Last weekend I wrote about the need for change at Manchester United, that the team, results, tactics and public interaction that we’ve seen this season simply haven’t been good enough. Not by a long shot. What should be done about it is clearly an issue that polarises opinion amongst our fan base and further articles were published on Stretty News and elsewhere providing well-articulated arguments both for the potential removal of David Moyes as manager (or at least the consideration of it) and for him to be given time to build his own team – that he should be trusted as Sir Alex was during the early years of his tenure at the club.
Whilst I still don’t agree that nothing should be done if performances continue on their current trend, I can entirely understand the perspective that he should remain regardless of results. I understand it because if I were to choose my ideal outcome from this point onwards it would involve David Moyes as manager. He is a good, honest, hardworking man and I desperately want Fergie to be right. My dream is that he wakes up tomorrow morning and has an epiphany, identifies mistakes he is making and takes steps to rectify them. I want to see something new at the weekend, in a home game against a Fulham side who come into the game bottom of the Premier League, in abject form, having played 120 minutes in an FA Cup tie which they lost at home to a League One side. Moyes has very little to lose now, and if he can’t bring himself to experiment on Sunday then he never will. We have an attacking quartet in Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Januzaj who are incredibly intelligent and, in the case of the former three, vastly experienced footballers with the qualities to recreate the fluid interchanging of positions involving Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and, to an extent, Ryan Giggs we purred at in 2007/8. Obviously you can’t say to them, “go out there and do what you like,” but set up a solid framework behind the front 3/4 and let them play on instinct, rather than with the instruction that involves the wingers or full backs always being the primary option when in possession. For short spells in some games this has happened, but only when we’ve been behind and chasing games in the latter stages, when Rooney and Januzaj in particular (and Mata at Stoke) have roamed in search of space and the ball.
I, as so many of you are, am reprising the weekly or biweekly search for a sign that change is afoot. I try to form opinions on the evidence available rather than preconceptions. I didn’t follow Moyes’ Everton in depth but my gut feeling was that he had done an extremely good job there given their resources and that, whilst they weren’t the most attractive side to watch, there was some variation to their play. Given the disparity of the income between his club and those above them, it would be difficult for them to achieve more. When he was announced as Sir Alex’s successor I was surprised but open minded and happy to let matters play out. I had several conversations with rational, eloquent Evertonians who were both grateful for what he had done for their club, but also pleased that he had moved on. They felt that, after ten years, they needed something beyond pragmatism and dampening of hopes and were excited that Roberto Martinez had been appointed. I took their words on board but shelved them somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind. Perhaps, with better players, Moyes’ vision would involve more expansive football and lofty predictions.
Six months on I finally find myself accessing those opinions, and realising that the manager Sir Alex handpicked for the job is still very much the David Moyes of his Goodison years, perhaps even an exaggerated version. The football we are witnessing has, in my opinion, been even more pragmatic, with less variation of style than we saw at Everton and the rhetoric has been, at times, as negative as ever. I had a further brief chat with an Evertonian on twitter this week and he identified a strong similarity between the public face presented by Moyes at Goodison and at United. There was, he said, a constant downplaying of expectations and prediction of a glass ceiling beyond which, in returns of results and style, they could not go due to the budgetary restraints imposed on him by the heavy debt at the club and shallow pockets of their owner, Bill Kenwright. He specifically highlighted the 2009 FA Cup final, which Everton lost to Chelsea, before which their manager had cast them as the plucky underdogs and, post-defeat, promulgated the message that it was an uphill struggle to challenge the biggest clubs and that defeat in a cup final was essentially the best they could have hoped for. By the end many fans wanted to dream again and aspire to more…a trophy win of any sort and less pragmatism.
I think most United fans can now relate to those experiences at his former club, particularly the continual playing down and/or lowering of expectations. From the early season admission that we would have to “take more blows,” to the message that the early season fixtures would be exceedingly tough and the message now that many of the players are simply not good enough. And, whilst this rhetoric has some basis in truth, I can’t help but feel that some fans have slowly and understandably bought in to the idea that we have a desperately poor squad and that, whilst our current predicament is particularly dire, we shouldn’t expect too much anyway, until he has his own new, world-class additions. This perspective also seems to have gained credence simply because we are seeing so many players playing so badly that we’re starting to forget the qualities that they do have and have shown us in the past. But the team is clearly struggling with the tactical instructions they have been given and also with motivation, by words or deeds; one of the most important responsibilities of a manager and coaching staff. And so it seems to me that we are stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy: play down expectations, play down the quality of the squad, fail to motivate and inspire, results are poor, the manager says “Look, I told you it would be bad, the players aren’t good enough,” and this is accepted by many, whose expectations have been lowered by the constant rhetoric.
And yet when I look at the current United squad I see a strong core of players and some truly wonderful ones. I see a very decent group of footballers who should be doing so much better and many of whom can form the basis of an extremely good team with the right leadership and additions. In David De Gea we have one of the two or three best young goalkeepers in world football, alongside Courtois and Ter Stegen, a young man who will surely progress and become a truly world-class player. At the back, despite current form, we have an extremely effective and talented right back in Rafael and a complement of three centre backs in Evans, Jones and Smalling who, alongside a new, experienced addition have the potential to form our squad complement of centre backs for many years. Whilst I’m not Smalling’s biggest fan due to his questionable abilities on the ball and tendency to switch off at least once a game, he certainly has a role to play going forward, and both Jones and Evans have the potential to occupy a spot alongside a more vocal, dominant leader in central defence. In midfield we have an ageing but still vital playmaker in Michael Carrick, and an all-rounder in the form of Marouane Fellaini, the best of whom I believe we have yet to see for reasons of deployment and injury. And finally in attacking areas the quality is in places exceptional. In Van Persie, Rooney and Mata we have three world-class forwards and in Januzaj we have a rare, almost limitless talent. Danny Welbeck offers depth in the squad, as does Javier Hernandez, whose wretched season should not lead us to forget just how good and useful he has been for us since his arrival in 2009. Of course in some areas we need additions and I would imagine that quite a few of those not mentioned above will leave at the end of their contracts or be sold.
I have two reasons for highlighting the strengths we have. The first is that I don’t feel that it should be inevitable that we will “take more blows” or accept continuing mediocrity. This is a top four squad and that is where we should be. It may be a strengthened version of a title winning group, but we’re largely all realistic enough to realise that what Sir Alex achieved twice in the last three years was a miracle, and that other teams, through purchases and development have moved above us in terms of quality and depth. This isn’t about the shambles of last summer or the missed opportunity of the winter transfer window but about what we have right now. We have the players to play more expansive football and to experiment with.
Secondly, there is the basis of a really good squad going forward, with the right additions and coaching. If I return to the point in my last article and at the beginning of this one, about needing immediate change, many of the pieces of the puzzle are already there going forward, should those changes be made. In an ideal future I want David Moyes to be the man to make those changes, and Fulham would be the perfect match in which to start. No more managing expectations. It simply isn’t necessary or welcome. Most United fans I’ve spoken to over the last 7/8 months were always realists about this season. Before this wretched campaign began we were well aware of the resources at our disposal, but that knowledge has been reordered in some fans’ minds, understandably given the results and rhetoric. Perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on what we don’t have or currently can’t see and realise what we do.
The purpose of this ramble is to build on the idea I expressed post-match on Saturday that a continuation of the current trend is not acceptable and change must happen. Assessing David Moyes’ time, team and persona at Everton and in his first seven months at United it is hard for me to see a chink of light, a piece of evidence, past or present, which suggests that he can and will be the man to do so. I recently made a comparison on twitter between Moyes and Brendan Rodgers. The latter took over at Liverpool and implemented an attractive philosophy of possession-based football. Results in his first season were extremely mixed, but he spent that year tinkering and experimenting, at one point trying to play with three at the back, and his team evolved and he learned. From that early possession-based strategy he has slowly adapted, as he has gained knowledge and experience, to a counter-attacking style, with some player additions, that better suits the qualities within his squad and now he is starting to get some results. I want to see a similar process of evolution at United, but as things stand that simply isn’t happening. If anything the current trend is one of regression. Change can be implemented. Some of the tools are already at the club. Enough to make an impact. I want David Moyes to prove me and all of the doubters wrong and get this side playing in a more varied, expressive and just plain fun way, starting at Old Trafford, against Fulham on Sunday. Achieve that, with a moderate uplift in results and some of the dissenting fans, myself included, will become more patient. But it has to begin now. If not, it might be the time for someone else to have a go.