Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Moyes deserves criticism. And patience.

In yesterday's Guardian, Daniel Taylor suggested that Manchester United erred in the appointment of David Moyes as manager following Alex Ferguson's retirement last summer. That may well be a sensible position to take in the current climate, given the club's listless league form and Sunday's exit from the FA Cup - a trophy that has not called Old Trafford home since 2004. On the other hand, there is no reason for the club or its supporters to panic just yet.

There was certainly a quiet inevitability about the home defeat to Swansea. This season has revealed a shakiness about United unseen in the modern era, an era in which the club was transformed by Ferguson into a perennial heavyweight of the European game. During this period defeats and barren seasons were not unheard of - competitive top-level football would never allow one team's long-term, outright monopoly - but such setbacks were almost always answered with a renewed purpose and a frightening hunger for success.

It is premature in the extreme to declare those days dead under Moyes. His first season as manager is only just past its midpoint and there is much still to play for as far as Premier League position and Champions League progress is concerned. Moyes also has at his disposal a fine array of high-end talent. In Robin Van Persie United possess a player of rare talents whose absence is all too keenly felt at present. Wayne Rooney too has excelled this year and particular credit must go to the manager for quenching the fire of imminent divorce from the star striker that his predecessor stoked as a final act. By way of reward Rooney has turned in the kind of furiously engaged performances that have kept him atop Jose Mourinho's transfer wish list. Adnan Januzaj is one of the most exciting prospects to have emerged from any English club's youth ranks for quite some time. His continuing development should boost United and frighten opponents.

In addition, the club has, in recent years, afforded the League Cup a level of respect that others might take a lead from and with a semi-final tie against a woeful Sunderland the only hurdle in the way of a trip to Wembley in Moyes's debut campaign, early trophy success is a real and respectable possibility.

Nor has United's championship-winning squad embarrassed itself on a regular basis this season. The massacre at Manchester City was a shock undoubtedly but it was no less alarming than the humiliation suffered at home against the same opponents on the last guy's watch. Equally, the defeat of Arsenal was vintage Ferguson, a finely engineered smash-and-grab against silky opponents high on confidence. Indeed, it was reminiscent of the kinds of title-sealing victories so familiar to much of the football-watching public.

That same public is as fascinated then by what is playing out at the previously impregnable Theatre of Dreams as United supporters are worried. That all too discernible thundering self-belief - a hallmark of the previous regime - appears to have deserted a group of players marshalled so artfully by Ferguson. Losing at home to historically beatable opposition is one thing but it is the manner of those defeats that mark them out as worthy of attention; straightforward, meek, strangely lacking in spirit. The players may continue to disappoint but as the highly remunerated manager of one of the world's leading football clubs, the 'chosen one' even, Moyes must share in the culpability for the side's failings.

In many ways this air of weakness should distress fans more than the results. It goes without saying that the final score represents the bottom line in football but it is perhaps only teams enjoying immediate success who can afford to view it in complete isolation. The ease with which opponents have tamed United this season has been remarkable and that is both Moyes's responsibility and his curse.

The fact that he is not Alex Ferguson is significant when one considers the Scot's dominance over domestic competition during much of his tenure. In situ for so many years, Ferguson himself became an institution. More than a mere football coach, he was somewhat removed even from those men who could rightly be called his peers. But a football coach he was and a wildly successful one at that.

Moyes is clearly no rube plucked from foreign climes or the obscurity of the lower leagues. As manager of Everton, a grand club of no little consequence, he was highly respected and long touted as Ferguson's natural heir at Old Trafford. Yet, in the cold light of day his dearth of experience in operating at the truly gilded levels of the game would seem to undermine him at present. There is only one way he will garner such experience of course but in the meantime he looks set to struggle in concert with those players whose deficiencies were undoubtedly shielded by the last incumbent's force of personality.

Mourinho has been mooted, more than once, as the direction in which the Glazer family should have gone when replacing the departing Ferguson. The Portuguese's record is beyond doubt and Chelsea could yet see his re-appointment pay off. He is, however, his own master and for all his triumphs it is a trait which has proved divisive. Internazionale and Real Madrid are not clubs famed for their patience or stability but Mourinho's abrasively domineering style placed an obvious ceiling on his time at both the San Siro and the Santiago Bernabéu. There were recriminations in the wake of his first departure from Stamford Bridge and it would be unsurprising to see it end in tears once again in the not too distant future. By contrast Moyes's six year contract is indicative of United viewing this appointment as a long term project. Mourinho could guarantee success but form points to his being a relatively short, quick fix.

Longevity has become United's philosophy thanks to the glories Ferguson brought to the club in exchange for its initial patience and his replacement in turn will surely enjoy more time than the tabloids and phone-ins demand. This team is Ferguson's still and one transfer window will not alter that fact. United supporters may shudder at the prospect of Moyes forging a team in his own image but it would be churlish to judge him fully before that point.  

That said, nothing should distract from the significant funds committed to the summer signing of the underwhelming Marouane Fellaini. Like his boss, Fellaini is hardly an unheralded nobody drafted in to bear the weight of the club's new dawn. A centrepiece of a Belgian national team widely regarded as one of Europe's most talented units, he was superb under Moyes at Goodison Park. Tall, athletic, technically sound and a daunting aerial threat, Fellaini has proven himself in the Premier League trenches. There is a distinct sense, however, that Everton got the better end of the deal and, considering the outlay, it is especially puzzling that he should be so misused by a manager aware of all that he brings to a team.

The general consensus holds that Ferguson pulled his team through its more recent title triumphs, an assertion which seems particularly true of last season's victory. Those same players look bereft of confidence now, shorn as they are of the old manager's imposing presence. The theory that Ferguson jumped ship when he realised that he'd drawn the maximum amount from this group may be accurate. That he exited stage left when faced with stagnating transfer budgets is also a strong possibility. On the other hand there are those who suggest that he cynically handpicked Moyes to fail, such failure then burnishing his own already exalted image. Whatever his reputation this is a machiavellian fantasy completely undone by the common knowledge that Ferguson was central to the process of selecting his successor. United supporters are not so myopic that they would blame Moyes for the team's troubles but continue to hold in the highest esteem the man who had essentially installed him. 

As far as Manchester United is concerned, these are unfamiliar waters and it will likely prove impossible for Moyes to replicate the highs that became routine under Ferguson. In spite of this, critics must be careful to assess him on the basis of his own strengths and weaknesses rather than those of somebody else.

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