If some United fans can’t see it now they never will. A 2-1 defeat at a quite frankly awful Stoke side, themselves in free fall, has to be the final straw. Five defeats in eight games in 2014, including deserved losses today, at home to Swansea and Spurs and at Sunderland. And none of us are surprised anymore. We’re no longer devastated by defeat. The players no longer look devastated, just resigned. The game at the Britannia was our season in microcosm: talented players in all bar the midfield, playing prehistoric, one dimensional football and, when things turn bad, a manager and coaching staff who appear totally baffled and unable to identify what to do to change things. A squad which won the title by eleven points last season, with Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj, nearly £70m worth of talent and one of the finest young players in world football, have been assembled into a team which began by playing mid-table football and is now in relegation form. We can blame the players, and no doubt they should shoulder some responsibility for their performances, but the buck stops with the coaching staff. If three or four were under-performing we could point fingers at them alone, but this is squad wide. Every player bar De Gea, Rooney and Januzaj has played consistently below the level we know they can achieve and sustain.
Some claim that the manager and his staff should be given another six to twelve months. That this isn’t Moyes’ team. He hasn’t got the players he wants. He has a vision. This opinion is of course their prerogative and they are entitled to it, but to me that attitude appears to be built on nothing but blind faith, that Sir Alex took several years to succeed and that this manager will also come good. I do not believe that the current state of affairs would be tolerated at any other elite club worldwide. Persisting out of some sort of belief that our club is more special, more loyal than others is absurd. The main tenet of the optimists’ vision has been that injuries have greatly hindered us, which is partly true, but that when Carrick, Rooney and Van Persie returned from injury they would fire us to Arsenal’s fourth place trophy. Well there it is peeps. They’re back and we’re still turgid dross. You can have great players, and those three are wonderfully talented, but if your principle tactic is to get the ball wide as quickly as possible for the winger or full back to cross, against a team of giants whose entire game plan is based around aerial dominance, then you could have Lionel Messi on the pitch and he’d struggle. It’s no coincidence that our goal came from a rare attempt to play through the middle. It’s a familiar pattern. You can go back to the Spurs game at home. 99% abject and aimless crossing. Our one goal came when Januzaj tore up the rule book and slid Danny Welbeck in from a central position.
Another statistic for you. This season Manchester United’s entire complement of natural central midfielders have contributed one goal and one assist. It’s February. Now this isn’t a new issue, but the numbers are more startling that ever before. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they are simply poor players playing badly or, in the case of Michael Carrick, a very good but ageing player upon whom we have been totally reliant in recent years, struggling with injury and being terribly out of form. But then who isn’t? Secondly, the midfielders we have simply do not get forward. Their first thought, in any circumstance, is to get the ball wide. Statistically we have crossed the ball more than any other side in the Premier League this season and rank 20th at attacking moves through the central channel. There can be no excuse that Moyes doesn’t have the players to play any other way. Stoke, Cardiff, Villa, West Brom, Allardyce’s West Ham, all play through the middle more than us.
The most dispiriting thing of all is that after six months of seeing these tactics fail nothing has changed. We just keep plugging away in the hope that, as if by magic, it will suddenly work. We could have Vidal and Gundogan in midfield and United would play the same way. There is no future vision, no slowly evolving philosophy. This is football from the 1980s. Graham Taylor, George Graham and Howard Wilkinson would most certainly approve. Few expected a title this season. Most fans were realists. We knew it would take time, that there would be a year of adjustment. A top four finish and decent showing in Europe and/or one of the domestic cups would have sufficed. This is unacceptable. And the very real fear is that the longer it goes on the more damage will be done. With Moyes as manager top four is a dream. Top six is looking like a challenge right now.
Regardless of tactics, the January transfer window was again a missed opportunity. The signing of Juan Mata was wonderful, a beautiful bonus player whose quality was obvious at the Britannia. He will help us. But without solid foundations in midfield and defence the impact of adding him will be reduced. If you don’t have the ball or don’t give it to him in the right areas he simply can’t have the impact that his ability should bring. And so we revelled, perfectly reasonably, in his signing and looked the other way as a club which claims to have a huge transfer kitty failed to strengthen in their areas of weakness. The claim that we will only buy the world’s greatest players and they aren’t available so we’ll purchase no one is absurd. Only the best are good enough for us we trumpet, as Tom Cleverley, forty-year-old Ryan Giggs, an out of position Phil Jones and Alex Buttner trot out onto the pitch. It is a ludicrous contradiction.
Sir Alex’s mantra was always to look to buy players that are better than the ones he had. If our scouting department couldn’t identify a central midfielder or left back better than those mentioned then there is something seriously amiss. You buy a higher standard than you already have, discard the poorest players you have in that position, then in the next window try to buy players even better than the ones you bought six months ago. You do this until your squad is top class. Your initial buys immediately improve the first team and then become squad players when better arrive. That way both your starting eleven and group becomes stronger. At each point you discard your weakest link. Used purely as an example, it was clear that the highly rated Porto midfielder Fernando was available for the right fee. He is a player who, whilst probably not world class, is considerably better than what we have. Some fans baulked at him as a potential signing because, apparently, we only need the very best. Yet had we signed him we would have been improved in the short term, in pursuit of our “imperative” (Moyes’ words) goal of Champions League football and when we, in theory, signed even better players in the summer he would become a squad player, replacing the weaker elements in that area. Always look to improve. Manchester City’s late bid to get him as back up or competition for Yaya Toure and Fernandinho demonstrated his potential value in this role. Chelsea, meanwhile, took our £40m, bought a high class player for a very reasonable fee to address their own midfield issue, a talented young winger to replace Mata and one of the most highly rated young centre backs (another area of medium term concern) in world football.
Moyes’ vision now appears to rely entirely on an executive group, including himself, pulling off a rash of top class signings next summer. This seems to be both his get out line and that of many fans. How can we assume that an administration with a very patchy record in this area can achieve that goal? If we miss Champions League football that task will become even harder. Secondly, even were we to pull off one or two of the above, we’ve seen nothing to suggest that we’ll do anything other than continue to pump long balls upfield and throw in aimless crosses. If you are a world class footballer with a number of options would you be enticed by an albeit historically great club who offer no top level European football and play football from the Stone Age? Mata was a fantastic coup, a moment of opportunism, signing a player desperate to play before the World Cup on huge wages. It was a unique scenario which the club exploited well. Is it a given that we can repeat that four or five times over in a World Cup summer?
What has become of our club this season was unthinkable in June. It would be delusional to pretend that Sir Alex didn’t leave Moyes a squad with significant issues, but what we have seen on the pitch all season bears no relation to the talent available. The coaching staff have, despite all of their hard work and best intentions, dismantled the standards and values that Fergie spent 28 years institutionalising at Manchester United. The team spirit, swagger, arrogance and belief has gone from the players. They are shells. Defeat is becoming standard. Two things are demanded of United teams. First and foremost they must win. Secondly they should play with some style. They should excite. Provide one of these and the fans will back you. The last two seasons under Sir Alex were hardly vintage. Style was secondary. But they won, often in the most dramatic, jaw dropping ways. David Moyes is providing neither. Results are far beyond unacceptable, performances so devoid of flair, excitement and character that it’s hard to remember a United side that I looked forward to seeing less and had so little faith in. Probably the 88/89 side and early 89/90. We simply cannot be trusted to beat anybody. It’s painful, turgid drudgery. The same players, with three very good additions, and yet the results, and performances, are just unimaginably abysmal. What’s changed? Go figure.
I tweeted as far back as the league game at the Stadium of Light that Moyes had dismantled Manchester United (the team as opposed to the club). It was a pale imitation even of the unbalanced side that he had inherited. The tactical awareness, belief, variation and just plain competence was disappearing, along with confidence, from my football team in front of my eyes. That process has continued to far greater depths than any of us could have imagined. My fear now is how low this road can lead us. The manager has no answers. If he did he would have applied them by now. I cannot believe, behind all of the briefings to journalists that Moyes’ job is not under threat and that he will have time; that the Glazers are not seriously considering their options. If they aren’t then I can only shake my head. Forget league position. In purely financial terms, the language they truly understand, their asset is depreciating before their eyes. In seven months we have gone from perpetual winners to serial losers. A laughing stock. My friends don’t take the p*ss any more. I just get disbelieving texts asking how on earth this is being allowed to go on. At full time today the first I received read, “Outwitted by Mark Hughes. Good lord.” In the context of previous discussions we have had this wasn’t an attempt to wind me up. It was simply a head shaking recognition that a new, unimaginable low had been achieved. At Cardiff, Wilfried Zaha, totally excluded at United, was ripping Norwich apart and setting up both of his new club’s goals. It summed up a terrible day. That is where we are. Without change God only knows where it will all end.