If there was ever a period in Manchester United’s summer that highlighted that things have changed and that it was a whole different ball game on and off the park then the 48 hours between Sunday 8th and Monday 9th September brought things into sharp focus.
As fans around the world woke up to a series of damning verdicts from the world press, it was not a comfortable place to be if you were a United fan.
Even now, the seemingly innocuous injury to Wayne Rooney in training the day before the Liverpool match seemed to be a bad omen. Deprived of the firepower and ammunition that he would have delivered himself and supplied to a starved Robin van Persie, United were like a team still trying to get started while Liverpool seized upon a rare chance to claim an always sweet defeat of their major rivals.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow (to be kind) or ghost (to be more severe) was felt on the pitch as United manager David Moyes failed to inspire his charges with a team selection, tactics and a lack of creativity that mystified the club’s multitude of supporters.
This was not the sort of game for Ryan Giggs. Against teams like Liverpool and Arsenal who play at an extremely high tempo, he struggles to maintain and retain possession and a younger option like Anderson would have made sense.
But considering that he was playing the veteran Welshman in place of Wayne Rooney, what happened to the small matter of Shinji Kagawa? The Japanese maestro was not even considered for a place on the bench, from where he could have had an impact.
His close control, intricate one-twos and eye for an opening have so far been lost on his new Scottish mentor. United were too insipid for their fans liking.
While they missed the little Brazilian Rafael, the introduction of Valencia after the injury to Phil Jones brought urgency on that flank but the Ecuadorian’s predictable one-dimensional play was not incisive enough while Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck contrived to frustrate from promising situations.
Only when Nani was introduced did anything resembling a real threat to the Merseysiders become apparent. Even then this was not sustained and Liverpool were quite comfortable 1-0 winners in the end, it must be said.
But for me what was perhaps the most notable thing was the cautious manner of United’s play. It may be early days but I seemed to sense too much caution in their play right from the off; as well as in the previous match against Chelsea, United seemed to settle for the Blues tempo.
Only the brave wins at places like Anfield and unless a more gung-ho approach is introduced into their style United will not win the big matches. Moyes is entitled to his own style but one gets the feeling that United under Moyes have been trying too hard not to lose than trying hard enough to win.
What has happened to that pressure that United exert on teams especially in the final moments of matches and that spirited fight that was missing at Anfield and even against the Blues the previous Monday?
For when United apply such caution, even their passing and movement going forward suffers as could be clearly seen against Liverpool. One Liverpool fan I was watching with gloated that their keeper’s jersey was still spotless almost at the end of the match.
As if to rubber-stamp this point, a somewhat emotional fan tweeted to me, “Moyes needs a United mentality not a small team’s survival mentality.”
Even as the press headlined Brendan Rogers’ victory, the next day turned out to be the transfer deadline day and one sensed that this defeat would inspire panic at worst in the United camp, or as most fans otherwise hoped, a marquee signing that United so desperately needed.
But by then, Moyes and new CEO Ed Woodward had already proven that they were mugs in the transfer market and they proceeded to parade their failures for all to see. If the press is to be believed, United not only failed in their quest to sign Ander Herrera and Leighton Baines, but made last ditch attempts to sign Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira, Galatasaray’s Wesley Sneider, Daniel de Rossi of Roma and even Arsenal biggest buy Mesut Ozil.
One gets the feeling that all these could have materialized had Woodward and Moyes been more discreet and tactful in their approach right from the start.
The main requirements were known, i.e. at least two midfielders to add steel, presence and creativity. Woodward and Moyes made declarations of intent stating that United were looking for a mega-signing to kickstart the new era.
But even in this method, one needs to be wise. Big clubs instantly adopt a defensive stance when you express an interest in their stars. This is worsened when you offer ‘okay’ money as opposed to big money. What for instance would have transpired had United submitted starting bid of £40m for Cesc Fabregas and £25m for Thiago Alcantara?
In trying to copy the previous regime of Fergie and David Gill who always stated that they would not pay over the odds for a player, Moyes and Woodward should then have negotiated their deals quietly without these loud statements which tend to send the right signal but elicit the unwanted response from the selling club and raise the transfer figures simultaneously.
If Woodward is to be a successful side-kick to Moyes, then he has to put the money where his mouth is. He does not have to be a David Gill.
He can still pay handsomely without being excessive, as the Marouane Fellaini case painfully showed. If Moyes wanted the player from the start and he knew the buy-out clause, why wait until the final day of the window, well after the clause had expired?
In chasing after the big but difficult-to-attain targets, other less heralded but supremely talented footballers slipped through the net or were never seriously considered. What happened to the Kevin Strootman case? Add to this Victor Wanyama, now at Southampton but coveted by Fergie, and Yohan Cabaye of Newcastle, a player desperate to leave Newcastle and who would have jumped at the chance to join a team like Man United.
All three could have been had for the small matter of just over £50m, all this before United had disposed of anyone. Would they not have been termed shrewd if they had obtained all three while disposing of say, Anderson?
Moyes and Woodward are advised to speak less and pay more in future transfers if they are to make an impression in this other ‘season’ that has no trophies but creates the right platform for them as last season proved.
With the dust settling on a 48 hours that showed Moyes the unwanted side of being a Manchester United manager, one surely hopes that the lessons learned within that period will serve him in good stead for the cross-town trip to the Etihad Stadium.
He will have to do so to dispel the doubts and unease that he has been tagged with from July 1 and that were revealed in a forgetful 48 hours last week.
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