The not-bad things that happened in a bad season
Well, it’s not been great. Should we just focus on the good times, then?
It’s not been easy to put together the not-bad things of the season just gone, but there are a few that stand out: David Moyes’ reckless – or pioneering? – use of his official Manchester United mouse mat, the 4-1 opening day win over Swansea, Robin van Persie’s triumphant celebration against Arsenal, Danny Welbeck’s goalscoring form over Christmas, the sight of Tom Cleverley and Alex Buttner standing over a free-kick in the Cup, the fans in general, Anderson leaving in January, Juan Mata and David de Gea’s burgeoning friendship, like an old photo of a young couple kissing amidst the wreckage of war, Juan Mata’s blog, Steven Gerrard hitting the post and missing out on an Old Trafford hat-trick, and United’s brilliant and baffling away form.
And here are some other highlights:
Januzaj vs. Sunderland
There was very much a thirst for Adnan Januzaj’s full debut before Adnan Januzaj’s actual full debut, so impressive was he in pre-season and in his early cameos from the bench. What had excited fans was just how much his youthful enthusiasm was complemented by genuine talent. That burst of pace from deep, the willingness to take on defenders, a few decent crosses … is he really a Manchester United winger?
Despite all of this, nobody could have seriously predicted the evening’s events at Sunderland (not to make this sound like Januzaj had a Cantona moment in the stands). United were even more atrocious as usual, and probably didn’t even deserve Januzaj’s rescue act with all the freebies they offered their hosts. Fortunately, Sunderland were kind enough to score just one, allowing Januzaj his moment. His first was fairly straightforward, converting a low Patrice Evra cross, but a goal wasn’t exactly inevitable. United, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie as sluggish as they’ve ever been, were not really creating chances. As it was, Januzaj, not for the last time, was United’s only real performer. His teammates sought him every time they picked up the ball, and the Belgian himself showed a few good touches coming from the flanks (“a few good touches” is the thing people absolutely rave about). He was the only player that looked like he could win the game: and so he did, hitting a spectacular left-footed volley from a tricky angle. Having scored what eventually turned out to be the winner, his celebration was not as muted this time. Nor was it for relieved fans, who had it confirmed that the boy was a star.
Just before his side took on Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16, Olympiakos coach Míchel González revealed that he likes Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj. According to him, these were “good players”. Weeks earlier, also in preparation for United, Arsenal Wenger commented on the “quality they have going forward”, mentioning Van Persie, Juan Mata and Januzaj.
There’s a lot of sense in picking out players based on reputation, as we might find with someone like Van Persie. For those in a position not as privileged, say, in their debut season, standing still does not do. And Adnan Januzaj certainly doesn’t, impressing both more than expected at this stage and, tellingly, when others haven’t. It’s a pretty great achievement, despite how poor United have been, that Januzaj has ended his first season as among the main men.
With all that talent, the fact that he’s still very young figures a lot less with how he’s perceived. Look at how Hull’s Steve Bruce put it, after another stunning Januzaj performance, perhaps his best since Sunderland away: “It can’t be dark times when you have got someone like Januzaj,” said Bruce, probably cursing Stephen Quinn under his breath. “He’s only 18 and looks like a real player. In Januzaj, for me, they have got the outstanding player in Europe at the moment.” He is the season’s highlight.
Bruce has got one thing wrong, though: he’s 19. Where does the time go?
5-0 vs. Leverkusen
Though PSG would later expose Bayer Leverkusen as simply not good enough for the big stage, United’s thrashing of the Germans remains their most satisfying performance. David Moyes’ side played quick attacking football in the middle of an injury crisis, with Wayne Rooney, Nani and Shinji Kagawa all delivering. The win was a welcome break from all the losing and drawing, as Moyes continued to make a decent account of himself in Europe. Just let him have this.
The signing of Juan Mata in January admittedly represented a bit of a false dawn, as many quickly realised (or it simply reinforced their view) that United’s problems went deeper. By then, the hope was a top four finish: but a lack of summer investment, the failure to find a style that suits and a manager not ready for the job would continue to hurt United’s chances. Still: who didn’t get swept up in it all? Moyes’ confidence-sapping observation that United needed “five or six world-class players”, not just a few, had a lot of truth in it. Mata was one of those, and perhaps an indication that others would follow. Or maybe not, but there was the immediate promise of seeing a player whose quality was at the level the club could definitely do with. At season’s end, he was United’s third most productive player in goals and assists, despite being somewhere else for half of it.
3-0 vs. Olympiakos
Of course, the disastrous nature of the first leg meant that winning 3-0 was the minimum expectation, and yet it felt great. United were able to string passes together this time, nobody got in Robin van Persie’s way as he grabbed a hat-trick and Ryan Giggs and David de Gea put in delightful contributions. None, though, were as good as Marouane Fellaini’s, where his stunning time-wasting abilities helped ease all fears and send United into the quarters.
Evra’s goal at Bayern
While it probably wasn’t better than Wayne Rooney’s long-distance goal at West Ham, it was certainly better than Wayne Rooney’s long-distance goal at West Ham. The 73 seconds that followed Patrice Evra’s strike (before Bayern’s equaliser) were among the best 73 seconds in football history, as you’d imagine when a proper fans’ favourite scores the best goal of his career in the biggest game of a difficult season.
It helped that nobody saw a United goal coming – and that nobody saw Evra coming. Antonio Valencia knocked in what looked to be a wayward cross, until Evra suddenly appeared in view. He was ready to hit from the sort of range that many, typically anything other than goalscorers, fancy but whack over the bar. Except it went under. And then there was only euphoria.
When Rooney’s effort was preferred at the end-of-year awards, Evra said, in jest, but very much with truth, that he didn’t “understand why I didn’t win. For a defender it is one of the best goals I’ll ever score.” If people like their goals with context, Evra’s wins all of the awards.
David Moyes’ sacking
Celebrating the loss of someone’s job is a pretty bad thing, many would agree. But, well, you know. It’s just the relief, after months and months of frustration, that makes it.
If David Moyes had gone in September, few would have celebrated it. Obviously, because it wouldn’t have made any sense. That would have been unpleasant, unprofessional and unpopular. Same for October. And pretty much November. He’d have lost a lot of sympathy by December, but still. There’s time. January: well, this isn’t good. February: we all sort of want it, don’t we? March: he should definitely go. Why hasn’t he gone yet? April: why is still he-yes!
It was also a relief because it wasn’t that inevitable. It seemed the only reason to keep him around is that sacking him would have been an embarrassment the club hadn’t prepared for. And that’s a pretty huge reason.
Look: the amount he received in compensation would be enough to quit all our jobs.
Giggs takes charge
The best thing about Ryan Giggs taking charge at Manchester United was the understanding that it was temporary. With four games remaining and little to play for, it was all joy and nothing else: we didn’t have to worry about the job being too big for the Welshman. Not immediately, anyway. Coupled with the sight of Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes as coaches (and Phil Neville), we all realised that, clichéd as it almost certainly sounds, things could genuinely be so much worse. In any case, we could savour it now – and worry later.
David de Gea
Was good at not making it worse for Manchester United and won some awards for it. That’s alright.
A lot of those who absolutely resent everything about the most successful club in England would baulk at the idea of ‘The United Way’, and fair enough. That’s expected. But any fan who wants to attach something magical to his/her club is entitled to, and encouraged to. A bit of culture is always good, after all, especially in the increasingly stale football world. So when James Wilson and Tom Lawrence were selected for the season’s penultimate game against Hull City, fans were understandably excited. As they might be.
20-year-old Lawrence looked confident throughout, playing on the left-hand side in what, sort-of-fittingly, might have been Ryan Giggs’ last at Old Trafford. It was, of course, all about Wilson. Though another teenager of 18 had already scored two goals in a debut (of sorts), it’s doubtful whether Wilson would change anything about how his day went. A couple of assured finishes and a win – who could hate on that?
It was David Moyes’ highlight. It was therefore everyone’s highlight.
Pointless – and selected – Player Ratings: David de Gea 9; Rafael N/A (he is, quite frankly, above something so trivial (especially if any rating would reflect badly upon him)), Smalling 5 (he’s a centre-back), Jones 5, Evans 6, Ferdinand 3, Vidic 5, Evra 4, Buttner 5 (ffs); Carrick 4, Cleverley 2, Fellaini 4, Januzaj 9, Valencia 4, Young 3, Kagawa 5, Mata 7; Rooney 7, Van Persie 7, Welbeck 7, Hernandez 5. That was fairly pointless – and wrong (almost certainly wrong).
Words to hold close: “Hug” – Juan Mata, various.
Questions worth asking: Why? Why?
Reasons to be cheerful: Louis van Gaal. In almost any situation, Louis van Gaal.
A final thought: Let’s forget about it all. Listen. Come closer. It never happened. It will shock you how much David Moyes’ one season in charge at Manchester United never happened.
An edited version of this piece appears in the Republik of Mancunia 2013/14 Season Review, which you can buy HERE on a pay-what-you-want basis. All proceeds go to Macmillan Wellbeing Centre Trafford. Good cause and all that.