Moyes got one thing right – this is his mess
Scot takes blame for abject defeat on chin but shambolic selection and tactics offer little hope
"We've got a great chance in the second leg."
After his side were utterly useless in their Champions League tie in Greece, David Moyes appeared to have been mainlining optimism. A great chance in the second leg? Play like they did on Tuesday night again and Manchester United's players have about as much chance of Champions League advancement as a three-legged donkey with arthritis has of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In the old days it might have seemed possible. When Roy Keane was in the team rather than glowering like the ghost of championships past from the television gantry, such a task would have been straightforward enough. But then if Keane had been in the team, they would never have lost 2-0 at Olympiakos.
These days, even if the players pull their fingers out and perform to within a vague approximation of their true ability, reversing a two-goal deficit is a task seemingly beyond their reach. Only once this season – in a Capital One Cup tie against Norwich – have United scored three or more times without reply in a home game.
After all, this is Old Trafford we are talking about, a place which under Moyes has become less a fortress than a gift shop. So far this season Swansea, Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion have all won there. Which suggests that, never mind United winning 3-0, it is not a task too far beyond a side as well organised as Michel's Olympiakos to sneak a victory.
What was so dispiriting about the pedestrian performance in Piraeus is that nobody can have been too surprised. This is how United play these days. The side who once sparkled with counter-attacking panache now look barely capable of advancing beyond second gear. Against Olympiakos a three-yard sideways roll seemed about the limit of their ambitions.
Before Shinji Kagawa's neat, disguised through ball to Ashley Young in the 80th minute, was there a pass that actually threatened to unpick their opponents? They seemed barely capable of finding anyone wearing the same colour shirt.
You wonder what Moyes does in training. Because it does not appear to feature any effective drills involving moving off the ball. Or passing to a team-mate. Or breaking down a massed defence. Or even breaking down a pretty ordinary, cursory type of defence.
Poor Moyes. Characteristically, he was willing to take full responsibility for the lacklustre showing. He is not someone to shirk, or cavil, or blame the referee for coming from Scandinavia. His bravery in facing up to what is going on cannot be gainsaid.
Though the truth is he has a point: it is becoming increasingly hard to look beyond the manager for responsibility for United's sudden decline. Keane may think blame lies with Michael Carrick's post-match interview, Robin van Persie might be muttering about colleagues getting in his way, Andy Townsend may insist that the players assume some sort of accountability.
But fundamentally there is only one difference between a squad that cruised to the title by 11 points last May and this current shower. And that is the man in charge.
There is no doubt that the incoming manager inherited issues. He found a back four ageing simultaneously, a glaring gap where a central midfield ought to be and a bunch of the blandest wingers in the club's history. There was work required and he clearly needed time to fashion a team of his own.
Against Crystal Palace on Saturday for the first time in his career at United, Moyes was able to field his strongest XI. They did not look particularly awe-inspiring, the champagne could remain on ice. But they were solid enough. For a brief moment, it seemed this might be the light at the end of the tunnel, a turnaround was about to be fashioned.
Then, three days later they play as if they have been barely introduced.
Half a step forward and two steps back has been the rhythm of Moyes' season. Such lacklustre performances have undermined his room for manoeuvre. Persuading players of the quality he requires to come to Manchester United has just got an awful lot harder. It is impossible to imagine Toni Kroos watching the highlights from Greece and instructing his agent to get on the phone to Ed Woodward.
Champions League participation is the minimum requirement for the top performers. And Tuesday night's dismal display has all but ended United's limited hopes of being in the competition next season.
Eleven points behind Liverpool in fourth place with 11 Premier League fixtures to play would not have been a mathematical conundrum beyond the ability of past Uniteds. But the team who performed so wretchedly on Tuesday night would be lucky to maintain an 11-point lead, let alone claw one back.
The long-term worry is, that with Manchester City and Chelsea permanent members of the top four, and Arsenal and Liverpool well ahead in their development, getting back to a position of qualification suddenly looks a tough proposition.
At this rate, next season's certain European blank may be followed by plenty more. Which in turn creates a horribly vicious circle for the manager's team-building prospects.
In 1989, when Moyes' predecessor faced his lowest point, when the locals were getting restless and brandishing banners demanding his removal, the board pointed to work behind the scenes, with the youth set-up, with the scouting network, with the overall spirit, as proof that things were about to turn around.
You can only hope for Moyes' long-term job security that there is similar progress being made in areas not immediately obvious to the outside view. Because there is precious little evidence of any on the pitch. (© Daily Telegraph, London)