Test of character for under-fire Manchester United

Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie after Manchester United's draw with Fulham

The depths of short term irrelevance football punditry will flirt with during a slow-news transfer window have been well illustrated in the past few weeks, something of an open season having been declared on – of all people – Lionel Messi. ‘Without a goal from open play since September’ read one article, wilfully neglecting to add that two of those months had been spent on the injury table, a convalescence lengthened by his club’s insistence that the recurrent hamstring injury of 2013 be treated with sufficient patience and care so as not to disrupt their most prolific match winner at such a pivotal stage of the season as it did towards the business end of the 2012-2013 campaign. ‘Messi has lost his passion for football’ cried another, citing comments from an ex Barcelona coach (the ‘ex’ relating to a period of employment in the 1980s, some 5 years before the Argentine’s birth). With ‘only’ 21 goals in 23 appearances thus far – 2 goals shy of the outstanding Luis Suárez’ current total – the 2013/2014 season may well be the exception which proves the rule of Messi’s career as unquestionably contemporary football’s most phenomenal. If this is the low point, a period of form deemed worthy of criticism, what then should he return to the form of only last season where 60 goals were totalled from 50 appearances? One assumes by such a stage the pundits will simply have found easier targets of whom premature and ill-considered headlines can be made.

In open-season terms however, the most emphatically popular storyline for both the good and awful of football journalism centres currently on Manchester United’s failure to compete for the Premier League title and, most popularly of all, the haste to view David Moyes’ appointment as replacement to Sir Alex Ferguson as something approaching criminal in terms of its misjudgement. While fans of other teams must scoff at the perceived disgust of many United fans who, after 20 years wherein they have won every competition they have competed for barring the UEFA/Europa cup, now find themselves calling for the heads of the manager, board and previously star players, Moyes is unquestionably finding the immediate challenge of taking up Ferguson’s baton more difficult than he – one would assume – or most observers, thought likely.

Manchester United players after Fulham draw

Disappointing results increase pressure on Moyes

Yet to some extent the writing was on the wall. Last Friday’s announcement that Nemanja Vidić will leave when his contract meets its end come the summer, with Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand likely to follow, highlights the extent to which the defence which brought such success from the 2006/2007 season, culminating in Ferguson’s farewell as United lifted their 13th Premier League title last May, was allowed to ease towards decline without sufficient replacements being sought. Indeed, one has only to study the club’s transfer policy of the last few seasons to find obvious clues as to their current position which requires urgent restructuring of the first XI.

During Ferguson’s reign, replacements were both groomed and bought. For every Gary Neville or Darren Fletcher there was a Jaap Stam or a Robin Van Persie; individuals of proven ability and character deemed instantly ready for first team affairs, with the assurance the team’s continuing success would not stall as it waited – in the manner of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal – for its next perfect blend. But since the dual signings of Evra and Vidić in January 2006, Van Persie stands almost alone as a signing of such ready-made quality so as to guarantee competitiveness at the top end of the table. Crucially, in those years not one defender has been signed who could be regarded a seasoned or proven performer at the top level. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rafael may have played their part in league championships in previous seasons but their readiness to step up to the mantle of first team regular has to varying extents been exposed as the slowing performances of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra has elevated their importance to the club’s fortunes. Further upfield, the signings of Kagawa and Ashley Young – for differing reasons – have failed to inspire. Marouane Fellaini may yet prove to be a United great, but plainly he has made little to no contribution thus far. Perhaps most telling of all was Ferguson’s decision last January to call once more – in lieu of any real solution which could have eased Moyes’ task – on Paul Scholes to fill the midfield chasm left unfilled since his initial retirement.

Contrasting the club’s transfer policy with that of both Chelsea and Manchester City only heightens the idea that there may have been some resting on laurels in the closing years under Ferguson’s command. While United have been unable to solve the conundrum of centre midfield over recent seasons – to the extent that Ryan Giggs is still a major contender for the slot on any given matchday – Manchester City have parted with huge, often inflated sums in order to acquire the likes of Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and David Silva. Chelsea meanwhile have paid handsomely for the undoubted talents of Eden Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Ramires.

While the record breaking transfer of Juan Mata certainly stated a confidence in Moyes’ future, even if the Spaniard is to replicate his outstanding initial two years at Stamford Bridge in a United shirt he does not on his own represent parity with the respective squads of their immediate rivals. Nowhere on the pitch is such glaring lack of parity evidenced than in the defensive options of each side. Where Chelsea’s replacement of Ashley Cole and John Terry has proved problematic enough – problems often made further apparent by the indiscipline of David Luiz – they do have real quality to call upon through Branislav Ivanović and Cesar Azpilicueta. Gary Cahill splits many an opinion and seems unequipped to be viewed as a successor to Terry but does seem able to contribute to a solid unit when surrounded by such seasoned campaigners. City meanwhile have had their own issues at Central defence this year but find in Vincent Kompany arguably the league’s finest defender and in Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Matija Nastasić and Aleksander Kolorov – all signed since Vidic and Evra joined United – have a wealth of strong options. That the likes of Maicon and Jerome Boateng were deemed surplus to requirements (as, it appears is Joleon Lescott) only furthers the claim that their Manchester rivals have been guilty of shortsightedness or of over rating the readiness of Jones and Smalling to compete at similar level.

Juan Mata after signing for Manchester United

Mata’s signing gives hope

By almost any barometer, the present Bayern Munich squad represents the blueprint for top European sides bent on domestic and continental dominance. Much was made of Pep Guardiola’s replacement of Juup Heynckes as head coach after the German had masterminded an unprecedented treble in his final year. Yet few are as quick to point out that Bayern had won nothing in his previous season in charge, had been positively routed 5-2 by a Shinji Kagawa (yes, he) inspired Dortmund in the 2012 German Cup final, and had actually finished the previous season third in the Bundesliga. Success takes time. That United will not finish close to third in this season’s Premier League is plain, but so too is the fact that Bayern do not face the likes of City or Chelsea, financial powerhouses in a sport increasingly dominated by finances. Bayern’s spending power and ability to entice top players from even their closest rivals renders third position every bit as calamitous as Manchester United’s current standing of seventh.

In order to arrest such failings Bayern spent large – often equally inflated – sums to attract players of sufficient calibre to support and enhance home grown talents such as Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. Around £35 million was spent on Javi Martínez, with the same figure again spread across the acquisitions of Dante, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandžukić. This summer alone Bayern strengthened their already all-conquering squad with the signings of rivals Dortumund’s Mario Götze (£32 million) and Barcelona’s Thiago (£22 million). While the adage that spending big is no guarantee of success is well evidenced in football history it is equally found that failing to strengthen when in a period of superiority often leads to a fall from grace. Ask a fan of either of the Milan clubs at present.

In Ferguson’s closing season United were a team winning football matches without impressing. Van Persie was acquired ahead of their cross city rivals and proved the catalyst for their successful title race. Equally catalytic however was the respective states of their closest rivals, none of whom – save City – were in any real position to challenge. Arsenal, pre Mezut Özil, were reeling from the loss of their captain and star striker and deeply entrenched in another of Wenger’s ever-more-prolonged ‘building’ periods. Chelsea meanwhile suffered from an equal hangover of Champions League success and the absence of Didier Drogba, Roberto Di Matteo being replaced in November as they, like Arsenal, failed to provide any real challenge to Ferguson in what was ultimately his farewell campaign. In retrospect City should have been clear title favourites yet seemed disgruntled under Roberto Mancini’s influence.

Having won the title 12 times previously, Ferguson was a past master at steering his charges successfully to first place under such circumstances. Plainly, he was able to extract far more from the collective quality of the squad than Moyes has thus far proven capable of. Yet those calling for the former Everton man’s replacement seem to be ignoring the enormity of the task he faces. In contrast to any period prior to the last four years, United are being outmatched in terms of the number and quality of players being acquired. Many question Moyes’ ability to deal with character of player he will expect to fill the dressing room with at Old Trafford. Many too point to the fact that he has yet to win a major trophy as a manager. Yet few mention that City’s Manuel Pellegrini is yet to win a trophy of any distinction in Europe. Or that Brendan Rogers, thus far the stand-out candidate for manager of the year in terms of the improvements he has brought to his Liverpool side, has likewise yet to win anything. Most irksome for the United manager personally, one suspects, is that many point to Everton’s current league performance, 4 points above United in sixth place.

Sir Alex Ferguson with another Premier League trophy

Ferguson was not an immediate success

Manchester United’s patience with Alex Ferguson, some years prior to the success which earned the honorific, is now the stuff of legend. Had he been judged prematurely, rashly, as all but the luckiest of managers in today’s game are, it’s fair to say the entire course of English football history, and not just that of Manchester United, would have been altered. While Ferguson remains prominent in the boardroom at Old Trafford, one finds it hard to believe he will allow his self-appointed successor to fail. Should United display similar patience and stand by Moyes in an era dominated by the insistence on immediate success – as only seems fair given the changes necessary to make the squad competitive once again – one would hope they would be similarly rewarded. Moyes may have stepped into the United manager’s office at a time when their budget, ambitions and worldwide appeal dwarf those which Alex Ferguson met with upon taking up the reigns (and reportedly a pay cut) from Aberdeen in 1986. Yet the pressures of worldwide scrutiny and the demand for success in every match leave little time for the transfer mistakes (often overlooked) and development of style his predecessor was afforded in his first years.

Those observers pointing to Moyes’ lack of silverware, his previous club’s lofty league position since he left for Old Trafford and the comparable instant success José Mourinho has brought to Chelsea take their views from the here and now. Those of us who hope to see Moyes given another couple of seasons, and crucially the transfer windows which correspond, do so in the hope that the United boardroom will prove once again its character, not to mention Ferguson’s oft-repeated quote that ‘there is no evidence that changing a manager brings you success.’

Should United fail to improve on – or even worsen – their current league position of seventh, the calls for Moyes’ head may become thunderous, the comparisons with Chelsea and Everton, and the lack of silverware on his CV all the more damning. The character test will not only be of Moyes and the boardroom, but of players and fans alike. Should they stick with their manager however – as this observer believes they will – it will be of particular interest to reassess such comparisons in three or four seasons. Will Everton remain above Manchester United? Will Mourinho still have Abramovich’s favour at Chelsea? Will Moyes still be trophyless? The idea of the status quo stretching years into the future seems as unlikely as the end of Messi. It may go against the grain of wide held opinion at present, but those so quick to point out such fleeting fortunes may soon seem as ridiculous as those who call to question the desire or goalscoring prowess of Barca’s number 10.

For all the talk of crisis and ineptitude, Manchester United is the success story it is primarily because it didn’t focus on the present but, in the words of its greatest manager ‘sacrificed short term pain for long term gain.’ The extent to which the club is willing to sacrifice the next 4 months – and champions league football the following season – may yet prove a necessary disappointment if it is to cling to the ideals woven into its fibre through the glory years of Sir Alex Ferguson.

I'm a teacher, a long-suffering Scotland fan, I live in South East Asia. I think most football commentary (written or spoken) isn't good, so I try and write my own.
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