You could choose your comparisons. This is either Manchester United’s worst start to a season since 1989, the year the infamous banner, painted on a bed sheet, was unveiled at Old Trafford that said: “Three Years of Excuses and It’s Still Crap. Ta Ra Fergie.” It echoes Brian Clough’s start at reigning champions Leeds in his infamous 44 days in charge, the time of the Damned United.
It is 44 days since David Moyes’s first game as Manchester United manager, a deceptively reassuring 4-1 win at Swansea, which was also the last time the club scored from open play in the Premier League.
Moyes has never lived by excuses and made none after the 2-1 defeat by West Bromwich Albion that was United’s third and worst of the season. It was a fixture thought so routine that satellite television was happy for it to kick off at 3pm on a Saturday.
To put it into context, the West Bromwich defender Liam Ridgewell recalled afterwards that he had never earned so much as a point at Old Trafford – and that in a career that began at Aston Villa a decade ago. In his team talk, Ridgewell’s manager, Steve Clarke, encouraged his men by reminding them that they had held out for 80 minutes at Old Trafford last season. They still lost 2-0.
Since his first, deeply impressive press conference as Manchester United manager, Moyes has stressed – perhaps too much – that it would take time for him to truly know his players. However, he seems to have made up his mind about a few.
The last two home games have seen an unjustified faith in Anderson, who, given his reputation as a Brazilian Roy Keane when he arrived from Porto, must rank as the most disappointing footballer brought to Old Trafford by Sir Alex Ferguson.
If his post-match comments to the club’s television station, MUTV – “I am not sure West Brom deserved it” – are in any way indicative of his real feelings, the complacency that has undermined Anderson’s career at United is still flourishing.
Wilfried Zaha, who cost the small matter of £15m from Crystal Palace, is not yet deemed good enough to warrant a place in the squad. And then there is the strange treatment of Shinji Kagawa.
If Jürgen Klopp, Kagawa’s manager at Borussia Dortmund, confessed to being reduced to tears by the way Ferguson misused the playmaker last season, he would be in bits this morning. Moyes at least began with Kagawa against West Bromwich but he started him on the left – where Klopp said he was wasted – and substituted him during the interval for someone whom the ranks of Japanese journalists in the Old Trafford press box would have noted was an 18-year-old Belgian – albeit one, Adnan Januzaj, with a wonderful talent.
Moyes has tended to rely on the footballers he got to know during Manchester United’s summer tour of Australia and the Far East. It was a tour Kagawa was barely involved in, chiefly because he had spent June competing in the Confederations Cup for Japan. His appearances with United in Osaka and Yokohama were motivated by the need to promote the tour in a country where Kagawa is the nearest thing to David Beckham. Some of the pressure upon him can be gauged by the fact that Kagawa has 10 major companies sponsoring him. These are deals that assume he is playing first-team football, especially first-team football for the biggest brand on the planet. He cannot afford, in every sense of the word, to become a bit-part player.
There are very few men who know what it is to follow a man like Ferguson. Frank Clark, who took over the once-glittering ruins of Nottingham Forest from Clough, is one.
Clark also started badly – by the end of October 1993 Forest were 20th in what is now known as the Championship. However, Clark did two things that Moyes did not. He was able to stamp his authority on the team by bringing a number of his own players to the City Ground. He also kept Clough’s backroom staff.
Moyes has added only Marouane Fellaini, who looked out of his depth in the Manchester derby, and has kept none of the men who knew instinctively how United won championships and understood the little foibles that underpinned the dressing-room, which Moyes and his coaches might have found invaluable.
There was an attempt to retain René Meulensteen’s services but United’s first-team coach accepted an offer to manage Anzhi Makhachkala, arriving in what was the world’s highest-paying club just as it ran out of money. He lasted 16 days.
Clark enjoyed another advantage that Moyes does not. Partly because of the alcoholism that was consuming him, Clough stayed away from the City Ground and gave no interviews, which allowed his successor a space in which to breathe.
Ferguson, in contrast, has done the one thing he said he would not upon retirement – copy Sir Matt Busby by accepting a position at Manchester United as a director. And, however supportive he has been of his successor, he will not keep quiet.
Next month sees the release of Ferguson’s memoirs, the biggest publishing event of the year. There will be a theatre tour, interviews and reminiscences of the glory, glory days that are so very recent but which at Old Trafford on Saturday evening appeared so very far away.
Champions League watch: Eye on the opposition
A late goal from former Arsenal striker Eduardo completed Shakhtar Donetsk’s comeback as they drew 2-2 at Metalurh Donetsk on Saturday. Shakhtar, who host Manchester United on Wednesday, trailed 2-0 before recovering to maintain their recent unbeaten run, Alex Teixeira scoring the first as they stay in third in the Ukrainian league.
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