Shaky start, bizarre transfer strategies: Manchester under Moyes... United?
There have been two illuminating moments so far in David Moyes’s reign. The first came in Thailand, when he made comments that left Wayne Rooney “angry and confused” when he was reported to have said he was back-up to Robin van Persie. What Moyes actually said was, "I think he's got a major role to play because we need to try and get as many goals as we possibly can. I think Wayne can play up top. He can play dropped in [behind the center forward]. Overall my thought on Wayne is he'll be key. If, for any reason, we had an injury to Robin, we are going to need him. I want to be able to play the two of them. I want to be able to use Danny Welbeck, Chicharito as well.”
The point he was making was that Rooney was important not merely in his own position but because he could cover for Van Persie as well. In itself, that is a perfectly logical, inoffensive thing to say. The problem is that the opinion was clumsily expressed and that, having opened room for misinterpretation, Moyes did not instinctively recognise the danger in what he had said and clarify what he meant.The result was a string of negative news stories and Rooney's camp trying to seize the moral high ground by talking about their man's snub. More significant, though, was what the incident said about Moyes: at Everton he always came across as intelligent and calm; this suggested he hadn't quite got to grips with the scrutiny he'd been under at a club of United's stature.
The second moment was his comments about the fixture-list. “I find it hard to believe that's the way the balls came out of the bag,” he said. "I think it's the hardest start for 20 years that Manchester United have had. I hope it's not because Manchester United won the league quite comfortably last year [that] the fixtures have been made much more difficult." This is nonsense: why is a hard start a bad thing? A hard start means an easy finish, which could be vital if United are still competing in the Champions League come the end of April.
Perhaps Moyes was simply trying to engender the sort of siege mentality Sir Alex Ferguson used to, by insisting everybody hates United and that there is a mass conspiracy against them; what better way, after all, to rally support behind himself that to claim he is the only one protecting the club from a nebulous array of dark forces. But it did sound awfully like Moyes wondering why his start was so hard, as though he were asking, “Why are they putting me under pressure straightaway?”
And it is pressure; far worse pressure than Ferguson would have faced with a similar run of fixtures – and a similar run of results. Ferguson, once he had begun to collect silverware, had credit in the bank. Fans would forgive his side a bad game because they knew what they could expect more generally. With Moyes, there is no such faith, while those who were sceptical about his appointment are voicing their concerns with increasing fervour. United looked good in beating Swansea – although in retrospect that was more about the sharpness of Van Persie than any great team performance; were scratchy in drawing with Chelsea and were then poor, sluggish and wasteful in possession, in losing away to Liverpool.
That would have been bad enough, making the trip Manchester City, which comes up after a home game against Crystal Palace, even more important than usual. But what had compounded the sense of dissatisfaction with the new regime – which includes Edward Woodward, brought in to replace David Gill as CEO – has been United’s transfer dealing.
In the past, United came like an implacable force. One day they seemed to be doing nothing; the next they had signed somebody. There were few sagas or dramas, just deals done efficiently and in secret – so that even when they fell through nobody really knew about them. This season, quite apart from the Rooney situation, United publicly pursued Cesc Fabregas. In some ways the deal made sense: there were reasons to wonder how happy he really was at Barcelona, and he clearly enjoyed life in England. But what soon became apparent was that Barca had no intention of selling while Fabregas wanted to stay. United were publicly snubbed and, as other clubs acknowledged they had been interested but had been told he would not be leaving, made to look out of touch. More importantly, they seemed to lose time.
There needs to be a good reason for a team to be doing its business on deadline day. The season is already three games old and it will be probably another month before any new signing has really begun to settle. Ideally, transfers should be concluded, as City’s were barring the signing of Martin Demichelis as emergency defensive cover, by the end of July. United, though, kept chasing shadows, failing to land Thiago Alcântara, Daniele De Rossi, Luka Modric and Wesley Sneijder before turning at last to Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera. They gave up on Herrera because of complications over his buy-out clause (the lawyers who tried to make a bid were not, as was widely reported, impostors) and ended up landing Fellaini for £27.5million - £4million more than they could have got him for had they triggered his buyout clause before the end of July. As a final snub, they missed out on Fabio Coentrao at the last – having gone for him only after failing to sign Leighton Baines.
It all smacked of indecisiveness and, frankly, a lack of expertise, adding to the air of unease that has characterised the first months after Ferguson’s retirement. United did hang on to Rooney and land an experienced and dynamic midfielder, but the manner is troubling, just as their manner of taking four points from three games causes concern.
There is no cause for panic but doubts exist now that never existed before.
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