Speaking after the tactically wretched defeat in the Manchester derby, he said of his opponents: “City are what we aspire to.”
You sort of knew what he meant. You sensed what he was getting at. But as a piece of stirring oratory it was not quite in the Bill Shankly class. As Gareth Southgate might say, it was more Ian Duncan Smith than Winston Churchill.
For 25 years City barely registered on the Manchester United radar, except as a source of ridicule for the fans. In his first season in charge, things have so suddenly inversed that City are now cast by the new manager as the target to which he strives. City are what he aspires to: as a rallying call to an increasingly sceptical home support it could not have been more ill-judged.
Many of us who have wished Moyes well in his new role are finding the reservoir of patience rapidly diminishing. Those who suggest he has taken on the most difficult job in football clearly were not at the Goldsands Stadium in Bournemouth last night to listen to Brian McDermott, the Leeds manager, talk eloquently about the problems and frustrations of managing an entirely anchorless club. What McDermott would do for resources like Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia.
Moyes has performed the unedifying trick of turning thoroughbreds into mules. Sure, he has inherited a squad with a few problems. But they were never as bad as they now appear. And his additions have not exactly sparkled. Mata and Maroune Fellaini, who were regular goal threats at Chelsea and Everton, have not scored a goal between them in 26 appearances for Manchester United. Never mind aspiring to be City, it would be quite nice if the manager simply made those he has play a little closer to their potential.
It has been a characteristic of Moyes’s time at Old Trafford that every time he has taken one step forward, it has been followed by two steps back. Every time he looks as though he is turning the corner, every time he appears to be enjoying a hint of momentum, every time he is able to smile, his progress stalls. It happened again last night.
He wins well against Olympiacos and West Ham and then he presides over an utterly listless capitulation to his cross-town rivals. Just 10 days after a similar home humiliation to Liverpool, it is not the sort of pattern likely to locate him for long in the supporters’ affections.
He appears to be clueless as to why this sequence keeps recurring. Well, maybe he should take a look at his contribution. Last night, ahead of kick off, I got a text from a United-supporting mate which read: “just seen the team Moyes has picked. 3-0 City minimum.” I just hope he put money on it.
But my friend had a point. On Saturday at Upton Park, Moyes played a midfield three of Kagawa, Mata and Ashley Young behind Wayne Rooney. Against opponents admittedly of much less significance than he faced last night, that midfield worked. With Mata playing where he is best suited, in behind the lone front man, the passing and movement was fluid, intelligent and progressive. There was a panache and dash about United that was almost reminiscent of the old ways.
So what does he do against City? He ditches the winning formula, drops Kagawa and Young, stations Mata on the wing and puts out a midfield of Michael Carrick, Fellaini and Tom Cleverley, a trio who nobody could mistake for ambitious in their forward movement.
This was for a home game in a local derby. But caution crippled Moyes, induced him to send out a team set up first of all not to lose. And how did that go? They were a goal behind before those in the pricey seats had finished their first prawn sandwich.
What Moyes appears not to have understood is that for a Manchester United manager caution is not an option. If you have players who can dance, it is a contractual obligation to set them free. Don’t clog up the formation with nigglers and snipers who regard a three-yard sideways pass as the summit of footballing art. Especially nigglers and snipers incapable of stopping the opposition from playing.
You shudder to imagine what will happen when Bayern Munich come to Manchester next week. You cannot imagine their scouts in attendance last night required a change of underwear at half-time. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Toni Kroos, Franck Ribery: you just have to list the names and the horrors of what lies ahead start to form in the mind.
So far Moyes has failed every single examination he has faced. Against the big teams like City he has been consumed with doubt and worry, an addiction to caution translating itself to players used to a philosophy of the reckless and the gung-ho. If caution has ever entered the mindset at Old Trafford in the past, it is only to be immediately thrown to the wind.
It is clearly the steepest of learning curves for the new manager. But at the moment he seems to be slipping rapidly downhill. Unless he quickly comes to terms with the simple philosophical lesson that informs everything about his new employer, he is doomed. Aspire to City? Right now he needs to be more like Manchester United.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manchester United
- David Moyes
- Shinji Kagawa