Let’s get the premise out the way early: what the hell is wrong with Manchester United?
The biggest sports team in the world lost, again, on Tuesday this time to Sunderland in the first leg English League Cup semifinals. It happened only two days after the Red Devils stumbled out of the FA Cup at the hands of Swansea City. The pressure — whether real or imaginary — is starting to pile up on first-year manager David Moyes. Following the loss to Sunderland, Moyes’ record at United stands at 18-8-6 overall and the team sits in seventh in the Premier League table — 11 points adrift of first-place Arsenal.
Good news: United are still alive in the Champions League and face a manageable Round of 16 draw with Olympiacos. The bad news? Essentially everything else.
It’s not simply the losses, under Moyes’ watch United have been abysmal at Old Trafford losing five matches. Chew on these stats: West Brom’s win at Old Trafford was the club’s first at the ground since 1978. Everton won there for the first time since 1992. For Newcastle, its win on Dec. 7 was the first at the so-called Theater of Dreams since 1972. Swansea’s win on Sunday in the FA Cup was the club’s first all-time win at the stadium.
Not good, not good at all if you’re Moyes.
The natural inclination is to heap most of the blame on Moyes, but most United fans have stood behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand-picked successor. After all, he inherited a team from Ferguson which won the Premier League by 11 points. United didn’t do much to strengthen the squad, but did add Marouane Fellaini and unearthed a potential gem in Adnan Januzaj. Realistically all United lost from its 2012-13 squad was 38-year-old Paul Scholes.
Problem is, United’s main rivals at the top of the table — Manchester City and Chelsea — both went out and bought important players over the summer for new managers Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho. Even if you have “MUFC” tattooed inside your lower lip, you’d have to admit both clubs have better and deeper rosters at the moment. Hell, Chelsea doesn’t even have a place for Juan Mata at the moment.
Tied into this, both Arsenal and Liverpool have improved mightily in the 2013-14 season, while Moyes’ old club — Everton — sits above them in the table. The play of Everton is probably the most damning for Moyes since the Toffees have fared (and looked) much improved under Roberto Martinez than Moyes. Moyes always received credit while at Everton for coaxing better results than expected with a comparative shoestring budget, which isn’t exactly the highest praise. Given the keys to United he’s begun with a whimper.
Moyes, in a rare off-field misstep along with letting go much of Sir Alex’s backroom staff, took the time-honored route of blaming the officials Tuesday, which is laughable since United thrived for years under Ferguson receiving their fair share of favorable decisions from the refs. The remarks earned Moyes a fine:
“I feel we are having to play the opposition and the officials at this moment in time,” Moyes said on United’s in-house television station. “Maybe I’ve got to understand that’s what happens at Man United. But if we do, we certainly aren’t getting much in our favor at this moment in time.”
As easy as it is to pin everything on Moyes, it’s not entirely his fault the club is struggling. It’s also hard to see the Manchester United brass deciding to part ways with him less than a year into his six-year contract, most practically since there isn’t a ready-made candidate waiting in the wings … unless Sir Alex decides to pull a Phil Jackson and return.
More immediately, look at the United roster. It’s simply nothing that special and that should fall more on the feet of vice-chairman Ed Woodward than Moyes, who admittedly wasted much of the summer transfer window chasing waterfalls like Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera. Take away the goals of Robin van Persie (who managed to stay healthy for Sir Alex last season and is currently injured) and the industry of Wayne Rooney (also injured at the moment) and this team is where it should be, the middle of the Premier League table:
- Good players who are getting any younger: Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney (until his next transfer request), Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick.
- Players to (maybe) build the future around: David De Gea, Phil Jones, Wilfried Zaha, Danny Welbek, Adnan Januzaj,
- Players who aren’t exactly part of the future: Tom Cleverly, Anderson, Ashley Young, Fábio, Rafael,
- On the fence: Chris Smalling, Javier Hernández, Nani, Antonio Valencia, Alexander Büttner
- Time to retire: Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs (sorry), Darren Fletcher
- Enigmas: Marouane Fellaini, Shinji Kagawa
The more you look at it, the more of a shock it was that United won the title last year with such ease. In retrospect Arsene Wenger and Arsenal — considering how strongly they finished last season — should be kicking themselves that they lost out to this United team a year ago.
Complicating matters is Rooney’s continued talks about forcing a move elsewhere, which perhaps the club should let him do this time. Ask yourself this: what’s Rooney’s best position currently? Under Ferguson, Rooney’s best work was often anywhere on the field, running around and causing havoc. He’s not quite the out-and-out striker anymore, nor is he purely a midfielder. Trying to fit the pieces around him — notably Fellaini and Kagawa — hasn’t worked out. Is Rooney still a 25+ goal scorer, as he was in 2009-10/2011-12 or the 12-goal type he’s been in 2010-11 and 2012-13?
It doesn’t take much of an expert to tell the biggest difference from United last year to this one: Ferguson. When the red-faced Scot was in the manager’s area, everyone inside the stadium knew it from the fans, to the officials, to the opposing players. His force of personality influenced everything. United were feared because of Ferguson. Whether or not Ferguson signed some pact with the devil, or if his teams simply had that sheer determination to win is something we’ll never know. The amount of games United would win late or grind out at home happened with such regularity under his watch it was surely more than coincidence.
Now, with Moyes, United are the Emperor without his clothing on show for everyone to take aim at.
There is a lot of work to do for the club at all levels if it wants to get back to the top. Recapturing whatever outside aura Ferguson brought is impossible. Buying better players and upgrading the roster, before front-running fans worldwide start turning their attention to another club, isn’t.
Game of the Weekend:
Fulham vs. Sunderland (10 a.m., NBC Sports Extra) — Well, we’re firmly in the “relegation six-pointer” point in the calendar. These two clubs are 16th and 20th in the table, separated by five points. You could call this the “Teams Michael Bradley Reportedly Rejected to Play in Toronto Bowl,” too, if you’re so inclined. Sunderland are bad and have been bad all season. Fulham aren’t quite that awful. The Cottagers have only drawn one game, compared to three wins and 13 losses. Turn a few of the losses into draws and perhaps relegation isn’t in the future at Craven Cottage.