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The plight of Manchester United

20 February 2014, 07:33

My Apologies to those who have been waiting for the full article, I had no idea my post went live. The rest of the piece has now been published, please read and feel free to comment below, or read more on Thanks for the interest, even if I don't have all my facts straight ...

Much has been said this season about the form of Manchester United and where the problem areas lie. In light of this, I’m sure fans of the north-west club would be remiss to read yet another scribe’s viewpoint regarding their misfortunes this term.

However, I hope, as many others have done, to offer an alternative perspective as to the reasons for their current plight. There are, I feel, a host of reasons for the club’s distress this season.

First and foremost: Manchester United’s decision to allow Alex Ferguson to name his own successor. This is clearly a decision born from the reverence Sir Alex commands at Old Trafford, and not without good reason, but had the board of the club chosen their own manager (as is the norm in these situations), I’ve no doubt they would have chosen someone with a proven title-winning pedigree.

Jose Mourinho, for example – who desperately wanted the post, in spite of all he tells the press about being “the Happy One” back at Chelsea – seemed an ideal candidate. Yes, this is a matter of opinion, but I’m left with little doubt that Mourinho wanted the United job - badly. The source of my strong opinion being what he said in the wake of his Real Madrid side defeating United in the Champions League last season: “the better side lost tonight.” This is something Mourinho would never admit to, judging by what he says in most other press conferences and post-match interviews. Also, that this comment was made shortly after Ferguson announced his retirement at the end of the 2012-2013 season, to me says he was trying to cozy up to Ferguson and the United powers that be in the hope of securing the job.

Furthermore, I think the manner in which his first tenure at Chelsea ended in 2007 (having fallen-out with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich), has me thinking he wanted to put one over on Chelsea.

So why not Mourinho, he clearly has the aforementioned pedigree? My opinion is that Jose Mourinho could have been seen as a journeyman, having managed Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – all in less than ten years. Mourinho’s ‘drifter’ image is therefore not suited to the Manchester United ethos of keeping a manager for long periods or even the length of his career.

The other viable option for Manchester United would have been Dortmund man, Jurgen Klopp, the only man currently capable of challenging Bayern Munich’s supremacy in Germany. Not that he explicitly wanted the job, but who in their right mind wouldn’t want the job of running the world’s biggest football club? It’s something every manager aspires to.

So, then why David Moyes – a man who spent eleven trophy-less seasons at a much smaller mid-table club (I mean no offense to the Everton faithful)? My only guess is that David Moyes idolized Ferguson as much as anyone else, and given the relationship between the men, and both being from Glasgow, I’m sure they would have seen eye-to-eye on most matters in football, albeit with seemingly contrasting football philosophies.

I also understand that the Moyes and Ferguson families are at close ties, and am I not suggesting Ferguson elected David Moyes by way of nepotism, as I think he’s far too principled for that.

And contrary to what many have said about Ferguson purposefully choosing someone inferior to himself that would never match his trophy-hauling record, I think Sir Alex lives, breathes and bleeds Manchester United – and as a result would never do that either. Indeed, such a suggestion would render my previous point null and void.

I think the truth is much simpler than that: I think Sir Alex Ferguson, despite his near-infallible nature, made a mistake.

I also think the notion of Ferguson leaving Moyes a squad of players in desperate need of an overhaul, is false. Ferguson would never have jumped ship at the first sign of trouble, not given his total devotion to the club for a quarter-century.

I believe Ferguson had every confidence in the players he was leaving behind, and why not – they coasted to victory in a thirty-eight-game league by staggering eleven points – in other words, with nearly four games of the season to spare! Surely, with the right stewardship, these players should have been able to carry similar form into the new season? Which is also why Ferguson explicitly requested Moyes to retain his coaching staff at the club, after all they could be seen as half of a winning team.

David Moyes subsequently denied Alex Ferguson’s old backroom staff the opportunity to lead the squad into a new era, and instead employed his own technical staff from Everton – a decision met with derision from most quarters. Of course, we all understand Moyes’ reasons for doing so – he knew his Everton staff better, and wanted to step out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s considerable shadow and be his own man.

One thing Moyes does not want to have hanging over him is being seen as Ferguson’s ‘lackey’. Now, it seems Moyes and Manchester United, in the wake and under the weight of that decision, seem to be buckling. United, in this season, are now only two losses away from equaling the total amount of games lost for the past two seasons combined, and it would take a brave man to bet that United won’t lose more than two games in the run-in to the season.

David Moyes simply seems incapable of extracting the best from his players. That, combined with tactical inefficiencies and playing players out of their preferred positions, mean United are simply nowhere near what they were a little over six months ago.

Again, add to that that Moyes’ former side, Everton who have endured years of hardship in trying to keep pace with the league’s top teams, are now five points ahead of United with 13 games of the season to go, also highlights Moyes’ ineffective management style.

Since taking over from David Moyes at Everton, Roberto Martinez has seen his team to victory at Old Trafford, leapfrogging the defending Premier League Champions and lying sixth (following their loss to Spurs this weekend), and playing a more exciting brand of football and driving at teams from the first whistle to the last.

Perhaps ‘ineffective’ is bit harsh, maybe ‘not suited to Manchester United’ would be more accurate. Their possession statistics seem adequate at an average of 54% for the season, though they don’t seem to be doing much with the ball in the way of forward movement and the utter dominance enjoyed under Moyes’ predecessor is certainly no longer – something evident in the fact that they have recorded only 12 victories this season in 25 outings.

The past weekend’s home draw with bottom side, Fulham, showed that even with over 70% possession, United were still incapable of claiming a vital win. The fact that a total of 81 crosses were posted into the box over the 90 minutes, only 16 of those reaching men in red, suggests that United lack imagination in the final third.

Indeed, Fulham approached the match with a wholly defensive mindset, and with United only seeing fit in continuing with balls into the box from wide areas, reveals little in the way of a Plan B. They could have tried their luck by driving up through the middle and put either of their strikers through on goal with an incisive ball (something Juan Mata is a proven quality at providing), or taking shots from outside the penalty area, but none of these were forthcoming.

Moyes’ team also appear incapable of putting in a full 90-minute shift, after again having taken the lead with a little over ten minutes remaining against Fulham, United conceded in stoppage time for a 2-2 home draw – a fairly common feature of Manchester United’s season thus far. They seemed to have switched off shortly after scoring their 2nd of the game, an expected winner, and assuming Fulham were dead and buried at 2-1 with only a few minutes to play, but it just wasn’t to be.

"I stand firm we will be very close," said Moyes early in December, following a second successive loss at Old Trafford to Newcastle – a week after losing at home to Everton. "I hope we are in it at the end of the season."

David Moyes sung a different tune after this weekend’s draw by stating “We’ll do our best” in response to a question about Man United’s chances of winning the race for fourth spot.

Moyes remains adamant that his role as United manager is not at all under threat, and given the club’s history, this may well be true, but I harbor a few serious doubts. Since assuming his role, United have been knocked out of both domestic cup competitions by seemingly much lower opposition – Swansea in the FA Cup, and Sunderland in the Capital One Cup – in quick succession. The latter defeat, as a result of a woeful penalty shoot-out in front of United’s own fans.

On current form, it would appear that their days are numbered in the Champions League as well, given the strength of the remaining teams in Europe’s elite competition. Should Man United be knocked out by Olympiakos at the end of February, I think Moyes may well be evicted from Old Trafford.

The United Manager has also been heavily criticized for his transfer policy, with the purchase of Marouane Fellaini for nearly 30million pounds clearly made out of desperation as United had not made a single purchase until transfer deadline day – and then barely minutes before the window closed. The midfielder has only made eleven appearances for United in all competitions this season, though much of that has been down to injury.

That aside, Fellaini has been largely absent even when on the pitch this season, chiefly as a result of Moyes’ insistence on deploying the midfielder in a more withdrawn role than he’s been accustomed to at Everton.

Thirty-seven million pound man and United club-record signing, Juan Mata, has faired rather better since being brought in from Chelsea, having made three appearances so far this season and assisted in as many goals for United already – but only one of those resulting in victory.

So, nearly £70 million spent, and very little indeed to show for it.

The worrying thing for Manchester United is that Moyes seems to be in denial of their form this term, and that poor results have delivered the club into crisis. And though most would not consider 7th place on the log to be critical – indeed some would sell their souls to be there – but I beg to differ: consider their player wage bill and the cost of maintaining the league’s largest stadium by far, Manchester United needs Champions League football to stay afloat.

The Glazers and United are still heavily in debt to the tune of around £350 million, so buying players in the summer for a dithering manager, and no Champions League football, may not be at the top of their list of priorities.

"I don't know what we have to do to win. We played well today," said Moyes following a recent league loss to Stoke City, but it seems crystal clear to me:

1)      Play ninety minutes of football at a time

2)      If Plan A (crosses) is not working, try something else

3)      Play players in their most effective positions and resist the temptation of putting your best eleven players on the pitch in the hope they will accommodate each other

This is likely not the be-all and end-all to Manchester United’s problems, but I am certain that it is a start.

From a Liverpool fan ...
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