Manchester United are in disarray, 14 points worse off in the Premier League than they were precisely a year ago. They may need only a point against Shakhtar Donetsk to top their Champions League group tonight but things aren’t right. So what are the problems?
The wrong kind of fear
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, under-performance brought a fear of what the manager would say when the players trooped into the dressing room — a significant part of the “control” which the former manager has spoken of in his new career as a management guru. But the players have a different kind of fear now. Their timidity and anxiety during Saturday’s home defeat against Newcastle revealed they are burdened by the responsibility of delivering for David Moyes what they did for his predecessor. Some looked like they didn’t want the ball, while one of those who did — Tom Cleverley — demonstrated that it is the quality of the contribution that counts, not the quantity. It is two years since Cleverley’s recovery from fitness was yearned for, after his promise on the 2011 pre-season tour made him the next big thing. Now, he is one of too many United players who would simply not make the Chelsea or Arsenal teams.
Moyes has an innate suspicion of the media. There is certainly a more fraternal environment in his press discussions, with Moyes willing for journalists to pull up a chair to talk — in a way that Ferguson did not. But Moyes is deeply suspicious of TV cameras and his discomfort when on film has created a series of excruciating televised press conferences. There is no link between press conferences and form, of course. But the negativity Moyes is projecting to the world has served only to deepen his image as someone lacking the inspirational qualities needed for this job. His distaste for questions about injuries has also made him disinclined to discuss Robin van Persie in any depth, creating an air of mystery and a sense that there is a problem between the striker and the club.
It’s not just managerial propaganda when Moyes tells us he could use some it. The loss of Michael Carrick to a hamstring injury has been bad luck, as has the inability to deploy Wayne Rooney and Van Persie in tandem because of injury or suspension. They’ve started only eight games this season and United have won six of them and drawn two. To an extent, luck has deserted them in games, too. They hit the woodwork twice against Newcastle.
United’s problems stem from their failure in the summer transfer market. Moyes summed up his philosophy on Friday when he said: “I tend to take my time and try to assess what are the best players to bring in.” But since the squad he has inherited are patently not up to the task of retaining the title, the summer was a time when Moyes should have thrown off his conservative instincts. There was surprise at the top of some other elite Premier League clubs when Moyes did not progress United’s interest in Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara, allowing the midfielder to go to Bayern Munich instead. Neither did United display the imagination in the loan market that Everton have. Moyes went conservatively with the tried and tested — £27million Marouane Fellaini — who to date has not delivered.
The players might have it in spades but the manager, of course, does not. And despite all the talking about Moyes possessing the commitment and desire to turn things around, he simply has no experience of learning from previous decisions and mistakes at the elite end of football. And because of that, there is a limit to how he can guide and inspire his players. Liverpool’s Bob Paisley had a similarly bumpy start when he succeeded Bill Shankly in 1974 — losing five of his first 16 League games, while Moyes has lost five in 15. But Paisley had spent years watching and learning from Shankly. Few of the challenges he faced were novel. In an ideal world, Moyes would have worked for a year as Ferguson’s assistant. But Premier League football doesn’t work like that.
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