independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Farcical shoot-out shows Moyes' men have lost their nerve

Manchester United's Danny Welbeck misses his penalty during the penalty shootout in the Capital One Cup semi-final

WATCH the penalty shoot-out again and you will see Manchester United's players approach the ball as if they were stepping towards a firing squad rather than a Wembley final.

The four men in red who missed from the spot against Sunderland on Wednesday night were not the shooters. They were the shot-at.

The difficulties of the previous 120 minutes had left them shattered, confused, fearful. Their only expectation seemed to be of more pain to come. Their body language was limp, their execution woeful.

These were men without faith, to whom the great United tradition offered no comfort. Old Trafford was a place of pitiless scrutiny. The simple act of knocking a ball 12 yards past a goalkeeper and into a net seemed to appear to them as a Himalayan task.

That penalty shoot-out, which sent Sunderland to the League Cup final, was the perfect window on United's current psyche. The game itself had resembled a tussle between two mid-table Premier League sides, with one – Sunderland – rediscovering their spirit, and the other wondering where the hell theirs went.

Sunderland had something to play for, to fight against. Beating United in a League Cup semi-final would not only buy them a date with Manchester City at Wembley, but assist their anti-relegation struggle. Their players were eager, tenacious, undaunted by the opposition and the setting.

United, on the other hand, were hesitant, stilted and drifting through another night of shrieks and howls.

A drop in quality has conspired with a collapse in confidence to render some of these players unrecognisable as Premier League champions. The "20 times" anthem of the crowd drifts across the action as part-encouragement, part-rebuke. The lyrics will not need changing to 21. Not this year, anyway, even with Juan Mata to add artistry to an artisan midfield.

United's fans are not used to this. They now face the unfamiliar dilemma of whether to get behind the team or jump on top of them.

They feel the ghosts of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie about the place and think unflattering things about Danny Welbeck. Darren Fletcher, United's only scorer in a dire shoot-out, is a symbol of the days when people had to scheme and scrap to get into the team's midfield. Now they get picked if they can stand in a line across the park.

At Liverpool, decline from the great peaks of the 70s and 80s was incremental. At United it feels like an overnight phenomenon. It is not, of course, because the problems are soluble. The foundations United rest on are not being swept away. There is a deep jolt to the core for fans who saw 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League trophies paraded through the streets in Alex Ferguson's near 27 years; and to players who are no longer protected by history.

Quite the opposite. The underwhelming United side who found Sunderland so hard to deal with have clearly lost faith in themselves and each other.

Late on Wednesday night, Javier Hernandez made a break from his own half and no United player went with him. David de Gea 'threw' one in to help take the game to penalties. United addressed the shoot-out as if an executioner were about to ask whether they had any last requests. There was no force or conviction in their shots at goal.

This fatalism, understandable on a human level, has spread to parts of the coaching staff, so that the spot kicks were approached as an ordeal that would probably end badly.

The old United teams would have refused to lose a test of nerve; refused to miss a chance to slap City around at Wembley; refused to drag the club into another post-mortem.

These United players are being told they are not up to the job and are obviously starting to believe it. You can see it from the tentative way they pass and move. Joie de vivre is absent. They expect the worst. David Moyes can buy as many players as he likes but until the team's pessimism and lack of confidence are lifted there can be no way out of this slump.

Constant success distorts our understanding of how teams function. There is no such thing as immunity from doubt. This United team are like every other struggling team, from Hackney Marshes up. They have lost their heart, their spirit, but they can get them back.

At this level of sport, timidity is inexcusable. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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