It’s an unpleasant, miserable evening at Old Trafford. Swansea are the visitors and Javier Hernandez has got Manchester United’s goal. It’s 1-1 with just minutes to go, a cross comes into the box and the ball nestles in the roof of the net. Rio Ferdinand has just scored the winning goal in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final home game. The manager lifts the trophy as high as the Old Trafford mood and the club have just won their twentieth league title. The message that follows in his post-match speech remained in the minds of every United fan there that day but it seems the majority has been forgotten some months later.
Fast forward to January 2014 and the circumstances are the same. It’s 1-1, Swansea are again the visitors and again Javier Hernandez has scored. This time it’s Wilfried Bony who puts the ball in the net with minutes remaining and United have just crashed out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle. Four days before United had gone down to Spurs in the league and are about to lose to Chelsea. Then comes the tepid and nervous performance that sees Sunderland progress to Wembley before they once go down again at Stoke, 2-1.
David Moyes hasn’t had an easy ride, he was never going to. Sir Alex Ferguson was just that good. Some think his legacy was tainted by the amount of average champions he left in the possession of his fellow Scot and maybe they have a point. But all the current season is doing is really hitting home just how brilliant Sir Alex Ferguson was. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left in 2009 it was the end of an era. Not in terms of success, but in style of play. From 2006 to 2009 United played decisive, clinical football that destroyed teams week in, week out. They won three titles in a row and reached two Champions League finals.
Then slowly came the decline in quality. Players such as Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling etc were signed and youngsters such as Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were being prepared for the first team football. In 2010, United lost the league by a whisker and lost it by even less in 2012. In 2011 and 2013, they defied the odds in terms of strength on paper again added two league titles and even another Champions League final to the list.
This gave many Manchester United fans the belief that these players were good enough for Manchester United. Some are, some aren’t. Some are probably good enough to be subs but some just aren’t good enough at all. This is a club that is used to the likes of George Best, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo donning the 7, not Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia. Alex Ferguson’s legacy came with its downfalls. He came into the job when money was tight. Roy Keane for £3m was seen as a big money deal and he clearly never liked the idea of paying over the odds. Lucas Moura and Eden Hazard slipped away in the space of one summer because Ferguson wasn’t willing to compete with Chelsea or Paris Saint-Germain financially. People were so blind in the defence of Ferguson that the blame was on the owners. Whilst they’ve certainly done a lot of harm to the club, the money is there, was there and will be there in the summer.
Instead, Ferguson started looking domestically for his signings. Leighton Baines & Marouane Fellaini became long-term targets, Valencia came from Wigan and Young from Aston Villa. Chris Smalling & Phil Jones arrived from Fulham and Blackburn respectively and Robin van Persie joined from Arsenal. The decline in talent was evident but Ferguson made up for it on the pitch, the style slowly changed. Whereas United were able to fast and devastating football when Rooney, Ronaldo & Tevez were on the pitch together, it was now slower and more patient and usually ended up with a cross into the box in the hope the strikers would be on the end of it.
Don’t get me wrong, Ferguson brought in a lot of good players and some still remain in our squad to this day. But there’s no coincidence these players largely came from abroad. David De Gea has turned himself right around after arriving from Atletico Madrid. Rafael has been stellar at right-back after his move from Fluminense and defensive pair Nemanja Vidic & Patrice Evra have been two of the best budget signings the club have ever made, arriving from Spartak Moscow & Monaco respectively.
The constant success under the greatest manager of all time has blinded so many, even outside the walls of Old Trafford that Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and co are good enough. But quite simply, Tom Cleverley isn’t Paul Scholes, Welbeck won’t ever be Rooney, or van Nistelrooy or Cole. Valencia can’t replicate the magic provided by Cristiano Ronaldo, neither can Ashley Young be a replacement for Ryan Giggs. That’s what he was, self-confessed by Ferguson himself in his autobiography. Ashley Young was the replacement for one of the greatest players Old Trafford has ever seen.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of some of those players. I do genuinely think Danny Welbeck is a good player. But that’s the problem, he’s good. Only good, I’m sure he’ll get better but for now he should be a sub. Valencia is good, Young is good, they all have the odd performance where you sit down and think, ‘blimey’ but it happens all too rarely. But then days like Stoke happen. Welbeck had FOUR touches in the first half an hour he was on the pitch. Ashley Young was again inconsistent after a great performance against Cardiff and Chris Smalling was indecisive at the back after he’d been excellent in midweek too. I’m not for one moment saying Smalling & Welbeck should be sold, they shouldn’t, but they shouldn’t be starting. Cleverley should be sold, as should Valencia. The story of the Ecuadorian is a strange, sad and puzzling one. He’s a really nice fellow, wears his heart on his sleeve and does seem to care a lot. In his opening season he was the business, once again in the 11/12 season he was player of the year but all that seems to be gone now. Javier Hernandez is a great goal scorer but as an overall player he’s very poor. It’s very difficult between him and Welbeck to judge whose first touch is worst. If you’re going to start as a striker for Manchester United, you should be able to control the ball.
Moyes will get time. The fans who attend Old Trafford sing his name and he knows he has the support of most United fans. He’ll have the support of the board, of Alex Ferguson and of Bobby Charlton. The summer was a disaster, we know that. Ferguson alluded in his book that he had second thoughts about retiring when he found David Gill had the same plan. Ed Woodward will be excellent in the role; he did a lot of good for the club in his previous role and was responsible for several lucrative sponsors. He showed bottle in January to buy Mata without being dragged into negotiations over Wayne Rooney. Bringing together a new manager and a new CEO at the same time was always going to be hard, especially when there was so much work to be done.
Please don’t be fooled, Manchester United as a football team needs major surgery. He has to play average players because we haven’t yet had the chance to ship them out and he’s been incredibly unlucky that injuries have surrounded five key players. Rafael has missed long periods, Michael Carrick and Phil Jones missed several months, Robin van Persie even longer and Wayne Rooney’s fitness still isn’t back to its best. Then there’s the downfall of other key players. Carrick himself hasn’t been anywhere near the standard he set himself last season. Patrice Evra’s been on the slide for some time but it’s been genuinely painful watching a top class left-back deteriorate so quickly and so badly this season. He’s as much as a liability as the midfield right now. Jonny Evans has had a little drop in form at times and Rafael has been incredibly erratic recently. Rafael’s another one I like, and he’ll (hopefully) be here for the long haul but it’s almost like we’ve got the Bayern Munich 2010 Rafael back at times. Then there’s David De Gea, superb. He’s been a shining light at times when people had written him off after all of 2 games. But that mistake against Sunderland summed up the first six months of the Moyes era. United equalised but without that error United were going to Wembley and all was well. It was just one of those things that wouldn’t have happened when things are going well. Maybe it’s true that when things are going badly they only get worse. Injuries have absolutely torn through United’s squad and just when Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie return, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones go off injured in no time at all at the Britannia Stadium.
Adnan Januzaj shows what it takes to be a United player. Genuine quality, talent and a cool head. He’s stepped in and looked like he’s been here for years. He will be a player of United quality for some time. That’s what David Moyes should look because that’s what United should be. A player that as soon as he gets the ball you’re off your seat (or armchair). That doesn’t happen with Welbeck, or Valencia, or Young. There’s no expectation with many of this squad that they’ll do something brilliant when the ball comes to them.
It’s sad, every United fan wants any player who comes here to do well but there’s a quiet acceptance that unless there’s an outstanding manager at the helm that these players aren’t good enough. It’s no criticism of Moyes, he can have all the time in the world for me but no other manager in the world could have done what Alex Ferguson did with this group of players. Moyes knows he needs the best players to succeed and has spent big already, more money has gone out than in any of Ferguson’s years in charge. Fellaini could fall into either category, he could be terrific or he could end up being in the ‘good’ category as I’ll now refer to it. Juan Mata is world class; he was a class apart against Stoke and one of few who looked likely to create something.
United are not playing good football, but they haven’t done for some time. People are complaining that it’s simply go out wide and cross it in. Well, yes it is. But it was last season too. The reason is our midfield is clearly incapable of creating anything so it’s down to the wingers. Unless we bring in quality through the middle it will remain that way. We haven’t replaced Paul Scholes, I’m not even sure we’ve replaced Roy Keane and he left in 2005. If Scholes didn’t create something, Beckham and Giggs would. If Tom Cleverley doesn’t create something (which he never does) then neither will Valencia and Young will do on the odd occasion he’s not on the floor. Over 50 of United’s goals last season were from wide areas, 50. Remember van Persie’s first hat trick against Southampton? All crosses. The 3-2 comebacks against Braga and Aston Villa produced five goals from crosses. The 3-2 win at the Etihad saw two of the three goals come from crosses. All three goals away at Chelsea were crosses and the list could go on and on and on.
This season that hasn’t worked for one reason or another. A lot of the crosses used to be drilled in low but now they’re going in high. On the rare occasion we get it right it works, see Adnan Januzaj’s first United goal as a prime example of when low crosses prove to be much better. Whipped in crosses are fine if you have players who can cross. We don’t. I don’t like to ramble about luck but Moyes has had none of it. You shouldn’t have to rely on luck but United did it a lot under Ferguson. We were spoiled with dodgy refereeing decisions which have evaded us this season whilst we see our rivals get the decisions we used to. Maybe we were in denial and Ferguson did have an effect on referees and the decisions we got. United could easily have had a penalty against Stoke and definitely should have had one in the defeat to Spurs. The defeat at home to Everton was crushing, United played really well and were denied by fine saves and the woodwork. The story was similar at home to Southampton where a last minute equaliser denied the team all three points. The same happened against Cardiff away. Small margins, errors, mistakes and luck have put United in a vulnerable position. If Lovren doesn’t equalise, or Rooney tucks away the chance directly after Cardiff have scored it’s a different picture. If one of the shots that hit the post against Everton go in or De Gea doesn’t spill Phil Bardsley’s shot then Moyes is leading United out at Wembley. They’ve all compounded together to make the manager’s first season as difficult as possible. Don’t worry, I’m not deluded. United haven’t been good enough but from the manager’s point of view he’ll look back on several moments and wonder what might have been.
Against Stoke, Charlie Adam scored a wordly and a fluke, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about either. Moyes was wrong when he said United played well, they didn’t. It’s certainly been worse and United did get in good positions but once again the final ball into the box didn’t deliver. Mata put a few good balls but Young and Evra struggled badly. You could almost sense Rooney’s last minute free-kick would strike the post; it’s been that kind of season. Our experienced players need to step up. They’re saying the right things off the pitch, particularly Evra, but he’s one of the main culprits in terms of on-field performances. The semi-final penalty shoot-out against Sunderland spoke a lot about who’s up for the fight. The younger players clearly care, Welbeck was almost in tears as he trudged off the pitch as Sunderland celebrated. For any faults they have, Rafael and Phil Jones in particular throw themselves at everything. Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez all turned down the chance to take a penalty, albeit Hernandez was injured. Instead Evra, our captain and leader on many occasions let the likes of Jones, Rafael and Januzaj step up.
Evra will be gone in the summer, so will Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will probably follow. Giggs should go and then there’s a whole host who should follow them out of the door. Buttner, Cleverley, Anderson, Valencia, Hernandez should all be disposed of. I wouldn’t be in tears if Young went too but he’s at least shown some improvement recently. United need to build a team around key men. The front four is set in stone if everyone is fit. Mata, Rooney, Januzaj & van Persie. Both midfield positions are up for auction. Carrick has declined; Fletcher is good but doesn’t offer enough going forward, Cleverley should be sold, Giggs probably will retire and Fellaini may yet make one of those positions his own.
The defence will be equally as intriguing. Rafael is a favourite of most United fans but if the rumours that Moyes doesn’t fancy him are true then he’s not doing much to help himself recently. Evans, Smalling & Jones could all be Manchester United players for many years but all three need consistency to their game whilst the left-back position will be just as important this summer as the midfield. Moyes isn’t playing great football or great tactics but he’s been a Premier League manager for over a decade. He’s earned his chance and he deserves more than six months. He deserves a chance to build a team, to build a squad. I have no doubts Moyes has a plan of how he wants to play. He keeps saying he wants to play exciting football and give the crowd something to shout about. The sad truth is we can’t do that right now because the players aren’t good enough. The front four are but they’re not getting the service.
I side with the majority who lambasted today’s long ball football. It’s not pretty and it’s not United but quite frankly bypassing the midfield isn’t a bad option. We don’t create anything through the middle; we hardly ever do without a Paul Scholes in the team. Moyes has a vision, I’m absolutely sure of it and he knows what the United fans want. He’s targeting the best; he’ll pay the money it takes to bring in more Mata’s. A Vidal, a Kroos, a Shaw, a Reus etc.
It might turn out that David Moyes isn’t good enough for Manchester United. If he builds a team of super stars and we’re still 7th, then that’s the time to hit the panic button, sack him and start again, at least we’ll have a better squad than the one he was left with. Last season was exceptional in many ways and I honestly don’t think we’d be top of the league with Ferguson in charge last season. Last season he made one final big signing to get his last title and somehow he stayed fit. Not even United fans thought van Persie would stay fit all season. Carrick, Jones, Rafael etc all stayed fit. Roberto Mancini got complacent and killed off City’s title defence before it started. Chelsea were sacking managers, Wenger wouldn’t cough up and Liverpool were in their first season under a new manager.
All that has changed, simple. Rivals have improved whilst we are in transition, a major one. This is on the level of 1995 when the class of ’92 were introduced or 2003 when Alex Ferguson began to put his faith in the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney etc as the treble team was dismantled over the period of a couple of years. Transitions take time, not only are we replacing players we’re replacing a manager. That’s brand new territory to some United fans and it’s not been easy. Some have only known success and I understand the frustrations of those who can’t bear to see their club in 7th and out of both cups.
But it will get better, the squad will get better, it has to. Moyes knows that, Woodward knows that and I’m sure the owners know it too. Many have to leave, many have had their time and don’t seem interested anymore and others will come in. I’m not worried that Manchester United won’t attract the best. It’s a huge club and players will be queuing up to play for the club. If Barcelona or Real Madrid had a bad season would players stop going there? No. The summer was bad but that’s the way things go.
He has done some things wrong, but he’s only human. I never agreed with replacing Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen. I would have kept them in some capacity. I had absolutely no problem with him bringing Steve Round, Jimmy Lumsden and Chris Woods with him. Every manager does it but it would have helped to have a familiar, senior coach around both for him and the squad. Some subs have been strange, particularly against Stoke but he hasn’t been frightened to make bold, attacking subs and more often than not they’ve paid off. Sometimes they haven’t and it’s cost us but the majority of his subs are attacking.
There have been good moments, the win over Arsenal, form in Europe and a few good spells. Unfortunately, when United have lost this season they’ve tended to go on a bad run whereas before they would go on an unbeaten run. Whether this is down to Moyes or the players who knows? I’m firmly of the belief some of our senior players aren’t putting the effort in for the new manager. He’s their boss at the end of the day and whatever they think of his methods or his training they’re professionals and they should be giving 110%. Wayne Rooney is. For all his faults and the bridges that he’s burned he’s come back a new player this season. Moyes will get it right, I’m sure of it. Will it ever be like before? No. Of course not, it can’t be. It took generations to replace Sir Matt Busby. I have no doubts with the right players Moyes will win cups and titles. Not every season, he’s not a genius like Sir Alex but it’s something United fans have to get used to. I’m sure the club can’t ever have that period of success again, it was unprecedented and unique and we were lucky to witness it. Now the hard work starts. This is when your support is needed more than ever. David Moyes is the manager of the football club you support and he’ll make decisions. He’ll sell players you love and he might buy players you hate. There’s a reason he has a six year deal, he’ll be allowed next season to build his squad and if in the third season it’s still going wrong the club will sack him, I’ve no doubts about that.
But I don’t think that will happen. Moyes is a good manager and with the right players he’ll improve too. He’ll have his own ideas and own systems he can’t implement at the moment because so many players are so technically limited. I firmly believe he’s telling the truth when he says he wants exciting football, he wants to win the fans over and he wants to win trophies.
Remember what I said at the start of this piece about Ferguson’s final speech? Don’t forget it.