It’s hard to remember a more roller coaster day as a Manchester United fan than Wednesday, which started with promise that something really good might be about to happen. As the day progressed that promise turned to glee, as the possible slowly edging towards the actual, before reality bit and we all bumped firmly back to earth again. This United doesn’t do happy endings.
After the abject defeat at a Chelsea side who didn’t even need to play very well to stuff United out of sight, the club really needed a boost to lift the lowest morale amongst fans and players that I can remember. That boost duly came, as first the Telegraph and then their competitors broke the story on Tuesday that the club were close to acquiring Juan Mata from Sunday’s victors. The fact that Chelsea were willing to sell shocked no one. The fact they were willing to sell to United and that United were willing to pay nearly £40m for his signature stunned fans of both clubs.
The first emotion was joy, that the club were willing to back up all of the propaganda since June and actually commit to overpaying to sign a top class footballer. I don’t think it would have mattered who. The defeat at Stamford Bridge obviously knocked some Scottish, Hislopalike and Floridian heads together and made them realise that if they didn’t do something quick all of their respective priorities, success, career and money respectively, were about to go down the pan very quickly. Amusingly, only the day before, Jamie Jackson of the Guardian had written an article, clearly spoon fed to him by the Old Trafford hierarchy, which stated that the club’s executives and owners had no fears of missing out on Champion’s League football and the resulting loss of income, prestige and appeal to prospective signings. This is a deal which, no more than 24 hours later, made a lie of that ludicrous claim. This is panic. Blind panic. Interestingly United took the unusual step of bringing in a third party to negotiate the deal, a tactic which can only be seen as a costly effort to keep Ed Woodward, everyone’s least favourite incompetent, as far away from the action as possible.
Juan Mata is a fine footballer, twice Chelsea player of the year with a goals and assist record that put every other current Premiership attacking midfielder to shame. But at £37m the club are clearly paying considerably over his true market value. It’s the only reason Chelsea are willing to sell to us. Desperation from United. But desperation is not always bad thing. It’s what was needed to make the club’s owners understand that this problem isn’t going to correct itself, that our results this season have been no aberration. This United, Moyes’ United, is the seventh best side in England. This in no small part to the management of the club, but also because his players, Fergie’s players, have knocked off work early and left the building. Two or three have excelled, two or three more have been capable, the remainder simply appalling. The club, the manager, the team needed a boost. And the signing of Juan Mata will do that. The fans turned up at Old Trafford for the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland buzzing to a degree that was totally out of synch with recent results and performances.
Once the immediate euphoria at learning of the prospective signing had passed, more practical questions started to raise their heads. Why are we buying a Number 10 when we have two already in Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa? Is one leaving? Are they both? If not, how does David Moyes lever Rooney and Mata into the same starting eleven? And, most importantly, why are we spending £37m on a luxury when we desperately need central midfielders and a left back? The next few days may provide the answers. As much of a statement as signing Mata for the fee involved is, it’s hard to see how performances can improve significantly as a result when the glaring issue that is impeding the team both defensively and offensively is left unaddressed. £37m buys you an awful lot of very good midfield players. The claim that top prospects in that position, and at left back, aren’t available in January simply doesn’t wash now. Throw £37m at most clubs and the impossible suddenly becomes possible. Reports suggested that the United are working hard to complete further deals this week and so we must wait. If a fine player in either of those positions walks into Old Trafford before February 1st then you have to say that this has been an excellent transfer window for the club. If not, serious questions need to be asked. There can be no excuses. But the Mata deal demonstrates that the owners have woken up to the fact that serious investment is needed and that is no bad thing. It gives us hope.
As much of a lift as the prospective Mata signing gave the fans, it must have also given cheer to the players and management at a club which simply cannot be a happy place to work at the moment. All of the conditions were there for a big performance against Sunderland, and yet what we got was another display so abject that few United fans could begrudge the visitors their place at Wembley. Indeed, on that showing, the last place on this earth we need or want to be right now is in a showpiece final against a City side on fire offensively. On the night Sunderland went a goal down to a Jonny Evans header, dominated the second half possession-wise and territorially and got a thoroughly deserved equaliser at the death, as David De Gea fumbled Phil Bardsley’s shot in to his own net. United kicked off, went straight up the other end and scored, Javier Hernandez, in keeping with his night, doing his very best to miss the sitter laid on a plate to him by Adnan Januzaj. Hernandez had an astoundingly poor night, as simple passes bounced off him and golden chances were wildly spurned. It was like playing with ten men. In truth only Smalling, Evans, the wonderful Januzaj and maybe Kagawa, inexplicably substituted on the hour, performed at a level above appalling. In a season of dismal performances this was the worst. To a neutral observer it must have appeared as if United did no training with a football whatsoever. David Moyes’ claim after the first leg defeat that he could feel that we were turning a corner was right. We’re in relegation form now. Clearly confidence is on the floor, but there is something fundamentally wrong when a team of international footballers can’t complete simple passes, control a football or dribble past an opponent. It is telling that the only player on the pitch capable of doing that was, again, Adnan Januzaj. In the words of Guardian football writer Daniel Taylor, the Belgian/Kosovan/Croatian/Albanian/Turk could “nutmeg a mermaid”. Taylor has clearly been saving that one liner up for a very long time and has finally found a player worthy of it.
So to penalties. A penalty shootout which was firmly in keeping with United’s efforts on the night and during the season as a whole, so bad that it must rank amongst the worst of all time. One player, Darren Fletcher scored. The rest all missed. It was all so obvious from the moment the 120 minutes ended and we began to think about who might feature. It suddenly dawned on most that there was not one natural penalty taker on the pitch. Indeed, it was hard to pick out a competent one, and so it was that our players did what our players do and scuffed and ballooned their way out of the last competition the club had any realistic chance of winning. With City in the final perhaps ‘realistic’ is taking it a bit far. And so another set of fans went home from United delirious at having made history at our ground. Of the last fifteen penalties the team have taken in shootouts only four have been scored.
As David Moyes walked pale-faced down the touchline towards the changing room, where he no doubt lambasted his players in a scene now so regular that it must no longer register with them, he must have wondered how on earth it has got this bad and quite how he still has a job. None of the other established giants would have retained him this long, having taken a team of champions to the depths of ignominy. Andre Villas Boas was sacked for less at Spurs and Chelsea, clubs with lower expectations than ours. To his defence come the traditionalists. “We aren’t that sort of club.” “We pride ourselves on stability, continuity and loyalty.” And so we must console ourselves with the knowledge that, whilst our football team loses match after match, playing the most abject football most have seen in almost thirty years, we are the undisputed champions of loyalty, honour and stability (if stability is defined as ‘the exact opposite of what came before’). Essentially we have become Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool without the happy ending. Moyes is a good, hardworking man, but one with tactical and motivational deficiencies and who simply is not learning from his mistakes, on or off the pitch. Contrary to the defence most often used by those still behind him, that he needs more than six months to be judged, six months have already judged him. A limited but Premier League title winning squad has been deconstructed into a broken rabble, playing poorer football than the majority of the other twenty domestic top flight sides, and we’re getting worse. Despite the line frequently given that he will not be sacked, whatever happens this season, the Jamie Jackson article and subsequent Mata offer show that what the club’s owners say and what they do are very different things. With the share price of MANU dropping like a stone, my hunch is that Moyes is far closer to the exit door than anyone imagines. The apologists continue set deadlines: if we lose against x then it might be time to think again. Then we lose against x, and that deadline is put back one match. I’ve lost count of the number of matches labelled ‘do or die’ for the manager. And so we move on to the next one, another win or bust game we’ll probably bust, and nothing will change. If you’d asked most fans in June whether in January, with United in seventh place in the league, knocked out of the FA cup at home to Swansea and out of the League Cup by Sunderland, having lost five times at home and scoring only 14 times at Old Trafford in the league all season, David Moyes would still be in a job, you’d have been met with a dismissive snort. As IF we’d be that bad. Once they’d overcome their incredulity I think you’d find few who would suggest that, if that were reality, he would or should still be in employment. How lowered expectations change perception.
So what started out as a day filled with so much promise and excitement ended with most feeling utter dismay. Some cling on to the idea that the return of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie will kick start a dismal season. There’s no doubt that performances will improve to a degree should they both successfully reintegrate for the rest of the campaign, but United were playing poorly and losing games before their respective injuries. The rot runs deep and, even with the welcome inclusion of Juan Mata, it’s hard to foresee a recovery sufficient to take Arsenal’s fourth place trophy without a central midfielder or left back joining the squad in the next week. And so we wait, with a little more hope than before but not a great deal of expectation. How far does the willingness of the Glazers to fund rebuilding extend? And how long will their patience last with the manager as their investment tanks? We’re about to find out.