It was something Mark Hughes said in one of the back corridors of the Britannia Stadium late on Saturday which drove home the enormous emptiness at the heart of Manchester United. He was talking about the intense scrutiny which comes with playing for that club and how, as he put it, he used to draw motivation from it because “from my point of view it was fear of failure. I didn’t want to let anyone have the opportunity to criticise. It used to drive me on and I would suggest it was what used to drive a lot of United players on.”
The logistical nightmare David Moyes had been confronted with an hour or so earlier revealed how far from that old United philosophy his players are. After Phil Jones had been knocked unconscious by a fall and Jonny Evans strained a calf, Tom Cleverley wandered over to the dugout a little after 4pm to complain of double vision, at which time the manager was also juggling his promise to Robin van Persie that he would not see out the full 90 minutes.
Somewhere in that myriad of considerations, there was supposed to be an explanation for Moyes’s curious decision to send on Danny Welbeck, rather than Darren Fletcher, when Jones’s injury had left a hole in midfield which Wayne Rooney ultimately had to fill. But the overall impression was of a manager desperately trying to fix lost shape and lost courage at a club which aches for what Hughes knew as the spirit of Manchester United.
There were extenuating circumstances, like the injuries and the opposition and what felt like a force six gale – is the open corner at Stoke a deliberate attempt to create a wind tunnel? – which led Moyes to say late on Saturday that he had not known fortune like this in all his 16 years managing.
“[It has] never [been] as bad as this [run of luck]. I’m a football guy and I know how it works and you take it as it comes and goes but I think this has been quite a long sustained period,” he said.
But you make your own luck in this game. United would help change theirs if they at least stopped conceding the first goal in games, which as Hughes said in relation to his own team is “really crucial” because you are left chasing games. “As a consequence you can’t build performance because it is always about having to try to get back into the game and at times you over-commit.”
The long and short of it is that United lack a shape, a pattern and a purpose. They cannot look forward with any confidence to playing in the 2014 International Champions Cup, the tournament to be played in July across 12 United States cities, whose participating teams will be revealed tomorrow as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Milan, Roma, Liverpool, Internazionale and Olympiacos. Come July, United will probably be up to their eyes in Europa League qualifiers.
Their defender Chris Smalling agreed with the notion that United would need to win every game if Liverpool were to open up the gap from last night’s seven points to a full nine. “Yes, I think that is the case. We’ve got to go into it as if we need to win every game. We’re the ones who have to catch [Liverpool] so we’ve got to win the points and put the pressure on them.”
United possess four consistently game-changing players – Rooney, Van Persie, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj – to Liverpool’s two – Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. But Liverpool, who may very well be in the shoot-out with United for fourth, possess a huge psychological edge. Brendan Rodgers has his players believing in a way that Moyes does not.
The mood of defensiveness and air of retreat was never clearer than when Moyes was asked if he too thought every game needed to be a victory now. Instead of the statement of intent that was needed in reply, he replied that he would just “have to win the next one, so you’re not going to get me to say any more than that…”
Stranger things have happened. If the marshalling of football resources really is so ludicrous that Charlie Adam’s fitness levels could be allowed to drift so low that he could not sustain 90 minutes of football when Hughes arrived at Stoke, then there is no accounting for what the game might throw up. Hughes’s fitness coach Damien Roden helped Saturday’s stand-out player shed two stones. “He is reaping the benefits. He is looking stronger and fitter,” Hughes said.
Words cannot describe the look of disdain on the Stoke manager’s face as he discussed Moyes’s outlandish claim that United had been Saturday’s better side. He was diplomatic. “There will be pressure brought to bear [on United],” Hughes said. “That goes with the territory. David has been in the game a long time now and he knows how it works. He will come through it. He is not someone who is green behind the gills. He is an experienced manager who will get it right I am sure.” But he spoke with the air of someone who knows how far his old club have fallen.