in performance and intensity. It was only one match against limited opponents, but the signs for Fletcher are increasingly positive. United currently reside bottom of the Premier League table for the percentage of attacks through the middle of the field, a problem which has arisen both as a result of tactics and the lack of a midfielder unwilling to force the issue centrally. Just by making simple passes forward, even five or ten yards, encourages the attacking players to drop and receive the ball centrally in dangerous areas from where attacks can be built. Far too often as a team this season the instinct has been to get the ball to Antonio Valencia as quickly as possible. Fletcher provided a simple yet effective antidote to that.
The one midfielder who has lost out to the greatest extent is Anderson, favourite of the United hipster but now largely regarded as a laughing stock. It is easy to laugh at Fergie’s suggestion that his scout likened Anderson to the new Wayne Rooney, but anyone who saw him play in the 2005 under 17 World Cup for Brazil, at which he won the Golden Ball, and later in his limited appearances for Porto, could see the brilliance in him. I remember watching the under 17 tournament. I have no idea why as I’ve not watched any football at that level since, but I distinctly remember Anderson being THE hub of creative brilliance in a team that eventually lost in the final to a Mexican side for whom Carlos Vela was the star. He was stretchered off early in that final, a significant blow to his team. The Anderson of old could create and score goals and sail past opponents with ease. The frustration for United fans has always been that they can see a real player in that bulky frame, one that can surge past opponents, play exquisite through balls and, on occasion, score very decent goals indeed. But it’s always been fleeting, and a combination of injuries and a lack of dedication have meant an opportunity has been lost. A loan move to Fiorentina, with a view to a permanent transfer, is on the horizon. The Viola have made a success in recent years of revitalising talents who have failed to make the impact their innate ability merits and both clubs will want to see him do well. For United there are 80,000 reasons for hoping that it’s a move that comes off and credit to Ed Woodward for finding a prospective buyer willing to take on all of his wages while he’s on probation. Few will miss him, his most recent performances memorable for his ability to trip over a football or his own feet.
Fabio is another almost certainly heading for the exit. David Moyes has clearly never fancied him and his bizarre cameo against Swansea in the FA Cup was surely the final nail in his coffin. Of more interest is the future of Wilfried Zaha, a player who excited United fans at Palace last season and on the pre-season tour. Since starting the Community Shield in August he has hardly figured at a time when all of his challengers for a spot on the wing are either injured or in sustained dreadful form. The manager has no place for him in a team crying out for some fantasy and a winger on the right who can provide the same magic that Januzaj does on the left. One wonders what must be going on behind the scenes, because there is no footballing logic to his continued absence. It is absolutely bizarre. There is talk of him going on loan, possibly to Cardiff, after Moyes reportedly rejected a return to Palace on the basis that he didn’t want the kid playing in London, the logic behind which can only be speculated about.
As at least one player looks set to leave, Reds are observing the progression of this transfer window with increasing concern. The club made clear very early on that they considered it to be nigh on impossible to recruit very talented players for the long-term in January and dampened expectations as much as they could. There will be, they claim, no panic, and they will not be held to ransom by any club over a prospective transfer. Whilst Moyes and his staff have been intensively scouting players in the second week of the window, we are left to wonder if this is preparation for the summer or desperation as we pass the halfway mark in this one. We’ve already seen Chelsea, a team with a midfield already considerably stronger than ours, pick up the extremely talented and promising Nemanja Matic from Benfica for a fee reportedly in the region of €25m, a relatively modest fee in modern terms. A number of other clubs at the topend of the Premier League are exploring deals for other players and yet at United hopes appear to be fading. We have two weeks to go and may get a surprise, but the noises coming out of Old Trafford are not positive. If, as the club regularly brief, the manager has a significant transfer budget to play with and with the club in very real danger of missing Champions’ League qualification for next season, failure to strengthen would be utterly negligent. The financial consequences of that are far greater than the outlay required to bring in at least one talented addition. If that fails to happen then we can conclude that either the budget isn’t anywhere near as big as has been suggested, that Woodward continues to be tight or that Dithering Dave is living up to his reputation at Everton as witnessed during our own summer shambles. It’s a huge fortnight for the short to medium term future of the club. As for being held to ransom, every club knows that United are desperate for players in certain positions, no matter how much the club deny it, and will try to exploit that to get a higher fee. The Fellaini deal was a mess, not only on the basis of the player’s attributes and failings, but because it showed that United will indeed panic and pay well over the odds for a player late in a transfer window. So what incentive is there for a club to sell at a reasonable price now? And if Ed Woodward is telling the truth, that United simply will not pay over market rates, then we’re going to have to make do with what we’ve got for the medium term. Worrying times.
But I won’t leave you on a negative note. It’s been a positive week in some regards and a point at Chelsea this weekend, whilst of little use in the race for fourth spot, would be a very decent return. From here we simply have to just concentrate on winning the next match and hoping that those above us fall apart. Difficult to imagine but certainly not impossible