THIS is not The Old Trafford Wrap. I appreciate that. Yes, I know there’s the ‘who is obsessed with who’ thing going on but this is a special case. It’s not often you get to write about United having a poor season so I’m grasping the nettle while it’s available. I understand the accusation that you don’t come here to read about Man United but just indulge me for a while. Cheers.
So, how do you define Man U 2013/14? Well, it’s certainly a decline – a decline of sorts, anyway. Whether it’s a reparable one is the subject of speculation, debate and a sense of hope, be it for or against.
I come neither to defend their new era nor grin at their horse-pill of sobering reality. Man United have suddenly become remarkable in terms of precedent, parallel and paranoia. It’s all got very real, indeed.
Why these three ‘p’s? Well, ‘precedent’ because this is the first time in recent memory where United’s domination is under attack from themselves as much as the other strong clubs. They’re just not used to this situation. Parallels, because this looks similar to Liverpool 1991 -the year that doubt first crept into the corridors of Anfield before turning into a flood of panic – and paranoia because the Cult of Ferguson has gone (sort of) and criticism of United from all but the Steve Currys of the world is now deemed acceptable. Ferguson may still haunt Old Trafford but the club can now be appraised without fear of his punitive measures. There’s a chink in the armour that wasn’t there before.
Yes, there’s a fair bit of schadenfreude thrown in here but I’ll try to be as objective as possible, after all we’ve been there before. Just look at our 1992-3 season when the Cup holders spent large parts of the season in the lower half of the League and Souness was incapable of holding things together. We went from ‘88 (our best side since ‘79), the last league win in 1990, Kenny going in ‘91, albeit while we were top of the league to the ‘92 Cup win to …well, nothing. A black hole of joyless football. The decline of Liverpool FC started as a slight skid down a mountain path before the inevitable dive into the yawning chasm of a bloody awful season, namely 92-93.
There are comparisons elsewhere too. From 2004-5 ours was a nascent rise. Regular Champions League knockout stages, 86 points and a proper squad of excellent players that we are still yet to replace. Mascherano, Alonso and Gerrard. The best midfield in the world. Fernando Torres destroying teams with a mere flick of his bleached mane. Sami and Carra standing like oaks at the back. Liverpool on the march. Then suddenly the Spanish giants took Alonso and Masch and we were surrendering to the likes of Blackpool. Our new manager didn’t seem too concerned and was somehow satisfied with a cataclysmic derby defeat. Another crash, another wasted opportunity. This was the low part of the roller coaster ride.
The point is – we know something about spiralling here.
But United don’t, and that’s what makes the beginning of this season so fascinating. For the first time in decades they go into games sensing that they may not necessarily win. Five defeats in fifteen league games, or one defeat in three – a stat that dogged this new generation Liverpool in recent years. That’s a season’s worth of defeats before Christmas.
It’s different for us. After a while that inconsistency became the norm but for United it’s dressed as crisis, and it’s being greeted with horror rather than the usual state of affairs we’ve yet to arrest in God knows how many years. Maybe it’s a case of standards. What happens when the thing you’re used to doing suddenly stops working? Where do you go then? They don’t know. You can see it in their faces, from the blank looks around the back four to the manager with his hands on his hips -the ‘How did THIS happen?’ frown.
Well, you should know how it happened because you’re in real trouble when you don’t and pointing at bad luck is a desperate act when it’s a repeated pattern.
It’s easy to point at Moyes although he is, of course, a significant factor. How do you replace the sheer force of personality that is Alex Ferguson and expect continuity? It’s not 1974 and this isn’t Bill handing over the keys to Bob with an instruction to just fine tune the work that has gone on before. Those days are over. While Shankly relied on a back room staff who believed in a formula to winning trophies Ferguson reigned as an unimpeachable Emperor. If the rumours are true and he busied himself with tactics rather than working with his players in the training ground, it served him well, as it was there that they won games and trophies. The problem came with the club trying to replace like for like. A working system can go on for decades, the cult and genius of the omnipotent manager cannot.
David Moyes is not Alex Ferguson and it’s unfair to judge one by the other. I firmly believe that Moyes is nothing but a patsy – set up by the board for a couple of years until their ideal candidate is ready. It must be the reason, as it’s hard for a ruthless logician such as Ferguson to advise on the appointment of his successor based on certain non-footballing criteria -namely, Scottish, authoritarian and curmudgeonly. Hardly the basis for a successful transference of power. They’re miles apart in what matters most – managerial prowess. At least Liverpool went from one extreme to the other. From Rafa to Roy. Talk about chalk and cheese.
But who is their perfect candidate? The obvious choice, given availability and pedigree, would be Mourinho and it’s bizarre that he’s not already in situ. He certainly seemed up for it. His victory at Old Trafford last season was followed by an extraordinary interview that saw him making eyes at the United board. Have a look at this and see if you can spot the U-turn in character.
Later, he went on to say how much he wanted to return to English football. Hint, hint.
That was very unlike Jose Mourinho – a man who is not usually renowned for being uncomfortable with serendipitous decisions. Let’s not forget that he shushed our end following a jammy last minute equaliser in Cardiff in 2005. Suddenly, the Arbeloa/Nani incident had got under his ribs and he was trying to be affected by it. Most unlike him. It was a man wearing a cloak of humility and it just didn’t fit well. The whole tone screamed ‘Come and get me’ yet the call never came. In came Moyes – stopgap promoted as replacement with a six year contract and a papal bull on-pitch instruction from his predecessor to boot.
With Jose out of the picture the only likely and capable manager would be Guardiola. Maybe his contract expires in 2020 too.
Six years? That’s quite a while for a mere stopgap but think about the bigger picture. United’s shares were going to struggle when the irreplaceable Ferguson left so what do you do? You make out that it’s business as usual and make a bold statement by offering a lengthy contract. Three years would look like uncertainty. Six years looks like the next move in the dynasty. I could be wrong and over cynical but, ultimately, this was a decision made by businessmen first and foremost.
Back to us again. In 2010 we were shocked to see Paul Konchesky move along with his old boss. Moyes has done something similar with Fellaini and to date the move has been just as popular. When the Fabregas move fell through there must have been a list of targets before Marouane’s name came up. Or was there? Is this the first example of the limited pull of a manager with no European pedigree? I don’t think so. Players still see the wages and the badge first before looking at who is filling the tracksuit on the sidelines. Was the reason that Fabregas didn’t go to United due to Moyes or his playing for the most entertaining club in the world? Surely Fabregas would have turned everyone down.
One thing that is evident is the drop off of their players. Let’s not forget that although David Moyes is not a title winner, his team are. This is a club that reached three Champions League finals in five years. There has to be a certain amount of muscle memory there. They know what it is to and how to win titles so experience should count for something. Again, there are parallels with LFC of 2010/11. Hodgson’s tenure was a farce but his team still had Gerrard, Torres, Reina and Kuyt amongst the dubious dross and yet they fell further and further away from that 2009 vintage. The only logical explanation is a lack of mental strength. There’s nothing worse than doubt. If one or two players think that they’ll be a bit shit then that’s what they will become. If your world class players think the same thing then you’ve had it. A crowd can spot a scared player a mile off. Think of Flanagan against at Blackburn under Kenny. It takes a special kind of resilience to make the opposite journey – from petrified to ‘fuck this, I’m getting stuck in’. Think of Flanagan in the derby. It is, however, much more difficult for a whole side to do that.
If your players don’t trust your manager (Agger claiming that Hodgson’s told him to go against his instincts and hit it long, early) mental weakness can spread like dysentery. There are currently stories of Van Persie bad-mouthing Moyes, probably paper talk, which will do no one any favours. Again, these players are champions while their manager is not.
Despite all this it’s far too early to call this a real crisis. United had to, absolutely had to, beat Arsenal a few weeks ago. They did just that. They had to beat us in the League Cup after we’d done them in the league. Again, they did. They’re still capable of pulling out wins when they desperately need them. Their problem is that they’re not reacting well to going behind. The weight of expectation suddenly becomes too much. What was once an exercise in rolling your sleeves up is now a nagging doubt that they might lose this one too.
I won’t pretend that I’m not enjoying this, mostly because there’s every chance that it may be a short term thing. David Moyes cannot destroy Man United in one season. He’ll need three or four transfer windows to do that and I’ll doubt he’ll be there long enough to get the chance.
They may not win the League but they’re not quite done yet. This might be a bedding in period but do League champions need to bed in? Not really. Is this just a case of a decent side hitting rare heights because of their old manager and, now he has gone, resorting to type? That seems more likely. One thing’s for sure though – January is going to be a very interesting transfer window for them. I’ll be honest. I’m praying for that Tony Hibbert bid.
Sorry to go on about them. I’ll get back to trying to work out Liverpool. I may be some time.