Alex Chick

Manchester United – worse than Mrs Brown’s Boys

Trying to pick the worst aspect of Manchester United latest slump in form is like selecting the least amusing scene from a Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special.

There is much to choose from, and in many ways there's no wrong answer - in the end it's all part of the same desolate, depressing spectacle.

[MATCH REPORT: Sunderland inflict more woe on United]

Still, at least people actually seem to like Mrs Brown (and if you're one of them, you can stop reading now). There might have been people laughing last night, but none of them supported United, whose fanbase has been sucked into a collective state of near-catatonic despair.

Playing the role of the cross-dresser who glues himself to the toilet is, of course, David Moyes.

He's an obvious fall guy; his failure to strengthen the squad in the summer; his prehistoric tactics; his glazed and helpless look as United slump to another defeat; the way he isn't Sir Alex Ferguson.

Moyes is making the job of replacing Fergie look even harder than it probably is. In fact the only bit he's getting right is the constant complaining about refs.

[Moyes blames 'terrible' referee for defeat]

But far worse than Moyes's performance last night was that of his team, who showed a malaise that goes far beyond the painful inadequacy of Tom Cleverley.

It was United's senior players who disappointed most, failing to get a grip as the game slipped away. This was an experienced United side, but after Fabio Borini's 64th-minute penalty who galvanised them?

Not Ryan Giggs, not Nemanja Vidic, not Michael Carrick - and certainly not Patrice Evra, who showed more enthusiasm in his running battle with ref Andre Marriner than he did in trying to contain Adam Johnson.

[MATCHCAST: Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United]

None of United's old heads did a thing to avert the slow-motion car crash of their third defeat on the bounce.

At this point, it's easy to again turn to Moyes and blame him for failing to inspire his players.

But if you think that responsibility for motivation lies solely with the manager, look at Chelsea.

Throughout the turmoil of Roman Abramovich's revolving door policy, the squad has retained its extraordinary ability to overcome adversity and win trophies.

Chelsea's drive comes not from the manager, but from their players.

John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba - they have seen (and in some cases encouraged) a dizzying rate of change in the dugout, yet nothing seems to dull their knack of ending the season with a shiny pot or two.

It's the managers who understand the players' importance, and not impose themselves too strongly, who have succeeded - Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti. Even Jose Mourinho, for all that he's perceived as a megalomaniac, is smart enough to understand that Chelsea's senior players remain their biggest asset. (Unlike at Real Madrid, where he took on captain Iker Casillas)

At Chelsea he has chosen to pick fights with Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Juan Mata, players - literally and metaphorically - outside the core of the side.

Given their centrality, Chelsea's leading players have been accused of undermining managers like Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas Boas - which is where we return to United.

Sir Alex Ferguson's 26-year reign at Old Trafford was all about control. It is the central theme of his book, in which anyone who threatens that control is dispensed with.

Although it is easy to forget his relationship with Roy Keane lasted over a decade, Ferguson obviously prefers leaders by deed like Paul Scholes, Giggs, Vidic.

That being so, is it really surprising he bequeathed Moyes a squad almost devoid of strong characters and natural leaders?

Fergie wanted players he could influence, whom he could mould - for 90 minutes - into mini-versions of himself. Players who would not threaten his mastery of the dressing room.

But where right now Moyes needs players to draw on their internal reserves of fortitude, to take charge of situations, he has a group who have spent their time at Old Trafford suppressing any urges to do that.

It makes no sense to 'blame' Ferguson for United's current predicament. He might have left Moyes a squad of lily-livered shirkers, but those lily-livered shirkers did win a Premier League title not nine months ago.

In any case, is it not enough for him to bring home 25 major trophies as manager - does he have to ensure victory after he's retired, too?

Moyes could have signed more and better players, his tactics could be more progressive, but it probably wouldn't have made much difference. And there's really no point sacking him now.

Fatalistic as it may be, United's disastrous season is an almost inevitable consequence of losing a manager of such monolithic significance.

Having spent two decades defying the sporting law of cycles, United are finally tasting bitter reality.

The pratfalls, the tawdry quality, the despondency, the deep sense of shame - it really is just like watching Mrs Brown's Boys.