There has been no escape from the realities of home for Manchester United. The days of flying straight back from European games have gone: Sir Alex Ferguson's little sports science obsessions persuaded him last season that players' recovery was more rapid if they slept on the Continent rather than touched down in Manchester in the middle of the night. But in Ukraine they have been operating to a UK clock, in a country two hours ahead of Britain, all week.
The home thoughts from abroad will be tinged with a little less anxiety now that the team, buttressed by a David Moyesian culture of midfield steel, have avoided defeat in the Champions League tie with Shakhtar Donetsk which they entered as second favourites. But in such a fragile period as this, another haemorrhaging of confidence remains a constant possibility. David Moyes, the manager, was not punching the air or marching away confidently through the foul eastern Ukrainian night, late on Wednesday. His side's ball retention dipped as they clung on for grim life and a 1-1 draw. Some sticky moments left Chris Smalling's perennially anxious look even more pronounced than usual as he left the Donbass Arena. "I could have played better tonight and I'm sure a few of the others felt [so] too," he admitted.
Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic were justifiably satisfied but are searching for answers as to why United's intensity has dropped off by 10 to 20 per cent during their worst start to a campaign in 24 years. The unspeakable truth, of course, is that the departure of Ferguson has shorn United of someone who made them better than the sum of their parts. Though, since he is Moyes' player-coach now, Giggs naturally cannot say that. "Sir Alex was a great manager and a great influence on the team and the club," he replied to the suggestion. "You are going to miss someone like that. But I don't think that is an excuse when individuals aren't playing as well as they can. We are not playing well as a team. We haven't got injury problems as we have had in the past. There is no excuse."
Vidic went a little closer to public recognition that Ferguson's absence is the difference, with the interesting observation that United's players had started forgetting that they are not on the pitch to enjoy themselves. Against West Bromwich Albion last Saturday, they had looked solid enough for 45 minutes, he observed. "But then we tried to enjoy ourselves too much in the game and forgot we have to defend as well. Sometimes you shouldn't enjoy yourself too much in football. You want to be clinical. You want to be patient and keep balance in the team."
Ferguson's United were not always insulated against that kind of nonchalance. There is a fair bit of revisionism at the moment, as he goes Stateside to play the world statesman. But what was it he told interviewer Charlie Rose about his management style this week? "Fear… I think fear does come into it in some respects. I don't hide behind the bush or expect to in terms of losing my temper."
Though it could yet be a long road ahead, Giggs observed that expectations about this season being exponentially tougher than last against a strengthened Chelsea and Manchester City – United's owners, the Glazers, feel that way – might need to be revised down. "It is a weird season," he said. "City have been beaten twice. Nobody has hit the ground running who we'd have expected to. Obviously, Arsenal are playing well. Tottenham and Liverpool are at the top. But there is enough time for us to turn it around and get back to the top and stay there. You would rather be showing this form at the start of the season than at the end. There are other teams getting beaten around us."
The struggles of the others suggest already that it may be one of those seasons to target 80 points. "I hope so! The way we've started! I hope it is 70!" Giggs replied. The almighty challenge facing Moyes – who was memorably described by one writer this week as "the contestant in a new TV survival show, thrown a fresh challenge each week to see how he copes, and all for our entertainment" – is one that could have belonged to Giggs. Ferguson told a fellow manager two years ago that he saw his Welshman as the Chosen One.
In this, his first public discussion of his new role, Giggs said that the flabbiness which has let other sides cut through United's midfield must be eradicated. "You just cannot have that in the Premier League. If you expect to go on a run and put pressure on the top teams, we have to sort that out." Beyond that, the last few weeks are a mystery. "I can't put my finger on what has happened. We have just not played as well as we can both individually and as a team."
While Giggs continues to witness Continental crowds, like Donetsk's, applaud him from their field, it is left to Moyes to put his finger on things, with only a victory within the bounds of acceptability at bottom club Sunderland tomorrow. Giggs must surely look at the Scotsman, only 11 years his senior, and inwardly shudder at the scale and shape of an inheritance which only now is football really beginning to appreciate.Reuse content