Jim White

Everything on the line for Moyes after his Alan Partridge moment

Jim White

It was one of the funniest, if excruciatingly painful, moments in British television comedy. Alan Partridge is making his way across a public car park when he catches sight of an acquaintance in the distance. He shouts out his name. But the man – for reasons too obvious to rehearse here – ignores his calls. Partridge, though, is not to be deterred and keeps shouting out the single name “Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan!” until it becomes absurd.

On Sunday, David Moyes seemed to be channelling the spirit of Partridge in the Old Trafford technical area. As his Manchester United side were swamped by Liverpool, technically, tactically and physically over-run, he stood there shouting out names. “Mike! Mike!” he would go. Or “Wayne! Wayne! Wayne! Wayne!”

Like Partridge, the objects of his attention did not respond. But Moyes did not give up. “Wayne! Wayne! Wayne! Mike!” he went. But they weren’t listening. Which was no real surprise as apparently shouting out a name was all he had to contribute.

Alongside him, his Liverpool counterpart Brendan Rodgers was assiduously taking notes. He wasn’t shouting, he was observing, scheming, planning. As a contrast between a man in control and a man not waving but drowning it could not have been more stark.

Anyone with a heart would wish David Moyes well. A decent, honest, hard-working man, he should be afforded the respect of opportunity. Until now, I have been of the opinion he has been unlucky rather than inept. Unfortunately for him, his performance on Sunday finally undermined his legitimacy for the role of Manchester United manager. It was simply abject. That was the moment when good will ran dry.

Working for Sky TV, Gary Neville spotted the glaring tactical deficiency in Moyes’s team plan within 10 minutes of the game starting against Liverpool. Neville pointed out that United’s central midfield pair were being utterly destroyed by Liverpool’s superior numbers there. The manager needed quickly to make a switch, to pull one of his wingers inside, or to replace one of them with the more adaptable Danny Welbeck.

But Moyes apparently did not see the problem. As his statuesque, static central pair provided all the resistance of training ground cones, he stood in his technical area shouting out names. Up in the directors’ box, Alex Ferguson would have noted that while Jordan Henderson has indeed got a strange running style, it is at least a running style. Unlike Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, who were doing a fine impression of Easter Island statues as Henderson, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen ran rings round them.

At half-time, Moyes had the opportunity to act, to make the necessary tactical switch. He was only one down, now was the chance to sort things. But no, the same plodding system continued, lambs to the slaughter. There was no change throughout the second half, the tactical inertia reaching its nadir when Juan Mata was replaced by Rio Ferdinand.

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Afterwards, Moyes, his eyes blank and fearful, said he could not explain what had happened. Well, Gary Neville could. As could most of the occupants of the Stretford End. What had happened was he had utterly failed to act when presented with the most obvious of problems.

Tonight Moyes has an immediate chance for redemption. Turn around a two-goal deficit in Europe against Olympiacos and he can at least point to improvement. He can take half a step forward after being stuck in reverse.

There is precedent to inspire him. Thirty years ago, United faced a similar issue in the Cup Winners' Cup against a Barcelona team far more elevated than this Olympiacos side. They won the second leg 3-0. Ron Atkinson, the manager that evening, believes Moyes could do the same. Atkinson insists this could be the night things turn around for the beleaguered Scot.

Except, back in 1984 Atkinson was able to send out a midfield quartet of Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, Ray Wilkins and Arnold Muhren, the kind of resource way beyond anything Moyes has at his disposal. Plus, Ron set them up in a manner perfectly adapted to stifle Barca. Eschewing the usual United format of two wide men, he played them in a narrow diamond shape, with Robson the forward man, Moses patrolling in front of the back four, and Muhren and Wilkins holding the middle.

It utterly frustrated the Barca midfield, starved them of possession. And when he wanted width, Atkinson instructed his full-backs to bomb forward, which Arthur Albiston did to huge effect providing the cross for the second goal.

Given that the Barca midfield included two of the most gilded talents in world football in Bernd Schuster and Diego Maradona, it was a masterful plan. We tend to think of football of 30 years ago as being stuck in Neanderthal tactical times, but that was a piece of real cunning by Atkinson. The kind of thinking marginally more effective than standing in the technical area shouting out names.

Everything is at stake for Moyes tonight. If he is to be gifted further time in charge at United he has to demonstrate quickly that he is capable of something more elevated than the kind of leaden inflexibility which has characterised his work thus far. He has to be deft, bold, quick-witted, able immediately to adapt to circumstance. Otherwise, the only shouting he is going to be doing in the near future around Old Trafford is for a cab.

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