Saturday was the ninth anniversary of one of Manchester United’s most spirited and inspired performances of the last decade. A side that had been stripped of some of its best performers, while others were still considered too raw and young to be relied upon, took on an Arsenal side that had won the league the previous season and dominated them in their own backyard, as Roy Keane famously saw Patrick Vieira “out there”.
Nine years on, United buckled under Stoke’s physicality, surrendering for the eight time this season without much of a fight, not a whimper of aggression bar for the frantic final ten minutes, during which United never looked like scoring anyway, their unorganised attacks reflecting the terrifying lack of confidence that has crippled the players’ minds this season.
It was, in more ways than one, a new low, with the feel good factor of Juan Mata’s arrival all but evaporated within a week and the hopes of clinching a fourth-place finish fading away as rapidly as the confidence fans have in their team and, more importantly, in David Moyes.
The United manager looked like a haunted man on Saturday, not for the first time this season either, and for a lot of Reds his admission that “we don’t know what we have to do to win games” was the final straw.
Having been one of Moyes’ staunchest advocates throughout the season, I struggled to find a way not only to defend his latest statement but, first and foremost, to understand it. Hearing the manager of the team we support and care about so deeply admitting that he’s powerless and devoid of ideas when it comes to turn United’s fortunes around is bad enough, but it would have been acceptable had United dominated the game only to be denied by an enormous amount of bad luck.
United, instead, were horribly poor. So poor, in fact, that they allowed a side that had lost five of their last six league games to win without almost breaking sweat, our midfield too aware of its own limits to try to overcome them and our defence almost resigned to the fact that, sooner rather later, another goal would go in.
What, however, hurt more than the defeat, was the predictability of it all. Having spent £37m on one of the most creative players in Europe, United prodded along in the pedestrian way we’ve become accustomed to this season, the likes of Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney reduced to watch the game pass them by, their attacking instincts stifled by the archaic approach United insist to adopt.
I like David Moyes and I’m desperate to see him succeed at United, not only because he seems a decent enough man but also because he’s worked his way to the top in a very dignified manner, but like I did not agree with those who have been against his appointment from day one and did not even afford him the chance to prove them wrong – admittedly, he hasn’t done much to quell their fears since then – I find those who refuse to consider that some things might need to change if United are to regain their mojo, equally disturbing.
Is it incredibly easy to criticise the manager from behind a screen, when some of our “fans” have never set foot into a football a ground? Granted it is, and if there’s one positive about United’s current predicament is the numbers of glory hunters and hangers on that we’ve already parted with is only going to increase over the next couple months, but does point out this team’s deficiencies make us spoilt as some Reds suggested over the weekend, their blind faith in the manager becoming increasingly difficult to justify?
It does not, particularly as admitting that Moyes seems increasingly out of his depth and needs to ditch the archaic 4-4-2 he insists to utilise is a far cry from wanting him and his staff to pack his bags and leave asap. The transition from Fergie to whoever succeeded him was never going to be easy, even less so considering the shambles that unfolded last summer and the disgraceful lack of quality that was left behind, but Moyes hasn’t made it easy for himself.
The cracks Fergie had so brilliantly papered over have appeared all at once, but while Moyes should not be blamed for being left to deal with a mess that has been maturing for the past eight years, the United manager has come across as a man wanting to change things, but too reluctant to do so all by himself, almost as if he needed someone to confirm that the changes he wants to apply are indeed the right thing to do.
United looked to have turned a corner last week, Mata’s arrival lifting the club and the fans, but as the £37.1m man cut a forlorn figure on the wing on Saturday, it was impossible not to think that Mata was brought in to fit into a system that quite clearly doesn’t fit him, rather than to be the catalyst leading to a whole new approach being built around him.
Ironically, but perhaps not so much considering the circumstances, one of United’s best performances of the season arrived on the opening day of the campaign, when Moyes perhaps had not yet fully grasped the enormity of the task awaiting him and had not yet allowed his mind to be paralised by fear.
That fear has grown into a full-scale panic, as United continued to tumble out of competitions like dry leaves off a tree in autumn, while the management neither stuck nor twisted, the change of personnel on the pitch inversely proportional to the change we had hoped to see in the club’s footballing philosophy.
Those advocating that Moyes should be sacked, overlook the fact that were United to back him this summer, they could be faced with another rebuilding campaign in 18 months if they decided to sack Moyes. In other words, if Moyes spends this summer and results fail to arrive leading to him being sacked, would the new manager be happy with the players left behind or would the club have to endure more rebuilding?
Football, as Fergie showed more than once, is about maximising your strengths, climbing over the wall rather than trying to take it down by banging your head against it, but United have not done so, opting instead to stagger back like a drunken man before charging again towards the wall with less energies and, crucially, a vanishing conviction.
Since he took over the club in July, I’ve been hoping to see David Moyes growing into the job, but it’s instead the job of being manager at Manchester United that has grown on him, the crushing weight of the legacy and the dismal results proving too much to handle for him.
Come on Dave, prove us wrong. We can live without trophies, but not without a team capable to look their opponents in the eyes and mutter “We’ll see you out there.”