Not since February 1990 have Manchester United had such a poor record over their first 25 league games of the season as they now have under David Moyes. In their 25th league game in 1990, only a win over Millwall, with a goal from Mark Hughes, kept them out of the relegation zone. Hughes points out that that goal was just as important to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford career as Mark Robins’ FA Cup third round winner against Nottingham Forest.
If only one goal, Moyes must wish, could save his season. His is a battle to gain upward momentum, momentum that will give him the cache to do the necessary rebuilding job in the summer, and also to keep those disgruntled elements among the support on-side. Already, fourth place looks to be slipping away and defeat to Arsenal tomorrow, coupled with a Liverpool win will leave United 12 points adrift of the Champions League places with 12 games to play.
Bad as the 2-2 draw against Fulham on Sunday was for United, the club are not even entertaining the notion of a public vote-of-confidence in Moyes’ future. They have no desire even to indicate that is an issue. Tomorrow, the club’s quarterly financial results are announced with another strong performance expected, although chief executive Ed Woodward is likely to be asked by investors about the potential impact of not qualifying for the Champions League.
This time next year, with United in all likelihood having failed to reach the Champions League for the first time in more than 20 years, it will be a different story. There are 13 games left and the problems only seem to multiply for Moyes. At least 24 years ago, Ferguson knew his team had bottomed out when they climbed out of 17th place with a win at The Den. For Moyes, it can get much worse. These are just some of the problems he’s facing:
Nemanja Vidic’s swansong
A difficult one, this. One of the true greats of the last Ferguson team, Vidic was at fault for both goals against Fulham. His announcement that he will leave at the end of the season last week hardly helps the mood. Under Ferguson, there was no farewell tour, no comfort zone, no stroll to the end of the season, yet Moyes is still reliant on his defender.
In an ideal world, Vidic would be watching most of the games in his final months from the bench, as Rio Ferdinand is, having lost his place to better, more consistent performers. As it is, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans are injured and there is no alternative but to turn to Vidic. The home fans sang his name over and again on Sunday, but the old powers are waning.
The defensive shambles
Even in the golden era at Old Trafford, every now and again a much inferior opponent would park the bus, ride their luck and get a draw. Even Exeter managed it with that 0-0 draw in the FA Cup third round in 2005. But few visitors would also be able to punish United by scoring more than once.
If Moyes was capable of overhauling his defence entirely – and he may well be – then you could make a case for buying at least one new centre-back, certainly a new left-back and a new first-choice right-back. David de Gea is perhaps the most certain of his place in the back five and even he has wobbled of late, most notably with the late equaliser by Phil Bardsley in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg.
With Vidic, Ferdinand and Patrice Evra all set to go in the summer, Sunday’s performance suggests strengthening the defence is the priority – along with signing that elusive midfield general.
The big names in Europe
First United have to be prepared to pay the transfer fee and the wages of the biggest names, then they have to persuade them to overlook the attractions of Spain, France and London to come to Manchester. No slight intended but it has always been a problem landing the big foreign targets: from Patrick Kluivert in 1998 to Ronaldinho five years later, both of whom chose Barcelona before their latest era of success.
Signing players requires money and then reputation, a confidence market in which it is much easier for a club to lose its draw than regain it. Manchester City have had the momentum for a while now having paid a premium to generate it. Chelsea have the money and the advantage of being in London. In the past United signed most of the best English players, or good foreign players already at Premier League sides, and Ferguson had considerable traction in pushing through deals. What awaits Moyes in the summer?
There is still the Champions League, and who knows how far United might progress given their group stage form. But there is a possibility that if the gap to fourth place grows bigger, what little momentum there is to chase a Champions League place disappears and the season flat-lines.
Already, United must fear that Robin van Persie has one eye on the World Cup, especially given that one of his greatest regrets is being unfit for the last one. If it has been difficult for Moyes to cajole United along while there has at least been something to play for, one wonders what will happen to United if or when there is no prospect of fourth. How far might they slide?
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