United will have to consider opening the exit door if the real David Moyes doesn't stand up
Struggling Scotsman a shadow of the commanding figure who ruled Everton from the Goodison Park sidelines for a decade
The ordeal of David Moyes is now defined by two pressing questions. Will he, any time soon, stand up and show us again the man who made over-achievement his career motif? And if he doesn't, how long before he is shown the door?
The received wisdom at Old Trafford is that Alex Ferguson's fellow Glaswegian and successor of choice will not be rushed to such a precipice. United, we are told, understand better than any of their rivals that even the greatest of football men need a little time.
Bobby Charlton, director and legend, this week sat close to Ferguson and former club captain Bryan Robson at Sunderland and was seen to shake his head when the whistle blew on the League Cup semi-final first leg defeat in the Premier League basement of the Stadium of Light.
But Charlton is not a man likely to be first to produce a knife and his support for Ferguson, after an unpersuasive opening spell, was crucial to the survival of English football's most successful manager. He is also known to rate highly the professional values of Moyes.
Yet God, or in this case perhaps one of the game's most distinguished figures, tends to help those who have shown an ability to help themselves. Thus far, Moyes' brief reign has hardly been redolent with such a quality.
It is something that is bound to be causing some apprehension behind the scenes at United.
We are also told Moyes will be given something close to carte blanche in the January and summer transfer windows.
Yet United's American owners have not been overwhelmed with evidence that, if Moyes' gets half a dozen seriously expensive new players, he is necessarily the right man to settle them in and drive them forwards.
The biggest question of all settles around the worry that, if Moyes had a brilliant record at Everton on slender resources, he still may have made a step too far for a football man who spent almost all his playing career in the lower echelons of the game. The questions are now clustering around the head of the man who is experiencing the pressure of expectation that brought the downfall of so many leading managers in the wake of Matt Busby's departure more than 40 years ago.
Such notable figures as Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson were all, sooner or later, chased out of town.
Included in the most biting of the speculation about Moyes' aptitude for running a huge club, rather than one happy to operate on the fringes of the big-time, is the question of whether he has the capacity to grow with his new status.
It is hardly helpful that, after all the years of striving at Goodison Park, Moyes is seeing his Everton successor Roberto Martinez produce some brilliant football as the team challenges for a place in the Champions League. More intimidating still, is the unbroken presence of a baleful-looking Ferguson.
Again we are told that Ferguson has an abiding belief in the man he picked out in preference to the self-perpetuating legend of Jose Mourinho. But how beneficial is his more or less constant presence at the scenes of fresh disaster? Is Fergie providing solid support or a recurring reproach? Rightly or wrongly, there is certainly the appearance of at least an element of the latter in the former manager's scowling demeanour as an indifferent start to the season slides into something very close to a collective breakdown in confidence.
If Ferguson has been praised by not only the cynically inclined for an example of escapology implicit in the timing of his retirement, it is still true that he carried the current squad over the line to the title last season.
Many said it was his greatest achievement, if not of pure coaching instinct, but a quite extraordinary refusal to accept the concept of defeat. United won the title last season because of the brilliantly timed signing of Robin van Persie and Ferguson's ability to make his players believe in themselves, both individually and collectively. Now that kind of momentum seems no more than a remnant of another age.
By comparison, Moyes appears to be shedding his old hard-eyed professional persona a little more with each game.
After the Sunderland debacle, he said he wasn't about to criticise referees. Then he proceeded to do precisely that. It is a developing pattern and it is not what you expect of a man who so frequently declared that every player went onto the field with a huge responsibility to the rest of the team. With each new defeat, there is fresh evidence of dwindling confidence in the squad's ability to arrest a decline that is now threatening to be little less than vertiginous.
The hard but inescapable conclusion is that Moyes, apart from the natural lamenting of Van Persie's absence and Rooney's current injury, is unsure of which players he sees as integral to the rescuing of the season.
Some believe that his faith in Tom Cleverley, above that of the former Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa, is a critical mistake. The view is held most notably, and passionately, by Kagawa's old coach Jurgen Klopp.
Most critically, Moyes has to show his hand in the market. He has to proclaim his faith in players he believes can reshape the future. Only such authority will staunch the growing fear that United went to the wrong man -- an admirable one, no doubt, but not one ideally equipped for one of football's ultimate challenges.
United rejected Mourinho because they believed his image had become too wild and his thinking too egocentric. Yet they may be now be reflecting deeply on their decision as the Special One begins to shape another serious challenge at Chelsea -- and Moyes fights desperately to make any kind of significant impact.
Mourinho's crime was to damn the consequences of his most outrageous behaviour. Ironic, then, that United now yearn for a manager filled with the power of his own conviction. Moyes may yet display such nerve, but he must find it soon.
The concern is that he is in danger of losing the fight before getting up from his stool.