Last week I opined that if David Moyes couldn’t bring himself to experiment and trial a more fluid, less one dimensional tactical system against Fulham at home, a side who’d lost 12 of their previous 16 league games and also over 120 minutes at home to League One Sheffield United the previous midweek, then he never will. Of course he didn’t, as a game of high farce summed up our whole season. Over 80 crosses were slung in to the away team’s penalty area, a situation which Fulham centre back Dan Burn admitted he hadn’t faced since playing in the Conference. United had Mata largely stuck on the right, with the standard slow transition from defence to attack, overloading in the wide areas, everyone else running hell for leather to get in to the box and the appalling crossing. It was a non league siege after Steve Sidwell’s comically defended opener, then United scored twice in reasonably fortunate circumstances, then contrived to concede a 95th minute equaliser.
David Moyes’ post match press conference was as ludicrous as ever, claiming that his gloriously successful players had a “mental softness”, that his team were/are great, waffled about luck and how his game-plan wasn’t all about crossing, opined that no one wants to play against his United and that he could see in training that the corner would soon be turned. At least, I suppose, he’s using some visual evidence for this claim, rather than feeling it in his waters, as he did after the away defeat at the Stadium of Light in the Capital One Cup semi final. As one journalist so succinctly put it on twitter, “he’s run out of excuses so is talking utter boll*cks”. As it turned out these utterances were positively mild in comparison to what was to come later in the week. Rene Meulensteen, clearly on the WUM, stuck the knife in and gave it a twist by declaring how one dimensional and easy to play against United had been. For many fans the result and manner of the draw was a genuine “light bulb” moment, but a loyal core continue to insist that he needs time and his own players to implement a new style that Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino achieved in a couple of months with poorer players. And that two transfer windows is too early to judge as Moyes needed months to assess his squad, players that he’ll have faced, watched and scouted numerous times over the last decade.
Further stories about quite fundamental splits in the squad rose their ugly heads again. There’s too much smoke for there to be no fire now. These were further fuelled by the news, released at the witching hour, that Captain Nemanja Vidic would be moving on in the summer. Moyes and United tried to paint this as by mutual consent, but the strong suspicion is that it was anything but. As in so many cases this season it would have been nice as a fan for my club to be honest with me, rather than trying to keep up increasingly ludicrous pretences, not on transfers or contract matters, when secrecy is often desirable, but on performances or human interest stories. As it happens Vidic leaving isn’t a disaster. Perhaps a parting of ways and a fresh beginning for both will revitalise player and club, but I’ve little doubt that Moyes would have wanted to retain his captain, particularly with Rio Ferdinand almost certainly leaving in the summer. The two have made up possibly one of the greatest centre back partnership in modern football history, anywhere, and had Ferdinand not also worn red there is a debate to be had as to whether Vidic were the finest central defender the club has ever had. Given his disastrous beginnings his subsequent achievements are astonishing. So he will leave with our best wishes. Despite his loss of edge after the serious injury he sustained two years ago he’ll be a fine acquisition for someone, probably an Italian club, where reviving aching limbs is often a speciality.
Dissent in the ranks has perhaps been THE story of the week and several United players have taken the unprecedented step of transparently having a little dig at their manager on social media. The response from some fans was to claim that any player who isn’t right behind David Moyes should be shipped out as soon as possible, because if a player doesn’t toe the line they don’t deserve to be at the club any more. For me this issue isn’t as black or white. Were the Sunderland players wrong to rebel against Paulo Di Canio? Context can be extremely important and player power is not exclusively a negative. We have a squad of vastly experienced, serial winners, who have, for their entire spell at the club, served under only one manager, the greatest of all time. For them change would always be trying, but I firmly believe that most gave Moyes a chance. The situation that we have now has solely evolved as different players have developed grievances, over training, team selection (or non selection), tactics, results. Some could have genuine gripes, others being more selfish. What concerns me as an outside observer is the scale of the dissent. I doubt you’d find a club anywhere where everyone is happy. But the size of the problem at Old Trafford is unusual. As with the fact that so many players are in such bad form, there is clearly far more to it than natural complexities. They have a novice manager at the top level, playing prehistoric football and under-performing in game after game, turning champions to chumps, making bizarre excuses in press conferences and regularly pointing the finger at his playing staff. On the pitch confidence is in the toilet, as is belief in what they’re doing. If, as some suggested, we get rid of all of the dissenters and the weaker members of the squad, United would be left with about ten players. You get the impression that quite a few are itching to desert a sinking ship. Some will be driven to their next destination by fed up fans, but one or two of our favourites could be heading out as well, either by choice or because they are being pushed. Stories keep cropping up that Rafael is set to be moved on, and on form this season you could understand why, but we know how good he can be when free from injury and correctly used and seeing him leave would be a terribly hard to take. One wonders whether David Moyes will still be in place to make these decisions, whether he’ll have the trust of the board to spend the supposedly vast transfer kitty and if the best players would be willing to come here even if he does hang on. Worst case scenario, a raft of players could be alienated, leave or be dumped this summer, Moyes brings in his own men, results remain poor, he is sacked in October/November and a new manager starts with a squad of his predecessors design. Without signs of progress it would take a brave Glazer to maintain the status quo. The fear for many fans is just how much damage will be done in the meantime.
Matters took a surreal twist in David Moyes’ pre Arsenal press conference. I say surreal, but I think I mean down right worrying. Or side-splittingly funny. I can’t decide. If the manager had jumped on to the table in front of him, got on all fours and started barking like a dog it wouldn’t have looked out of place. It’s hard to know where to start, but overall it was an exercise in the manager adding fuel to the flames of all of the fears that United fans currently have about his attitudes to our problems and what constitutes success for him at the club. There were also strange contradictions from things he’d said before which also epitomised the confused thinking and downright denial that anything is wrong at the club or with his approach.
He started by saying that his players had been “terrific”. “The players are doing great. I think I’ve got a great group of players. I’m very fortunate I took over the champions and I think the players have been terrific.” This clearly isn’t true, either on the pitch or through interpersonal relationships and contradicts his own observations last weekend and on a number of occasions prior to that. The assembled hacks, staring at an open goal, pointed out that said champions sat 7th in the table, 21 points short of their tally at the same stage last season. “Well, I was at Everton so I wasn’t 21 points worse off. I was at Everton.” Now that is a sentence to make the blood run cold. Was he being facetious? Even so, the naivety of such a quip is astounding. Where do you start? Is 7th ok for United because it was for Everton? In fact, I have no idea what he even means. He was at Everton and not United so his performance is therefore not 21 points down from where he should be? Was this a warped self defence mechanism or a continuation of the repetitive and, in some cases, successful playing down of expectations. He does have some United fans now believing that this squad is where it should be, or not far off, and that without a mass clear out of a group of champions, on a scale rare in elite level modern football history, we can hope for no more. Two days later I’m still perplexed.
The press conference continued. When pressed on the performance and tactics against Fulham Moyes stated, condescendingly, “You need to have a football intelligence, a football brain, to understand first of all.” So his tactical consciousness is on a plane of existence above those of the fans, hacks, pundits, commentators and fellow managers, none of whom can see the genius he is instilling in the squad. Perhaps most worryingly he was asked whether, in the light of terrible results, he would look to make changes in his approach to preparation and in-game management. “I can only give you my answer. I disagree.”
To conclude we got the ultimate fall back. If results are terrible, tactics are terrible, motivation is terrible, confidence is terrible, the share price is terrible and luck is terrible, there is ALWAYS time. You see time is infinite, with infinite possibilities and anyone going through hard times will cling on to it as a sign that things can be different. “I was given a six-year contract because it was a long-term deal. It was always going to take time. There is rebuilding going on year after year here and we will continue to try to do that.” We’re managing expectations again here. I’m not sure what “it” is meant to be, but I’m pretty sure it was never supposed to be putting a competent, attractive football team on the pitch, that plays the game at a level somewhere near the sum of its parts. What I fear “it” actually is is, through repetition, creating a side who can cross consistently well enough to win sufficient games to knock around the top four year after year. Alternatively, the six year plan may be the timescale he envisages it taking to brainwash the entire United fanbase in to believing that United are essentially a mid table club and that we shouldn’t demand any more. It’s a six year plan in expectation management.
Moyes is clearly feeling the terrible pressure that failure at United can heap upon a man. As a human being I feel sorry for his predicament, even if some of it has been self inflicted. However, the things he says, the press conferences he gives, are exactly of the sort that we absolutely eviscerate managers of other clubs for. Hodgson, Dalglish, AVB, Rafa’s rant, Wenger’s myopia, Rodgers’ Brentish motivational techniques and team analysis. It’s not just on the pitch where Moyes isn’t learning or adapting. As results get worse so do his public utterings. Dealing with the pressure of the job is a skill that a successful manager must have and so far our man has failed to come to terms with the demands of the job.
Ed Woodward announced United’s second quarter accounts by conference call to investors. Turnover is up, the business is in good shape, we know the team is sh*t but we’re going to buy and sell a few players this summer (better than last summer’s dismal failure, like) and not to worry if Moyes succeeds in bringing the club down to his comfort zone for years to come, because the club will always sell shirts anyway, so that’s ok. We can all rest easy in our beds tonight.
And then on to Arsenal, where everyone, myself included, expected a panning. We were, however, looking forward to the inclusion of Adnan Januzaj, clearly omitted from recent games to keep him fresh for this one. Except he was on the bench again, which was annoying and a little perplexing. I have to admit that I only saw the last fifteen minutes and had to endure a Matterface/Collymore/Talksport water-boarding for the rest, but it looked like we were competent, worked hard, still rigid, could have snatched it if RVP was sharper, but also could have lost it if a strangely meh Arsenal, and Olivier Giroud in particular, were any good at shooting and weren’t facing a Chris Woods inspired David De Gea. Regardless of opinions on the summer’ coaching casualties, the change from Eric Steele seems to have done the young Spaniard no harm at all. It was a result which, in normal circumstances would be pretty well received (and indeed was by some), but it was of little use to either team. It shows the gulf in perceptions of United fans and those of other clubs that some Reds hailed it as a decent performance, while it was the assessment of several of my non-United friends that both sides were pretty awful. Dying of thirst in the desert a pint of your own p*ss will look appealing. One chum likened it to Everton’s goalless draw at the same venue last year. The night was made to feel worse by exciting victories for Spurs and Liverpool, the two most likely contenders for the fourth place that is now way out of our reach. The latter’s late winner at Fulham was Unitedesque and Brendan Rodgers now has his side playing exciting, penetrative football. They are morphing in to us. And we are morphing in to them, under Roy Hodgson. Both appear to be reaping the benefits of doing away with failing managers whose interviews and press conferences were often exercises in denial and delusion. Make of that what you will.