There are two kinds of football fans: Manchester United fans… and everyone else. The United fan has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, as the hardcore ranks of the Red Army fans swelled, many of them young people who wanted to support a winner (not unlike Liverpool fans in the 70’s and 80’s, and Chelsea fans over the last decade). Winning begets winning, both in the trophy case and on the balance sheet, and Manchester United has rode their success to the top of the football world.
However, the inevitable consequence of United’s prolonged success has been envy. The club’s double-decade dominance of the Premier League has given their rivals a generation to sharpen their knives and bide their time. So when Sir Alex Ferguson’s announced his retirement this past spring, the rest of the soccer world sensed that United’s hegemony would begin to diminish. Fans were sick of Ferguson’s mind games, his badgering and bullying of officials, alng with the club’s contribution to the gross inflation of players’ wages and the normalization of leveraged-to-the-hilt spending. Supporters of “other” clubs have been waiting for United to stumble and fall.
That David Moyes would be under the cosh from the start was thus undeniable. There is only one Alex Ferguson, a man who willed, cajoled and frightened his team to victory while speaking and moving as a larger-than-life figure. One can only imagine that, when the legend finally passes, a film version of his remarkable life will hit theatres sooner rather than later. It should come as no surprise then, that someone like Moyes — an admitted stats geek who is more likely to have a quiet word with a player than give him the “hairdryer treatment” — was bound to underwhelm.
Initially, Moyes did not help his own cause. The former Everton manager needed to make a splash in the summer transfer market, both to settle down the naysayers and to fill some very real deficiencies in United’s spine. When the window closed, Moyes’ only acquisition was his midfield anchor at Everton, Marouane Fellaini. It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing: £27.5 million for a player that has only appeared eleven times for the Red Devils, only seven as a starter. The squad was already weak (by United’s standards) but now the holes have been laid bare for all to see.
Meanwhile, the strikes against the man from East Dumbartonshire started to add up. A 1-0 loss at Anfield, a 4-1 loss to crosstown rivals City, and a 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford to dwindling West Brom made for a terrible September. Draws against Southampton, Real Sociedad, Cardiff and Tottenham piled it on, but it was successive losses at home against former club Everton and then Newcastle United that meant Moyes was officially “under pressure”. It didn’t help that the travelling fans in both of those games sang about Moyes getting sacked in the morning.
The reality is that United are not the favourites to win this season’s Premier League title; they never were. The holes in central midfield and centre back are glaring. CB Phil Jones has deputized for Michael Carrick during times of injury, while the rest of the backline continues to look shaky. You only have to look at Rio Ferdinand against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10th. Time after time, he was getting schooled by Alex Teixeira, leaving RF5 looking like John Terry in that World Cup match against Germany. United won the game, but only after waking up at the half. Meanwhile, former Premier League Player of the Year Nemanja Vidic has not been the same player since a knee injury two years ago.
Despite United’s mediocrity in defence (they’ve almost reached the total Goals Allowed average of their title runs from 2007-2009), they have kept pace with the rest of the league. However, it’s goal scoring that has become a bigger issue. They are 13 markers behind last season’s tally after 18 matches. While Moyes has been criticized for importing his negative tactics from Goodison Park, the bigger culprit has been RVP’s reduced impact, through slump and then injury.
But the Dutchman’s woes are part of a bigger dynamic that Moyes will have to address in January and then July. United have been on the decline for some time. While Ferguson has always had a great eye for young talent, and the ability to develop said talent, you got the sense in the last few years that he was, well, slipping. There is no way that a younger Sir Alex would have allowed Wayne Rooney to sulk himself into a new contract. Meanwhile, the purchase of Robin Van Persie sealed Ferguson’s final league title, but only by covering up the rest of the team’s deficiencies through a barrage of game-winning goals.
In the next five weeks, Moyes will have to make his own mark in the transfer market. No less than 11 key United players will be out of contract in the next 18 months. Five of those players are done in July, with four of them — Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Fabio — playing on United’s back line (the fifth, Ryan Giggs, will almost certainly join United’s staff full-time). That leaves Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Jones and Alexander Büttner to fill their spots: not exactly a ringing endorsement for positions that favour men over boys. On the flip side, Moyes is known for emulating his predecessor by signing youth over experience. That could be bad news for Michael Carrick (32), or the illness-plagued Darren Fletcher (29). Throw in Moyes’ low tolerance for petulance and out goes Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Most importantly, the team still has not found a meaningful and long-term replacement for Paul Scholes. Shinji Kagawa has been pushed to the left, and Rooney has been playing somewhere between a second striker and an attacking midfielder… admirably so. But contrast this with the midfield players at Manchester City and Chelsea, and the difference is embarrassing.
So the power of expectation — from both the pro- and anti- United camps — is such that Moyes was always going to be considered a failure, no matter what happened. Yet despite United’s bad start, there are still a lot of positives and/or mitigators:
– They have won five games on the trot, including a comeback against Hull that was reminiscent of the “old” United
– One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s parting gifts to Wayne Rooney was to publicly expose the player’s demand for a transfer. Moyes has had his troubles with the Scouser as well, suing Rooney for comments he made in his autobiography. But despite all of that, the England international has remained a professional, stepping up in place of the injured (or disgruntled, or both, depending on whom you believe) Robin Van Persie.
– United are looking comfortable in cup competitions. They open their FA Cup campaign at home against a struggling Swansea City, plus they play a semi-final League Cup match-up against bottom dwellers Sunderland. They also progressed comfortably through the Champions League group stages and will now face Olympiakos, the weakest opponent in the Round of 16.
– The club sits in 7th place with 31 points, but they are only eight points off the top and five points from a Champions League spot. In such a topsy-turvy year, the season is not necessarily a write-off.
The players seem to be buying into Moyes’ leadership, and in return, the Scot seems to be abandoning the conservative football that he favoured at Everton. But there will continue to be growing pains. A cup or two seem to be reasonable goals this season. That may not be enough to satisfy the average United fan that has only known winning. It may also be fodder for opposing fans who enjoy the schadenfreude of a former champion struggling with a new identity. That’s not to say they are going to push David Moyes out: it’s simply not the United way. But the Sisyphean task of managing expectations on both sides of the divide may mean that Moyes faces a long journey in the wilderness of public opinion.