When Sir Alex Ferguson gave his final, impassioned speech as manager on Old Trafford’s hallowed turf last May, he urged the Manchester United fans to stick with the new gaffer even through the tough times. After the win against Wigan in the Community Shield and with the demolition of Swansea early on in the season, he must have thought that he had left his title winning team in good hands. Nine embarrassing league defeats later however (5 of them at home), and the team sits squarely in 7th place. The title that they won by 11 points under Sir Alex last season was lost by November. Even fourth place, the lowest position they would need to finish to retain a Champions League spot that has always seemed theirs by right, now seems too great a task for them. Manchester United have not put together a season with this many insipid performances since before the inception of the modern Premier League era.
The only consistent performance of note anywhere has been that of the fans. They have listened to the old manager and have backed the team and indeed the new manager through thick, and more often, thin. So far he has not deserved it. As a whole, he has been mediocre at best, making abhorrent decisions throughout his admittedly short tenure as manager of Manchester United. He failed to keep the core of the backroom staff, men like Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, that helped make Manchester United what they are and had an understanding of how such a massive club was run.
He has not fared any better in the transfer market, although Manchester United’s new CEO Ed Woodward will have to shoulder some of the blame here as well. They showed a certain naiveté by making his transfer pursuits public, and then embarrassed the club by missing out on all of them. Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Leighton Baines, and who knows how many others, all said no to Manchester United. They ended up paying over the odds for Maroune Fellaini and Juan Mata – the former they could have gotten earlier for cheaper, the latter was clearly surplus to requirements at a team that finished 14 points behind United last season.
People that believe teams are a reflection of their managers will draw parallels between the team’s indifferent performances on the pitch this season and David Moyes’ performances with the press. Now that his status has shifted from overachiever with Everton to underachiever with United, Moyes, like his team, appears to have cowered. Someone that was seen as forthright, bullish and confident with journalists is now unduly honest, defensive and irrational. Indeed, he has made some odd pronouncements to the press this season, and after defeats has seemed confused and overawed by the expectations at United. No longer is he lauded for every brave draw and spirited defeat. Now even when he wins his team is criticized and psychoanalyzed. The magic of Manchester United has seemingly been murdered by perceived negative tactics.
Yet there are signs of a heartbeat. Before the second leg against Olympiakos, the team seemed mentally lethargic, and devoid of any luck or inspiration. Once the game started however, they put in an energetic performance, full of a verve and determination that was characteristic of the Manchester United of old. A two-goal deficit was quickly overturned, followed by pronouncements of reanimation in the Theatre of Dreams. Expecting them to already be back to their best may be premature. Indeed David Moyes’ assertion after the Olympiakos comeback that Manchester United could win the Champions League is unrealistic. Yet it is a sign that confidence is slowly returning. West Ham was rapidly dispatched right after, with a stupendously cocky 60 yard volley from Wayne Rooney a particular highlight.
The players, the Glazers and the fans all seem to back the manager. David Moyes did not turn into a bad manager overnight, and is a man that is always looking to the future. He has a strong work ethic, is very thorough, and he believes in bringing young players like Adnan Januzaj through the ranks; all qualities that he shares with his legendary predecessor. He has also given almost all the players opportunities to impress, including some like Anderson and Tom Cleverley that are not exactly fan favorites. Now he has a decent handle on the capabilities of the current squad and can start to mould it in his image.
However if he is to truly succeed at a club like United, there are a few things he still has to do. He will have to get rid of the deadwood – something that he has already started to do, as Anderson’s banishment to Fiorentina can attest to. He also needs to halt the haphazard and almost panic buying of supposedly big name players. Mata and Fellaini for example, are hardly two peas in a pod. He will need to develop a philosophy for a playing style and then purchase players that will suit that style. Finally and probably most importantly, he will need to re-instill a winning mentality in the side, and especially in himself; or else risk getting lost in the wilderness like the Liverpool teams of the last two decades.
There will most likely be more low points for United than highlights for the rest of the season. They are mid-table, out of the FA Cup, the Carling Cup, and now that they have drawn the majestic Bayern Munich, will most likely be out of the Champions League pretty soon as well. Their pride has been charred, their mettle tested. But if David Moyes stays true to himself and gains a winning mentality, then in the long run Manchester United and their manager will rise from the ashes, having faced adversity and been the better for it.