David Moyes facing a whole new threat... player loyalty
David Moyes has a new problem. At a lesser club Manchester United’s insipid performance at Olympiakos would point to an undeclared mutiny by the players: a sign that the team were already looking past the present manager to the next one in. In trade union circles it would be called a “go slow”.
Aside from delighting headline writers – “Pitta-ful” and “Olympia Chaos” – the apathy in Athens contradicted everything we know about United’s ethos.
It forced us to see that winning a Premier League title in May guarantees nothing nine months later. Champions are not meant to become lambs this quickly. The shock from an easy Greek victory stems from the sense that even two decades of success can be made to look ephemeral if the heart goes out of a group of players.
After 27 years in charge, Sir Alex Ferguson left the dugout certain that United’s qualities were self-perpetuating. Loyalty to the manager, club before self, physical courage and self-sacrifice. Spiritually, United were on autopilot. Everyone knew the obligations that came with the shirt. That could never change, could it?
A benign round-of-16 draw against Greece’s best side has rebounded on United, days after a win at Crystal Palace and Wayne Roone’s spectacular new contract seemed a potential turning point. Instead the wider tempest whipping around Moyes’s first season in charge remains unabated.
For the second time in this Champions League campaign United managed only one shot on target. The players traipsed through the mixed zone in Athens without speaking when a manager with more power might have ordered them all to stop to justify their display.
Now, too, there is insubordination. Robin van Persie’s complaint about team-mates being “in some of the areas where I want to play” is no minor gripe. It casts doubt on Moyes’s ability to organise a potentially lethal front four of Rooney, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Van Persie himself.
The other three forwards in that quartet have now been handed the idea that Van Persie is confused by his role and will have to decide in each passage of play whether to give him what he asks for or do their own thing.
“I have to change my tactics to suit my team-mates, and play outside my zone,” Van Persie says. Many United fans who travelled to Athens would have just liked him to bury the chance he smashed over the bar late in a 2-0 defeat. Before he starts trying to pick the team, Van Persie had better concentrate on doing his real job, as Roy Keane would have reminded him back in his demonic sergeant-major days.
When Keane stopped managing and emerged as a TV pundit, United knew he might play the role of leader in exile. Moyes’s players are now assisting him in that aim.
Nobody could argue with Keane’s scathing assessment of the performance on ITV, even if he recently undermined his own objectivity by claiming the infamous 2005 MUTV interview which brought about his dismissal had been “tongue in cheek”.
Many subtexts can be read into United’s no-show in Athens. The re-signing of Rooney was hailed as a declaration of strength. It could also be interpreted as a sign of desperation which now sets the wages bar uncomfortably high
If they can an award a 28-year-old a £300,000-a-week deal, what should the world’s best 24-year-olds be asking for when they sit down to discuss a move to Old Trafford?
Other players at United will not be viewing this £85 million contract as anything other than a star with a pugnacious agent exploiting a moment of weakness for the second time in four years. By definition it does not strengthen the side because Rooney is already there.
It merely preserves the status quo, with Keane maintaining that United need “six or seven players”, and a central midfield that bears no comparison with the great combinations of the Ferguson years.
At their midfield core this United side are hollow. They need drive, control, authority, swagger in the areas where Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick are not waving but drowning. United’s wide players are a consistent let-down and the defence is hung together by string. United’s style of player is out of sync with the best in Europe and even England. The old positivity and menace has disappeared.
Students of collapsing morale will study this period in United’s history to understand how and why top teams can descend from the highest perch to neurosis so quickly. We never thought it possible. Certainly not with Manchester United.
Every ex-player you speak to will say that a manager is endangered at the point where a critical mass of players believe he lacks the knowledge or skill to help them achieve their personal aims. Players are essentially selfish creatures who ask themselves daily: “Will this manager help me win? Will he improve my life? Does he know that he is doing?”
With the very best – Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola – the answer is generally yes, so the players Velcro themselves to the leader. They develop selfish loyalty.
Even if half these United players need moving on, Moyes still needs the rest to believe he is the right manager to build and go again. Nobody in the United hierarchy will have given the players encouragement to think time is running out for Ferguson’s successor.
Some may just have decided it for themselves. Van Persie’s damaging lament is certainly a kick in the credibility for Moyes just when he needs it least.
He can recover his own authority by setting the team up well and restoring the zest and bite to United’s play. Not resting players unnecessarily will also help. Cleverley, meanwhile, needs a period of absence from the first XI.
Moyes still has the luxury of support from a board who will not want to be dictated to by half-hearted players. But Van Persie’s backchat and the timidity in Athens poses a whole new threat. If players turn on you these days, there is no way back.