There is no crisis in the English game quite like a car crash at Manchester United. The morbid interest in the apparent decline of a powerful institution draws the nation’s eyes to Old Trafford hoping to see more blood on the floor. United can’t complain. They have had it their own way long enough.
Five defeats this season was the juicy detail feeding the appetite for gore ahead of tonight’s engagement with Shakhtar Donetsk, two of them successively at home. A run like that would have had Sir Alex Ferguson hopping from one foot to the other but not yet, it seems, David Moyes.
A remarkable feature of Moyes’s early reign has been his demeanour, always measured. He went through his pre-match rituals as if he were taking United’s juniors for a run-out at Carrington. The unconditional support of the board and, for the most part, the fans has effectively stretched an emotional safety net beneath him to protect against the heaviest fall.
Even the Roy Keane propaganda machine, insisting that Fergie is still operational at the club, his ego unable to accept the retreat from power, has not been allowed to disturbed Moyes’s equilibrium. Across the piece his words have been relatively few. He has not fuelled the debate around United’s poor start with incendiary contributions. And he has acknowledged disappointment without abandoning hope.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been to make the debate about the players without blaming them. And so the idea gains traction that a squad that won the title by 11 points last season is somehow in desperate need of remedial attention if not renewal.
Though Moyes would not want to spend too long browsing Twitter’s more rabid precincts, the majority among the United diaspora buy into the view. United’s midfield has been in need of attention for some time. This has provided Moyes with a get-out-of-jail card. Ferguson masked the issue by force of will and personality, so the argument goes. It would be unreasonable to expect Moyes to pull the same confidence trick.
His answer has been to throw players at the conundrum with a variety of permutations. Tonight’s kaleidoscope saw Shinji Kagawa deployed in his favoured position in the “hole” behind Wayne Rooney. In support of Kagawa, at the base of the midfield triangle, Moyes restored the same pairing that was so effective in the thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen, Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs.
If it was hard to argue that United got lucky in Germany, it was equally clear that cohesion is not possible without stability. Moyes made eight changes from the side that lost to Newcastle. The nuanced understanding that comes with familiarity has been absent in his regime. The endless recycling of players in the search for nirvana has undermined the project at least as much as the lack of creativity in the middle of the park. That is all Moyes’s own work.
The first half was a microcosm of the story so far, fleeting moments, muscle memory, if you like, lingering from the days of plenty, interspersed with periods of high anxiety as Shakhtar’s meld of domestic and Brazilian talent ripped holes in Moyes’s vision. Some might have imagined spot-fixers were at work. How else to explain the fluffed shots and errant strikes with the United goal at Shakhtar’s mercy? Or maybe it was simply a matter of providence.
Part of Moyes’s appeal is his modesty, a commodity that suited the profile of the post. There is an earnest quality to his approach that sat well with his greatest advocate, Ferguson. It is his essential decency that is working for him in this period of transition. We could do with a change of luck, was the Moyes lament beforehand. And sure enough it came when Jones put his boot through the ball in the 67th minute to fire United in front.
With a draw the requirement to secure progress into the Champions league knockout stages as group winners, Moyes was on his way. If you are going to buy time as manager of United, maintaining interest in Europe is a prerequisite.
The domestic drama continues at Villa Park on Sunday, but at least Moyes travels on the back of a win. Behind the scenes the restructuring has begun. A recruitment infrastructure that had fallen into disrepair under Ferguson is receiving the Moyes treatment.
Though he has yet to reveal a style template that the world can readily associate with him, Moyes demonstrated at Everton his ability to spot a player. His scouting system was a thing of wonder, documented in Michael Calvin’s book The Nowhere Men, a loving treatise on the work of football’s hidden colony of grafters that spend their lives on the road looking for the next big thing.
This is where Moyes can make his mark, and a difference.
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