When Eric Wimp ate a banana he became Bananaman, from ordinary, puny, meek child to an adult with superpowers, capable of saving the world, righting any wrong. Since he took over the club in the summer, David Moyes has been our own Eric Wimp, a child in a position which requires a superhero, replacing a superhero. Whatever catalyst he required was eluding him and every interview or press conference gave the impression of a man out of his depth, a deer in the headlights, negative, lacking authority and confidence in what he was doing and saying. Sometimes the words would come out wrong, giving an impression that he hadn’t intended or he said what he meant to say not realising that what is required of him in front of the media is the antithesis of the underdog character he perfected over a decade at Everton. His Manchester United team have become a side in that image, lacking in confidence, unsure of how they should be playing so falling back on what the manager knew before he came to Old Trafford. And then on Monday a funny thing happened.
Moyes signed Juan Mata. When the press conference to introduce Manchester United’s new record signing, pinched in a remarkable deal from one of their (medium term) closest rivals, most watching, press and fans, expected little new from Moyes. The excitement and buzz centred around seeing Mata in a United shirt and hearing what he had to say about the transfer: how it came about, how delighted he was to join, how good were his teammates, what are his ambitions at the club. Moyes’ opinions were an afterthought…until he started speaking. By the end as much focus was on the manager as the player. Eric Wimp, it seemed, had eaten a banana.
“I am not going to accept it (performances and results). I am disappointed we are not in a much stronger position. I am disappointed with how we have played. I, ultimately, take the rap for that. But what I will do is make it right. I am going to get better players in. Unfortunately I don’t think there will be more in January. But it will change….
“…I have given every player the opportunity to play and show what they can do. We have had a pretty good chance to have a look at it. The players have to perform. If they want to be here and making sure they have a jersey, they have to show it in the games. Undoubtedly this club wants to be at the top. We want to be challenging. At this moment in time we have failed to do that. We want to do something about it…..
“….The message this sends, as I said in the summer, is that we’re going for all the best players in the world. Juan is one of those players. He’s a top Spanish player, a top Premier League player and I think if you asked any supporter, no matter what club they support, they would be an admirer.
There will be more players like Juan in the future, no doubt about that. He plays for Spain, he’s played in big games already for club and country. I do see him fitting in and, hopefully, it doesn’t take him much time. But I also still think coming to Manchester United is a big change, for any player or any manager. It’s a big thing and he can’t solve everything. I’ve got a big job to do here and a couple of new signings isn’t all that is needed. I think there’s a bigger job to be done but you have to start somewhere. If you asked me what I needed most, I would have said a central midfielder. I could do with a left-back, too, but sometimes you don’t always get the pieces of the jigsaw at the time. It’s all part of a rebuilding process.”
This was Moyes drawing a line in the sand. He essentially said, “You’ve all had your chance and it hasn’t been good enough. Your time is up. I’ve just brought in a hugely gifted player for vast money and, unless you vastly improve I’m going to replace you too.” The Mata signing came in a week when Anderson was released on loan, the new signing taking the Brazilian’s shirt number, Fabio was sold to Cardiff and Wilfried Zaha joined him in Wales on loan, with rumours circulating that Nani will also move to Inter Milan. Existing players have seen a new man come in and their friends and teammates binned. Moyes spoke specifically about a central midfield player and a left back. This was a firm message to those playing in those positions that they aren’t doing close to enough.
The manager also spoke about our ambitions for the remainder of the season and, for the first time, he spoke with realism. Gone were the slightly cringeworthy claims that we can still win the title. It was a press conference marked by realism, Moyes recognising and admitting that fourth was now the target and achieving that is “imperative” both for a club the size of United and for the success of our summer transfer plans.
The psychological impact of the press conference and resulting newspaper articles on fans was interesting to observe. Two days later an article by journalist Andy Mitten claimed that senior players in the squad are not on board with Moyes’ regime, are not giving their best in training or matches and are clearly briefing against their manager in private whilst praising him in public. Stories like this have appeared elsewhere in the recent past and the stock answer was either to describe it as rubbish or to display a lack of surprise. Given the mistakes that Moyes was making how could the senior players not be furious about it? Standards had slipped and they wouldn’t accept it. When Mitten’s article dropped on Wednesday the response was altogether different. These rebels were spoken of with disdain. They aren’t doing well enough and are undermining everything Moyes is trying to do. The quicker they leave the club the better. These are senior figures, legendary players at the club, not average, gobby imports who have only been at the club two minutes. What is interesting is that results and performances in the intervening period have got worse, not better, but a single confident, assertive, searingly honest press conference, with a well- liked, huge money signing at his side, has had a vast impact on the perceptions of the fans. From incompetent buffoon to a man with a plan in the blink of an eye.
The question, of course, is whether this was a one-off, a positive performance by an individual subconsciously emboldened by the signing of the man at his side, or a new man, now at ease with what he is trying to achieve and how he is going to do it. The test will come if results and performances continue to be unacceptably poor. Confidence within the squad has also been given an artificial boost by the signing of Mata, at a time when it was at an all-time low. Previous to that Moyes had been unable to lift his players, or even prevent their slide. Now he has that boost and it will be a test of his new found inner strength to maintain that, first with results and then, if there are setbacks, when things are not going United’s way. Moyes has grown some balls and needs to ensure that they don’t retreat into his abdomen again.
Of course, words and signings can’t make footballers more gifted or tactical preparation better, and the Cardiff game should act as a warning to fans giddy on the Mata signing. The midfield and left back positions are a mess and a stupendously gifted playmaker or winger won’t resolve those issues. As has been the theme this season, against Cardiff, with a midfield containing a centre back and a forty year old winger, United once again failed to control the game or dominate possession and at times the side bottom of the Premier League had them on the rack, at home. Defensively, time and time again, United’s back four were exposed and full backs went AWOL. As welcome as this new Moyes and his Spanish creator extraordinaire are, without a midfielder in this window it’s hard to see a way back past Liverpool in particular and into the top four. The message has consistently been that top players and specifically our targets are hard to get in January, but both United themselves and Chelsea have shown that for the right money deals can be done. With Matic now at Chelsea, Porto’s Fernando looking likely to move this window and Cabaye at PSG for a £16.5m snip, failing to strengthen that area, even with a player not of the very highest quality would be negligent. The incumbents are abysmal. Before they know what has hit them, United could find themselves without Champion’s League qualification and a list of targets who won’t touch them as a result.
David Moyes liked some late window action at Everton and in the summer at United, so we have to pray that he and his self-appointed hero of the Mata transfer VP, Ed Woodward, can pull something out of the bag. This new manager and his big set of cojones is a welcome development at Old Trafford. The test will be whether it’s a permanent state and if he and the club can back it up with further on field and transfer market deeds, because without at least the former a new set of knackers will count for very little.