Sport Soccer

Sunday 19 November 2017

Dion Fanning: United front begins to slip

The appointment of David Moyes has not provided the stability Old Trafford requires, writes Dion Fanning

Manchester United manager David Moyes
Manchester United manager David Moyes
Alex Ferguson

Dion Fanning

Last summer Rio Ferdinand was ready to help. "If there's anything we can pass on, with our experiences, to help him to become a better manager and to help us win more trophies, then that's fantastic," he said as Manchester United prepared for life under a new manager.

Ferdinand, a deep thinker, went even further. He had put himself in David Moyes' position and when Rio put himself there, he saw that what David Moyes would most desire was the advice of Rio Ferdinand.

"I just look at it as if I was taking the job on. Would you lean on players who have been here for many years, for their experience and ask questions and to better yourself? Of course you would. You'd do the same in any job, so you expect that."

Rio Ferdinand's expectations appear not to have been met. Last week, he explained that David Moyes' selection methods when he insists on not naming the team until the last minute were having an unwelcome effect.

"It's hard. It's hard to do that mentally because you spend a lot of nervous energy thinking: 'Am I playing' or 'Am I not playing?' and you're just going round in circles in your head and turning into a madman."

Rio, perhaps, has known too often that he is not playing which may be more of a problem than the general craziness that Moyes' selection policy brings.

On Friday, Moyes said that some of United's ex-players were making valid criticisms and it may be that Ferdinand, too, will soon be an ex-Manchester United player with something to say but today he remains part of Manchester United, part of a squad trying to figure out how it's gone wrong and looking at a manager who could be forgiven for thinking, 'How did he win the league with this team?'

The benchmark for over-achievement used to be Liverpool winning the European Cup with Djimi Traore in the side. Now it is probably Manchester United regaining the Premier League when Tom Cleverley started 18 times in the competition last season.

Cleverley is one reminder of all that Ferguson achieved last season, albeit in an extremely uncompetitive league, as well as all he left behind for Moyes in a dubious inheritance.

Friday's news that Robin van Persie will be out for a month with a thigh injury was a reminder that Moyes is not simply failing to match the achievements of last season's squad, he has been denied the key influence in claiming the title.

Since Moyes stated in the summer that Van Persie had been "over-trained" in an attempt to build up his fitness there have been mutterings about the player's dissatisfaction with the new regime. These rumours may well be true but if appearances are a gauge of Van Persie's state of mind then he has rarely been satisfied during his time in England.

He has made fewer than 20 league starts in six of his nine full seasons in England. The past two seasons have been exceptional, firstly as he started all but one game for Arsenal in his final season at the club while talks about his future accompanied every goal and then as he made his mark at Manchester United.

This season has been more typical of Van Persie and while Wayne Rooney's return to form has offered some compensation, the absence of the man who drove them to the title has been damaging.

Last weekend, Moyes said he had no option but to keep Van Persie on the field as United looked for a goal against Newcastle. "I was due to take Robin off after 60 or 70 minutes, but I think if I'd taken him off everyone would have said, 'What are you doing?' But in truth Robin needed to come off after 70 minutes maximum, but I had to keep him on. We were chasing the game, we had to get a goal back." Van Persie is now missing for another month.

Rooney will make his 500th career appearance today and he is now the man on whom United depend once again. He was so disappointed last season that, according to Alex Ferguson, he requested a transfer.

Rooney was frustrated last season when he was moved away from a central striking position which happened often. It may be that the centre of midfield is his best position and he could solve United's problems in that area if only it wouldn't cause more problems in Rooney's head. Even as he struggled last year, Rooney did occasionally contribute, scoring twice during the victory at the Etihad and an underperforming Rooney is more useful to the side than an underperforming Ashley Young. Rooney is out of contract in 18 months but Moyes insisted last week that there is "no great panic".

He is even more important as United deal with an injury list in the middle of the crisis and even his return as a central figure brings its own anxiety even if Moyes insists there is no need to be concerned about his failure to sign a contract.

Even Rooney's form is linked to Ferguson, although in this case it is his departure. Moyes has to deal with the unavoidable and unfair reality that he will be compared to one of the greatest managers the game has seen.

He hasn't helped himself with his startling deference and his lowering of expectations which began on his first day when he gave the impression that he had been told by Alex Ferguson he would be the new manager as if he had no say in the matter and then took humility too far by telling a story about his concern that he was wearing jeans when he called over to Ferguson's house.

At the time, these moments seemed like a worrying position of deference and it was legitimate to wonder if Moyes' personality was big enough for the job. No man could succeed Ferguson in terms of his character, but Moyes' approach, an almost wilful removal of force and personality, was an unnecessary gamble.

If the team has subtly altered from last season's, the more important change has been the removal of that ferocious understanding that Manchester United don't lose. United have lost their last two league games, both at home, so that ferocity which was central to the Ferguson way has disappeared. This is understood by the teams who visit Old Trafford, as well as Manchester United themselves.

Last season United secured victory against Southampton, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Newcastle and Swansea in the last ten minutes of those games. They got the winner at Chelsea 15 minutes from the end.

This season they won with a late rally against Stoke but most of the time it has been going the other way. West Brom were comfortable at Old Trafford after taking the lead more than 20 minutes from the end. Everton scored in the final five minutes while Southampton and Cardiff have denied United victory with late goals.

At Villa Park today, the home side will approach it as a game against another mid-table side just three points above them in the table.

Alex Ferguson may well be watching from the stand as he was at Cardiff and when United played Bayer Leverkusen, a reminder, although none is needed, of who exactly it was who made the modern Manchester United great.

His retirement was always going to have a dramatic effect, not just on United but on all other sides in the league. United have entered into football's version of a post-Tito Yugoslavia. Ferguson, it seems, was the only man able to hold all the separate points on the compass together.

Manchester United supporters are aware, at least, that they must give Moyes an opportunity. Their club is the repeated reference point when it's stated that an unproven manager must be given time so they couldn't abandon that principle after a stuttering few months, when he has succeeded a giant who has left a creaking squad.

Certain members of the squad like Ferdinand are making things are making things more difficult for Moyes but it is his challenge to take control as Ferguson did.

Yet the idea that the appointment of Moyes was in itself a guarantee of stability has been shattered by the first few months of his management. He was awarded a six-year contract as a demonstration of United's commitment to that ideal.

United stood for other things as well during Ferguson's time. By appointing a man so lacking in daring they risked many of those other values. The biggest concern is not that David Moyes hasn't had time to make his mark on Manchester United, but that he already has.

Aston Villa v Manchester Utd,

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Irish Independent

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