It is safe to say that David Moyes assumed the toughest job in the world of football when he was handpicked to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United. The Scottish-born manager inherited a club rich in history, has become a global brand, and had just come off from winning its twentieth English title. Moyes was also left with the responsibility of addressing United’s biggest concerns moving forward: the club’s aging midfield/defense and a disgruntled Wayne Rooney.
The club failed to address their numerous needs in midfield and defense. But Moyes was able to hold on to Rooney despite the advances of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho and the player has shown a renewed form and desire on the pitch.
Manchester United sputtered during the early stages of the Premier League season but still produced winning efforts in the Carling Cup and Champions League competitions. Since United’s 2-1 home loss to West Brom, the club has gone ten matches in all competitions without a defeat. Their biggest victory of the young season came a few weeks ago when they beat first place Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford. The win over Arsenal brought back memories of past United performances as every player who stepped on the pitch produced a focused and determined effort for the club.
Following the match with the Gunners, United was greeted with disheartening news as they learned they would be without the services of 2012-13 PFA Team of the Year member Michael Carrick for up to six weeks. The loss of Carrick was a huge blow to the club’s already weakened midfield. Carrick carried the weight of United’s midfield responsibilities as he was the linchpin of the club’s attack and defense.
Over the international break, United were handed more injury news as Robin Van Persie and Phil Jones were ruled out of upcoming fixtures, while Nemanja Vidic was also recovering from the concussion he suffered during the first half against Arsenal. Right-back Rafael has also been sidelined with an injury since United’s 3-1 win at Fulham on November 2nd.The losses in midfield and defense have presented an opportunity for United’s fringe and forgotten players to step up for the club.
In their first game since the break, United conceded an injury-time goal against Cardiff City and were only able to leave South Wales with a draw. The match was highlighted by the inconsistent, uninspired performances of United’s midfield and defense. Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini were dominated by Cardiff’s midfield for the better part of ninety minutes. While good performances from Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra were spoiled by the right-back’s unnecessary foul (which conceded a late free-kick) and the left-back’s poor marking which left his man free for the tying goal.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was a guest on this weekend’s episode of BBC Match of the Day 2. Following the panel’s analysis of the match between Cardiff City and Manchester United, former Welsh football player Robbie Savage heavily criticized United’s two midfielders while reserving his condemnation for the Red Devils’ two at fault defenders. Savage went on to ask: “Are these guys Manchester United players?” He then directed the question to Schmeichel and the former Red Devil gave this response:
“You’ve got to perform every week [at Manchester United]. Every game you have to play at a very high level. Your bottom level has to be very, very high. You’ve got to be consistent and you’ve got to be mentally strong.”
The hard facts are (and most Red Devil supporters are already aware of this) for a ‘big’ club, United are thin at key positions in the midfield and defense. They have quality on their team, but those players lack consistency.
Despite their shortcomings and injuries, United has clawed their way back into the Premier League race and is currently top of its Champions League group heading into today’s match against Bayer Leverkusen. The German club is currently second place in the Bundesliga, four points behind leaders Bayern Munich, and have recorded eight consecutive home victories in the Champions League group stages.
Bayer Leverkusen only trail United by one point in the group and they know a win at home will send them to the top of Group A with one match to play. Manager Sami Hyypiä says that his club may have suffered from nerves during their earlier encounter with Manchester United at Old Trafford and has guaranteed there will be no repeat performance at the Bay Arena. United manager David Moyes admits Bayer Leverkusen’s quality has been a surprise and has forced him to reassess his prediction that Shakhtar Donetsk would be the Red Devils’ main barrier to the Champions League knockout phase.
The German-club could not be catching Manchester United at a better time. With injuries to Robin Van Persie, Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic and the suspension of Marouane Fellaini, United are extremely shorthanded. Phil Jones and Rafael did return to training this week and have travelled with the team, but to expect them to jump back into the lineup and perform at the highest level would be unfair after both players have missed extended time on the pitch. So once again, it’s up to other players to step up in their absence.
Bayern Leverkusen will provide Manchester United with yet another tough test. Regardless of their recent form or playing time, United’s players need to put in a focused and determined effort if they are to take points at the noisy German ground.
The words of legendary United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel should be ringing in the players’ ears: “You’ve got to perform every week. Every game you have to play at a very high level. Your bottom level has to be very, very high. You’ve got to be consistent and you’ve got to be mentally strong.”
Who will step up for Manchester United in their latest and toughest test?