As if the struggle to communicate the winning message to his players were not enough, David Moyes found himself competing with a garrulous Ukrainian translator as he sat down to discuss his Manchester United team’s latest challenge. It may have been a blessing to him that there was at least twice as much Ukrainian spoken as Glaswegian because Moyes looked his most besieged yet.
The weight of history hangs heavy, at every turn. Defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League tonight would represent the first time United have lost three successive home matches since September 1962, when the following month’s Cuban Missile Crisis loomed heavy. This crisis hardly threatens global conflagration though Moyes’ world seems a lonely place at the moment.
Football offers precedents to provide succour to Moyes – like the comparable record of Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, who lost five of his first 16 league games and crashed out of the Cup Winners’ Cup before the Christmas of 1974, after succeeding Bill Shankly. Moyes has lost five of 15 in the Premier League and has qualified for the Champions League group stage, with a draw enough to win Group A on Tuesday night.
When it was put to Moyes that the Paisley story showed the difficulty attached to huge managerial successions, he seemed to see a risk in being seen to make excuses for the successive defeats which maroon United at ninth in the Premier League. “I take complete responsibility for the results,” he said. “I would like them to be much better.”
The Ukrainian opposition were entirely absent from the conversation. There was not so much as a question from the overseas contingent, despite the reams of translation on offer. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s era, there would be a barked insistence from the manager that we were here to talk about the football match and do the visitors a courtesy, though that kind of approach was hopeless in these circumstances.
Moyes is actually all talked out. He has tried all the combinations, tried all the players, and all he can hope now is that the goals which have evaporated from a place which has become anything but a Theatre of Dreams for him will start to flow once more. There have been eight in total in the league all season. His attempt to generate a sense of intent brought a curious assertion from him that the aftermath of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United had “raised my spirits.” In what sense? he was asked. “It just made me more determined to make sure we improve it and get better,” he replied.
United have dropped more points (23) than they have taken (22) this season, after having dropped only 25 in the whole of the last campaign and Moyes admitted that he presently cannot summon the powers of self-belief that they exuded so often under Ferguson. To the suggestion that his players appeared to have given up after falling behind to Everton and Newcastle, he said: “I agree. We have tried to make changes to improve it but it hasn’t quite happened. We have lost goals two goals quite late on in games, the Newcastle one not so late, and we just couldn’t find a way of getting a goal back.” The “Newcastle one” actually came with half an hour to play – an eternity in Ferguson’s world.
Moyes said Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra are all injury concerns for Tuesday, though Shinji Kagawa is expected back after sickness which required his stomach to be pumped – an as-yet unexplained drama all of its own. The manager said he is contemplating resting players for Sunday’s visit to Aston Villa, which may mean nursing Robin van Persie’s groin problem through rest.
The Ukrainians, who have not won in England in five attempts, are also under searing scrutiny at home – for having accumulated ten points fewer than at the same stage of last season. But all things in perspective: they are still five points clear in their domestic league, which has just entered its winter break. Moyes now requires a little of what Paisley found at Anfield. After that very inauspicious start, he won ten or the remaining 11 league games and didn’t look back.