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The Art of Moyes

david-Moyes

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.

Fellaini calls for a taxi...

Fellaini calls for a taxi…

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.

Rio really shows all he can.

Rio really shows all he can.

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.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Premonitions for the Premier League

Will it be two in a row for the boys from Stamford Bridge?

By Kevin Hoggard & Brent Lanthier

It seems like only yesterday that Chelsea beat out United on the last day of the season, while Arsenal sputtered through the last six weeks without Fabregas, and Spurs squeaked into the Champions League… pushing out the other so-called “Big Four” team all the way into seventh place.  

Not much should change at the top this year. For the last seven seasons, the Blues and the Red Devils have swapped Premier League honours. Can we call them the Big Two now? The newest Manchester millionaires — City — may beg to differ.  

Here then are our picks for top eight:

Kevin’s picks Brent’s picks
1. Chelsea 1. Chelsea
2. Manchester United 2. Manchester United
3. Manchester City 3. Manchester City
4. Arsenal 4. Tottenham Hotspur
5. Everton 5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham Hotspur 6. Liverpool
7. Liverpool 7. Everton
8. Aston Villa 8. Aston Villa

Chelsea – Kevin, Brent: Champions  

Kevin: Liverpool, ManU and Arsenal just haven’t strengthened their squads to challenge Chelsea over a long season.  The Blues are old, they’ve lost Ballack… but Essien is back to full fitness. Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world in Drogba.  Lampard still puts out 20 goals a season. What other big clubs are getting that output from a midfielder? An experienced and settled squad who just know how to get the job done.  

Brent: Essien’s return will more than compensate for Michael Ballack… but the real story with Chelsea is goals. 103 of them, actually.  It was a veteran squad that broke the Premier League record for goals in a season… and it was a veteran squad who shelled West Brom this weekend. Potential problem: what to do with the squad’s stable of foreign stars under new League quotas.  

Manchester United – Kevin, Brent: Runners-Up  

Kevin: Ferguson has failed to fill a glowering hole in the centre of midfield. Scholes and Fletcher are good… but they’re far from world-class, and beyond them the cupboard is a bit bare.  The defence is creaky with perma-crock Ferdinand and lumbering Vidic (what’s the over-under on his red card count this season?).  Strength in attack with Rooney, Nani, Valencia… with Berbatov and new signing Hernandez in to give some relief.  

Brent: Scholes and Giggs showed this weekend that they’re not ready to hang up their boots just yet.  But Giggs came off the bench, and Scholes certainly won’t start every game. Which Rooney will show up this season? Valencia should shower him with crosses… and Berbatov looks like he has something to prove.  Defense is worrisome.  Last year, they were the league’s stingiest.  But Rio is hurt, Vidic is undisciplined and got caught looking several times last season.  Good… but not good enough.  

Not this year, Roberto

Manchester City – Kevin, Brent:3rd   

Kevin: The title is a step too far for Man City at this early stage. You can’t buy a complete squad and expect them to be cohesive. Another couple of years before they are truly challengers for the title but it will come, barring any financial meltdown. You can’t spend this much money and be disappointed forever. Although Amsterdam 2001 springs to mind… but I blame that on the beer.  

Brent: Not cohesive, but check out the parts of the sum. City poached other supposed “big clubs”, offering untold riches to those who came to Manchester proper.  But who will see the pitch on a regular basis… and who will see the back of Mancini’s fine Italian coif? Besides, the manager used three holding midfielders on Saturday and three forwards, begging the question: who will feeding the ball to the attack? Shades of Maradona… which worked out well for Argentina, didn’t it?  

Arsenal – Kevin: 4th; Brent: 5th  

Kevin: It’s hard not to like Arsenal unless you’re a yiddo.  Their fluid attacking football is the closest thing English football has to Barcelona.  But Arsenal’s downfall is Wenger’s reluctance to open the purse strings and buy some bloody players.  He needs a decent goal keeper and a quality center-back to partner Vermaelen before they can challenge for the title. Arsenal are being fiscally sensible and and paying off debts from the new Emirates. But Arsenal fans must be tearing their hair out, knowing that until the debt is paid, they’re forever the bridesmaid and never the bride.  

Brent: Arsenal looked ordinary this weekend at Anfield. Almunia is, well, Almunia… and they lacked the flowing football they’re known for.  Their two best players — Fabregas and Van Persie — are perpetually hurt… and Fabregas doesn’t even want to be there.  Arsenal were in the title hunt last season until Fabregas picked up an injury in the last six weeks, and I don’t see his replacement yet. Wenger’s only edge may be in the new league quota rules, due to his long-standing policy of scouting young players. But I don’t think they will be playing in the Champions League next season.  

"Why won't anyone sign?!?"

Everton – Kevin: 5th; Brent: 7th  

Kevin: David Moyes might be the best manager in the Premiership.   Despite dealing with a lot of injuries and poor early form, Everton still managed to finish two points behind Liverpool.  With more luck this year, I think Everton can push on.   They have a solid settled side that are just hard to beat, and with Cahill fit they have a match winner on any given day.  

Brent: The Prem’s third-longest lasting manager, Moyes can wring the best out of his players.  After an awful start to last season, Everton were among the best after Christmas: only Chelsea and Man U had better records. But they are still a small squad and can’t seem to sign anyone.  They will fatigue and drop off, as better teams push for the finish line.  

Tottenham Hotspur – Kevin: 6th; Brent: 4th  

Kevin: I like this Spurs team a lot. They have flair, creativity and one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership.  If they get past the Young Boys (and that’s never easy: ask my uncle!),  they’ll be fighting on four fronts and I think it will be a stretch too far.  They have a big squad — thanks to their massive spending in the last few years — but I think inexperience will tell and the Champions League will affect their league results.  

Brent: No one expects Spurs to win the Champions League.  But everyone on this North London team expects to be back in it next year. ‘Arry hasn’t signed anybody (except for Sandro?!?) but Tottenham has a solid and offensive-minded starting eleven.  If they can get some super-sub performances from Keane, Pavlyuchenko, dos Santos and Palacios — along with regular displays from Defoe, Crouch, Bale, Lennon and Huddlestone — look out. Let the kids play in the cups… these boys have gotten a taste and they like it.  

Liverpool – Kevin: 7th; Brent: 6th  

Kevin: I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict another season of struggle for Liverpool.  Unless the Chinese take-over is imminent and Roy has oodles of Yen to spend, I just can’t see them being better than last year.  I know the Scouse fans are optimistic but I just don’t like their side.  They are a Torres injury away from trouble.  He is the class act in a workmanlike team.  

Brent: Liverpool were not that bad last season.  Their defence was top-notch: only Chelsea and Man U allowed fewer goals. But off the pitch, the team was in turmoil and on the pitch, they relied too much on Torres and Gerrard.  Worse, the team only scored 15 times away from Anfield.  Hodgson has done some nifty little bits of business, bringing in Joe Cole and a cast of others. But this is not a squad of title winners… and other teams are catching up. Liverpool pride will return this season… Liverpool’s form might not.  

Aston Villa – Kevin: 8th; Brent: 8th  

Kevin: Martin O’Neill transformed Villa into perennial contenders for Europe.  They have finished 6th for the last three seasons.  But O’Neill has gone, the coffers are bare at Villa Park and Milner has to be sold before acquisitions are made. The team has a huge wage bill and must trim their ranks, but they can’t unload those players to create some wiggle room.  I think this will be Villa’s worst season in a while.  

Brent: Saturday’s 3-0 victory over West Ham must seem like a cruel joke to Villans. Wantaway Milner scored the final goal, showing why he would (will?) be missed in the Midlands.  But Villa is not known for its goal-scoring and their huge wage bill doesn’t make up for their shallow squad.  They are playing without a manager… with his replacement rumoured to be the biggest court jester in all of football.  It might be generous to pick Villa at eighth, when all is said and done.

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Berba brilliant in preseason opener

It cost Manchester United 26 million pounds to buy Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur (or steal him away from Man. City, depending on how you look at it), but in games that matter the silky and sometimes sulky Bulgarian has not matched those millions on the scoresheet, notching 21 goals in all competitions in two seasons. He hasn’t satisfied many of the Red Manc supporters, often unable to deliver in the biggest of moments. But when the games don’t mean as much, like Friday’s pre-season friendly against Celtic in Toronto, he’s a magnum-winning Man of the Match.

Berbatov bagged one goal and set up two more, Danny Welbeck’s winner and Tom Cleverley’s deflected third, as United opened their 2010 tour of North America with a 3-1 victory over Celtic in front of an alleged 39,139 at SkyDome (screw the corporate name).

According to my man Ryan Johnston of Sportsnet.ca, the match would have been played at BMO Field if not for the Indy race going on in the vicinity this weekend. Speeding race cars and drunken football supporters don’t mix very well, but it’s a shame they had to play on a pitch that was only laid the day before (the only day free after the CFL’s Argonauts played at home on Wednesday).

I thought the place would be packed with Scotsmen, but instead it was a tiny Toronto Theatre of Dreams, a sea of red with just a few thousand Celtic supporters in the “away end” in one corner. Perhaps Bhoys fans were put off by the fact their squad came into this one fresh off a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the lowly Philadelphia Union, an MLS expansion team.

A banner behind United’s first half goal that read ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ was gone within 20 minutes and I saw some of Toronto’s finest walking away from the section when I noticed it was gone. There were also more than a few vuvuzelas in the crowd, but they were by no means deafening.

Berbatov played a full 90, unlike Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, subbed off at half and cheered back to the bench already wearing their warm-ups five minutes after the interval. The Bulgarian opened the scoring in the 34th minute, neatly taking down a pass from Mame Biram Diouf and firing it home.

Chris Smalling hauled down Celtic’s Joe Ledley in the box and substitute Georgios Samaras tied it from the penaly spot in the 61st minute, but United won it in the 79th minute when Berbatov broke into the box and squared the ball for Welbeck, who lunged to slot it home.

No idea why the stadium crew felt compelled to play pounding dance music after every goal…do they think North Americans don’t know when to cheer? Pretty weak.

Man. United were dominant throughout most of the match, showing their class with some early great touches by Giggs and an end-to-end run by Berbatov after a Celtic corner.

Berbatov missed wide after breaking into the box in the 29th minute, less than 60 seconds after Gabriel Obertan had also fired past the post for United.

Sir Alex Ferguson bailed out of Thursday night’s presser at the Four Seasons Hotel for a family reunion on Toronto’s outskirts, flying in ahead of his team, who were delayed by bad weather in Chicago. Only Darren Fletcher was ever brought out to face the media masses, or the five (fool)hardy souls who stuck it out through the two-hour wait for five minutes of questions before the team press flak whisked him away. I got smart and went to the bar with Brent and Hadi…no regrets there.

But Ferguson did answer a few questions after this one, talking about the importance to Scottish football of Celtic and other domestic teams fielding homegrown players (you listening, English FA?), Celtic’s match-up with Braga in Champions League qualifying and Berbatov’s top class performance. And when the flak tried to wrap things up before Sir Alex had spoken to the Scottish media, Fergie was quick with the rebuke, saying “He’s Scottish, for chrissake!” Brilliant.

Ian Harrison

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