Pitchside Europe

Januzaj brilliance masks directionless United woes


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"Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos" – Walter Sobchak, the Big Lebowski

While it would be hyperbolic to compare the David Moyes regime to the nihilism bemoaned by deranged ‘Nam veteran Sobchak in the aforementioned Coen Brothers comedy, there is something undefined and random about the post-Fergie Manchester United.

Do not let an inspired performance by precocious teenager Adnan Januzaj mask what was a dreadful display at lowly, ungoverned Sunderland.

A display that was typified by the moment when, trailing to Craig Gardner’s fifth-minute strike, the United defence somehow allowed all 5'5" of Emanuele Giaccherini to power a header that would have been a second goal but for a marvellous David De Gea stop.

United needed a vastly improved performance after the bungling defeat to West Brom last weekend.

But the defending Premier League champions – who will not retain their title next summer – remained a shambles, with the previously imperious defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand resembling a lower-league clogger partnership barely fit to grace a starting XI at Selhurt Park let alone Old Trafford.

Going forward they are little better. At least watching paint dry comes with the potential to get off on the resultant fumes.

Clearly Vidic and Ferdinand have not suddenly become terrible defenders overnight; their experience and calm has not evaporated with the arrival of Fergie’s P46, and their team-mates have not seen 10% of their ability sucked from the souls by a Fergie-shaped vacuum in the dugout.

But what is apparent is that United’s entire playing staff appears to have suffered a collective crisis of confidence and belief with Ferguson’s departure.

To an extent they are the victims of institutionalisation. So accustomed to the methods of their Dear Leader, the group is left listless and unfocussed. The father figure has been replaced by a stern half-uncle who, for all his graft and experience, does not share the club’s DNA; Ferguson’s blood pulses through United’s veins now.

Following Fergie was always going to be a task but it has been mishandled atrociously. Sir Alex wasn’t doing some things right, he was doing everything right. The common-sense approach would have been to maintain as much consistency with the previous regime and manage a smooth, gradual transition. Sometimes too much change is a bad thing.

Moyes did exactly the opposite, firing the world’s best backroom staff and replacing them with a mixture of his Everton loyalists and untried ex-United players. What was Moyes scared of? That Mike Phelan, Rene Meulesteen and Eric Steele would be after his job? That somehow their loyalty to Fergie – who is retired, not sniffing around looking for a second bite at the cherry – would somehow undermine him?

Ferguson did little coaching in the latter stages of his career – he managed. He managed his playing staff, coaching staff, scouting operation and the expectations of those around him, not to mention the media and FA.

The collective absence of the backroom staff is glaringly obvious – United’s defence is haphazard and rudderless without Phelan organising the team, their attack appears blunted and unimaginative without renowned skills coach Meulesteen honing their creative instincts, and David De Gea is back to his erratic ways without Steele training the goalkeepers.

Dutchman Muelesteen summed it up when speaking to the Telegraph earlier in the summer.

"I said to him: ‘David, with all due respect, you've done a fantastic job in the Premier League with Everton but do you realise you're going from a yacht to a cruise ship?’. Ferguson, the captain, had a good crew with people like me. David didn't understand that. He wanted familiar faces. It saddened me leaving."

In no other industry would it be deemed wise business practise for a new manager to dispense with a hugely-successful support team; replacing them with his under-qualified mates would be seen as unacceptable cronyism. Football is not the most sensible industry though, so the lack of widespread surprise at this is unsurprising.

And this is without even mentioning the bungled transfer window, when Moyes and Ed Woodward somehow thought that a club like United would be able to drive bargains in a market inflated by the lavish spending of Real Madrid, and the petro-dollars of PSG and Monaco.

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Januzaj was a rare positive for United against Sunderland (Reuters)

It is understandable that, finally handed the project of his dreams, Moyes would have wanted to do it ‘his’ way. But it takes a spectacular degree of arrogance to presume that a decade of mild overachieving with Everton would somehow relate to the culture of dominance at Old Trafford.

What made Ferguson so brilliant, so timeless was his ability to adapt, to change with the times. Whether through tweaking on-pitch formations, backroom set-ups and transfer strategy over the years, or his mellowing from a bombastic man-management style to one more suitable for handling the superstar egos of the modern game.

He may be a stubborn patriarch, but he is adaptable, chameleonic, willing to embrace progress.

Moyes is setting up his United side startlingly similar to his teams at Everton, complete with the reduced ambition going forward and minus the level of defensive organisation at Everton. With the increased media and administrative duties being United boss entails, it is unsurprising that Moyes is less able to confer defensive stability to his teams. He needs the support to do so.

The handling of Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez are red herrings in that it is unlikely Moyes would be able to get the best out of them anyway - he has struggled with players of greater experience, with Robin van Persie looking worryingly off-colour in recent weeks.

Hopefully for Moyes, he will learn from his errors; despite his succession of poor decisions he remains an intelligent and driven individual. He needed to change his approach, not United's. But even if given time by the United board, the style of their play – or rather the lack of it – hints at a future of reduced expectation.

And that, whatever your view of Moyes as a man and a manager, is not acceptable.

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