2014’s Manchester United: some notes
Sir Alex Ferguson loves horses. He’s also a metaphors man. (Probably.) So it’s no surprise that he’d mentioned Devon Loch, both horse and metaphor, a few times in managerial career. Devon Loch is, for those that stumble upon something interesting and think “yeah, here’s something I could use to introduce a piece of writing one day”, the horse that crumbled under pressure. It fell just yards away from the finish line in the 1956 Grand National, an event that is apparently still talked about today. Anyway, all of this is a long-winded way to say that Ferguson’s counterpart David Moyes has had no reason to bring this as-of-now astonishing incident up, because Manchester United have had nothing good to throw away cheaply. They are essentially, to maintain the racing theme, the guy who still has three laps to go in the 10,000 metres after the lights are out. Instead of messing things up in April, they opted for September. It has, to be fair, spared us the anxiety that comes with mixing it up with the best, and the anguish that invariably follows it. Maybe we should be thankful, then?
1. David Moyes has always relished being the underdog, at least when it hasn’t meant people shouting at his face, or writing mean newspaper columns, or hiring a small plane. It’s not that he necessarily thrives in this role, but he probably believes he can, no matter how often people mention his record at Everton away from home or indeed his performances against the big clubs as United manager. Okay, perhaps he doesn’t relish it that much. But the game against Bayern Munich played to his strengths, as weird and actually sad as it sounds. After the teams had been drawn together, he was confident: “We have got a really tough game … but we’ll try to exploit little bits of weaknesses they have got.” Similarly, on their high defensive line, he “believed a different type of player causes them problems.” (He thought Theo Walcott’s absence particularly hurt Arsenal in the previous round.) He had some ideas!
The 1-1 draw in the first leg saw Moyes leave with a lot of credit, the man shown shaking his head ruefully (and hilariously) at the full-time whistle as if he’d expected more. He left a lot of attacking talent out, such as Shinji Kagawa for 45 minutes and Ash- Adnan Januzaj, and made do with a depleted defence to stifle the best team in Europe. He just about succeeded – and had the resourceful Danny Welbeck scored his one-on-one in the first half, perhaps the “different type of player” he envisaged, he might have got more. Still, it was a night for Moyes’ buzzwords: ‘organised’ and ‘resolute’ they were.
There was much of the same at the Allianz Arena the following week. United were extremely defensive in the first half, but not really in a bad way – David de Gea had little to do, after all. And then they immediately went at Bayern in the second, though remaining calculated, such that Patrice Evra’s glorious strike hardly seemed undeserved. Just like at Old Trafford, United made what they had tell; only a minute separated Evra’s goal from Nemanja Vidic’s. The similarities, unfortunately, didn’t stop there. Moyes, in what appeared his very own take on Jose Mourinho, urged calm and gave advice to a jubilant Evra and his team-mates, only to see them concede right away. They’d also done that in the first leg. United kept at it even as Bayern improved alarmingly each second, ultimately left to curse Wayne Rooney’s failure to do his job. It could have been better, but, as most had expected, it really could have been worse.
This is probably where the Moyes back-slapping ends. United can’t be good at one thing, especially if that thing is frustrating the opposition like a fourth tier team trying to prove to Adrian Chiles that there is a point to it all. As will be explored in slightly more detail very soon, there was absolutely nothing wrong with how United approached it, but, in the context of the season, it’ll possibly go down as another failure. Fans want to gain a sense of the gameplan against Liverpool and Manchester City, too. In all four league defeats – god – United looked a side neither able to attack nor defend. So while it’s good the players did not just collapse at Bayern’s inodorous feet, it’s almost sort of bad that they left with nothing. ‘Organised’ and ‘resolute’ are certainly qualities that Moyes can bring – the sorry bit is when you have to ask: what others?
You have to feel for Moyes on a human level. He does seem a nice man. But, once in a while, nice men have to sign Toni Kroos. Or something. But he doesn’t just need positive summer signings to appease fans, but a signal that he is willing to be bold and flexible on the field. Perhaps the addition of new and reputable coaches. Maybe admired ones last employed by Fulham that the club already know all about (though it’s not clear whether Alan Curbishley is available). Nobody ever really knows what’s going on inside – so some coaches will always be cone collectors by default – but you can at least give the impression there’s a willingness to evolve. It doesn’t have to be a different voice in Moyes’ ear. Any other kind of signal that’s appropriate will do. Or else the other option, if we’re talking about moving forward, is to find a new manager.
(As an aside, is it true that a Ferguson team, let’s say no different to last season’s title winners, would have set up differently against Bayern? Has the recent quarter-final shown how far they’ve fallen? Uncertain; it was a Pep Guardiola team, after all. United played Barcelona four times from 2008-2011, camped mostly in their half in each. The first two were against Frank Rijkaard in 07/08, who remarked after his side’s second leg defeat that United were intent on getting behind the ball and playing on the counter. Granted, that was a side a lot more confident about what they’d do on the break, but also one, Ferguson’s best since 1999, that did pride itself on attacking play. But there was nothing wrong with it, then; you simply have to do what’s necessary.)
2. All sorts of questions are emerging now. “Would any other top club in Europe hire David Moyes?” “What about Moyes showed that he was prepared to take on a club that wasn’t midtable?” “Why was a man not known for playing good football given the job?” “Why did Ferguson think Moyes would give stability?” “What’s your favourite theme tune? For me it’s definitely M*A*S*H.” Most of these cover similar ground, except for the last one (it’s Arthur, right?). They’re all good questions. Believe it or not, there were quite a few who had big hopes for Moyes. (Maybe there’s time for their initial feelings to be right, but many of those have now turned. Count the tedious long balls. Look at the aimless crossing. Bemoan the inconsistent selection. Sigh at the eternally unaddressed central midfield.) In two different places early-season, I used a quote from Jim Fleeting, Scotland’s Director of Football Development, who mentioned that Moyesnoticed “everything was going through the middle area of the park.” He would emphasise good play, it was then thought, through this “middle area.” It took until February, if not later, for that to really happen.
Manchester United have been heavily reliant on wide play this season. No big deal, that’s always sort of been the case. Not one of Europe’s best neglect their men out wide. They cover too big an area on the football field to ignore. But these teams manage to get by because they have an idea of what their centre looks like, too. That’s obvious. United have mostly been too scared to do anything in the middle of the park. The centre back, whether once one of the best or one for the future, punts the ball long. The central midfielder, head down, hits it to his left or right. Waiting for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to swing in a ball can be part of the gameplan, but not the gameplan.
It’s understandable that Moyes persevered with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney so often. Many would not break up a title-wining partnership. You want to get the ball to them, but is there just one way? Knock it to them quickly and pressed for time, they lose the ball. No wonder Van Persie complained about others (i.e. Rooney) being in his “zone” after the 0-2 defeat at Olympiacos. Many do, as it is, play two up front. Here are a few: Atletico, Liverpool and PSG. Debate Manchester City and you still could have three teams who win their domestic leagues. They all use the centre well; they might have two proper central midfielders, for example, and a third tucked somewhere else. United have tried, too: Rooney’s told to run up and down in his balancing act and Shinji Kagawa or Adnan Januzaj, before the new year, might have come off the left. But nothing really connects. It’s no surprise that you can have someone like Januzaj having a great game as a winger (as he does) and still see United struggle. Only individuals have really shone. Rooney, though his overall impact has been overstated by his PR team ‘Manchester United’, has walked off the field as the sole performer quite a lot. Maybe it can only about individuals in an incoherent system.
It’s been suggested that Moyes doesn’t have what he wants to play the way he wants. “To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players,” said the Scot back in September. “We’ve not got that yet.” Juan Mata arrived a few months later, so he might feel he’s closer to that now. Or not. The Januzaj-Mata-Kagawa trio (i.e. ‘THE FUTURE’) that impressed against Newcastle came to be in depressing circumstances; it took a Young injury to go with all the others to get them together on the field, their combined presence also helped by the insignificance of the run in. But they were there, and they played well. Though it wasn’t the strongest opposition, something coherent started to form in the middle. There were good individual performances because of the team, not in spite of it. Mata also led from the front in comfortable victories over Aston Villa and West Brom in March. If the ball was flying around in these games, it mostly made sense why. If anywhere, this is where David Moyes can salvage his job – and respond to those asking questions.
3. Marouane Fellaini is a Manchester United midfielder and is therefore cursed. Here are some of his great, good or acceptable games in a red shirt so far: Crystal Palace (2-0), West Brom (3-0), West Ham (2-0) and Aston Villa (4-1). Here are some of his recent bad games: Bayern Munich (1-1), Manchester City (0-3), Liverpool (0-3). It looks easy to draw a conclusion from this. Fellaini is a flat-track bully. So he gets shown up in the contests that matter. Right? Because he definitely was poor in those games against top opposition. But is it fair to single him out, even if we were to exclude that one game against Bayern on the basis that it’s just one game (where everyone else made an account of themselves)? If we look to the tragic defeats at the hands of City and Liverpool, isn’t it true that just about everyone that played were also below-par? They perform against inferior teams, and they lose to the strong ones. Perhaps United are a team full of flat-track bullies.
Anyway, the Belgian might have had as many bad games on average as, say, Michael Carrick and (definitely) Tom Cleverley have this season, but failure with Fellaini is different. He fails in such a way that it’s immediately obvious to everyone that he’s failing. He hasn’t learned the right way to fail. Here’s a man so often described as “tall” and “gangly” that it must be baffling to watch him fail to pick the ball out of the air. He is someone who fans remember completely tormenting their team at a different club and, now, right in front of them, he’s losing crucial 50/50s to Bayern Munich players who barely reach his shoulders. More failure! Carrick has failed in a more subtle way – his biggest and most frustrated critics will argue he always has. He might not be able to raise tempo adequately or the game simply passes him by. Hey, as long as it’s not inexplicably giving the ball away from ten yards. (Carrick, by the way, was voted Player of the Season by his teammates last May, and it didn’t feel undeserved. Van Persie was undoubtedly the star, but the midfielder was a solid second best. He has fallen considerably since.)
Who hasn’t been enraged by Fellaini? It happens for a legitimate footballing reason, but also because his flaws are more like zits than they are verrucas. As it is, his first season has had few highlights, but it’s not entered ‘flop’ territory yet. What hasn’t helped is that when he has been really, really dire, it’s tempting to perceive him as the embodiment of David Moyes: a reminder of a bad summer who stinks of something not ‘United’, who has been overhyped and, as a result, is in too good a place for what his actual abilities merit. Juan Mata is to Marouane Fellaini what, and this is surely stretching, Jose Mourinho is to David Moyes.
4. Isn’t it great that, despite everything, Manchester United have Adnan Januzaj?
5. Why do Manchester United have the best away record in the league? And why have they been better in Europe than some expected? Regarding the latter, Moyes believes “there has been more strategy” to games on the continent which “has suited us”. Once you get past wondering where that ‘strategy’ is when they’re losing, it does make sense. And it surely applies to away form, too. At Old Trafford, it’s pretty much attack vs. defence, a responsibility that could now be too much for some. That might not be a problem for a better manager, as it’s shown in seasons gone, but that’s a damning argument for another day. As visitors, United appear measured, adjusting to their opposition and, in turn, being a lot less predictable. The reduced pressure must help. United still attack, but it’s more of the conservative kind commonly seen in Europe. Moyes notes that Champions League football is “maybe notquite as fast.” Perhaps when he says it’s “suited us”, then, what he really means is it’s “suited me.” This is not entirely critical.
6. Adnan Januzaj is not Manchester United’s Player of the Season, but, incredibly, the teenager is comfortably a candidate. He has frequently starred when others have come across to be disinterested, or at least played like it, doing his best to jolt his beleaguered team into life. Though comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo are premature, the manner in which he constantly embarrasses defenders evokes the Portuguese. A minimum eight league players have been booked for fouling the youngster (see this link + Maynor Figueroa), not one a result of diving, a figure that will grow as he gets better. Ronaldo was always the target.
You could get Antonio Valencia’s and Ashley Young’s top three performances and not one would make Januzaj’s top five. He’s fared better than most 18/19-year-olds do at this level. It might not be long until the awards start to roll in.
Wayne Rooney is another contender. He would be favourite but, in truth, he has had quite a few ineffectual spells, sometimes shrugged off because of the goals and assists he provides. That sounds good, but you always feel it could be better, because it has been better before. That means it’s a victory for David de Gea. It’s never a good sign when a goalkeeper is made Man of the Match, let alone Player of the Season, but that’s how it is. It’s not De Gea’s fault, having expertly dealt with all that’s come his way, saving a few points in the process. His one blemish is, however, rather huge, the spill that ultimately denied United a place in the League Cup final. Many are willing to forgive.
7. Who goes? Nemanja Vidic has already left in a way that’s allowed him to sign a contract with a different club and pose for a picture, but then come back and wear the captain’s armband for a little while longer. It’s okay, though. Vidic has had a great career at United, but it’s a good thing he isn’t leaving a season too late or anything. Now is the right time: there have been some atypically woeful performances amongst the really good ones. When it’s time for reflection, it’ll be the 2008 version that’s sorely missed. It’ll be something similar with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, too.
United desperately need two central midfielders to come in right away, so Fellaini, Carrick and Fletcher will have to settle for being squad players. Fletcher’s future has come into question but, with a point to prove, he did his job admirably at the Allianz Arena. He’ll be useful to have around. There might be some pressure to keep Tom Cleverley the academy graduate, but, like Anderson – especially Anderson – it ought not to be a loss even remotely felt. United can also do better than Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, but both have been decent in patches that it wouldn’t be a great tragedy if one of them remained at the club. Include Nani here, who’s expected to leave, and you might lose a little sympathy for the other two. Or not. It’s amazing just how dispensable some of these players are.
Shinji Kagawa has demonstrated why he should not be let go, even with a superior player in his favoured central position. As we’ve recently gathered, there is more than one place on the pitch to put players like Kagawa, providing you’ve got a mind to use him correctly. Though the Japanese international hasn’t exactly been treated harshly – having failed to take his chances at Tottenham (2-2) followed by Everton (0-1) – it would be smart to give him as many minutes as possible now, preferably with the players he shares an understanding with. Building a team around Kagawa and Mata means that it will be understandable if Javier Hernandez moves on, but it’s not absolutely necessary. And, though it’s difficult to see, selling Wayne Rooney would not be such a crime. His wretched showing in the defeat to Bayern could not simply have come down to an injection, especially as he regularly hit his usual hard passes up field. His lack of composure and negligence on the ball can be as frequent as some of his thrilling contributions. This does seem unfair: he should stay, but United must not be afraid to drop him now and then. Ferguson wasn’t.
Robin van Persie, finally, might thrive with a few of the technically-brilliant midfield players that have popped up of late. Who wouldn’t want to see that? With everything considered, here are players who definitely should be here next year: David de Gea, Rafael, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Danny Welbeck and both Van Persie and Rooney if the club aren’t held hostage to either.
8. This has been pretty critical of Carrick, but, to his credit, he did (inadvertently) identify where it started to go wrong for Moyes. Turns out pretty early: “He did not try to change it all at once because at that point there was not an awful lot wrong, we had won the league and looked strong.” Moyes has repeatedly spoken about how he could never have envisaged such a sharp fall for the club. His inaction in the summer window has served him badly. Signing players would not have had Moyes’ flaws magically disappear, but, with those he so evidently needed, United would be in a better position than whatever ‘seventh’ is (is that like a number?). The overuse of certain players, meanwhile, could be explained by the fact he thought they’d perform a bit better. If Moyes stays, he would need to add the word ‘but’ and some others to the sentence: “You’re a nice man, Ashley …”
A hail of bullets (they’re actually blanks):
- If United were to invest in, say, three new central midfielders (which they won’t) in the summer, that would probably sound too many. But what if they invested in just one? What would be preferable? Two! Certainly, yes, two. But if you had to choose between one and three? Three, no? The state of things.
- This was a lot more critical of Moyes than expected. Tentative fans of the Scot should reconsider, especially, once you really think about it, ‘he seems nice and I kinda feel sorry for him’ seems, I dunno, absolutely irrelevant.
- Apart from De Gea, who else has shown an improvement from last season (‘improvement’ here doesn’t imply he was anything but great)? There can’t be many, other than Danny Welbeck, who has improved considerably in front of goal but not neglected the qualities that make him so difficult to defend against. Ashley Young? Probably. This is not a fun game.
- Rafael has struggled a bit, but there has been enough to suggest a run of games like he had in Fergie’s last season would see him back to old ways. Let’s not even attempt to imagine Rafael any other way.
- That thing about Fergie’s presence being a distraction for Moyes was forgotten pretty quickly, huh? That was ridiculous. He oversaw United’s best performance of the season, the 5-0 at Leverkusen, though he must have been obscured from Moyes’ view, or something?
- Wilfried Zaha’s exclusion bemused for a while, but now he doesn’t even start at Cardiff City. Perhaps Moyes Knows … one or two things.
- There were a few offers for this very site during its unplanned hiatus. Probably should have taken the money.
- How about that Januzaj?
- Check out 2013’s notes here, when we were playing really well. Anyone remember those days?
- The guy who’s running the 10,000m for Manchester United as mentioned in the introduction now has just one lap left. All we can ask is that he tries.
- Oh God, I definitely should have taken the money.