I got an email this morning from a Manchester United supporting friend bolding telling me that his team would win at the Emirates tonight.
His analysis was this: things were not as bad against Fulham as were widely reported. There was nothing wrong with United’s spirit, nothing wrong with their desire, nothing wrong with their guts. The problem was merely one of defensive organisation. Which can be quickly and obviously resolved. Once Juan Mata has been properly absorbed into the team they will start to fly, he reckoned. He for one was not disheartened. Things, he thought, are about to get better. Just watch.
While it is encouraging to hear from a United follower who is not taking to 6-0-6 to demand Moyes’s immediate hanging, drawing and quartering, it is not easy to share his upbeat mood. In their remaining games in the Premier League this season, United have yet to play Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City. Plus there is the small matter of the Champions League. The worry must be that there are still humiliations to come.
For Moyes the room for manoeuvre is shrinking by the day. With Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney back in the team – and Mata on the payroll – the excuse for reduced performance has been systematically removed. This is the point in the season when his team should be firing, should be galloping, should be making up for all that lost time.
And yet, unless you share my friend’s sense of unyielding confidence, it is almost impossible to see any forward purpose about Moyes’s United. Nine months into his reign and we have no idea what direction he wants to take the team, how he wants them to play. If Dan Burn’s derisory comments about the Conference-style football United unleashed against Fulham are indicative, the future is not so much bright as bone-headed.
This is the thing about Moyes: so far no-one knows what he stands for, football wise. Whether they are any good or not, you know what a Brendan Rodgers team is about. Likewise you know Roberto Martinez will instruct his players to pass, pass and pass again. You know Big Sam is stuck in the 19th century. You know Jose Mourinho is the master at one-off planning. But what is the trademark of a David Moyes team?
When he was at Everton pragmatism ruled his every move. While at Goodison he did whatever was necessary to compete. Without a huge budget, without superstar signings, he cut his tactical coat according to the available cloth. Long ball, short ball: whatever was required.
At United, however, gifted a squad that won the title by 11 clear points, pragmatism is no longer needed. Caution need no longer be the watchword. There he has the platform to produce his idea of how football should be played. So what is it?
There was a hint in the purchase of Mata. It was clear to anyone looking that his squad needed strengthening in the centre of defence, at left back, in the middle of midfield and on the right wing. What it didn’t need was another ball-playing number 10. Yet in buying Mata, instead of solving more pressing issues, the manager seemed to be sending a message out about the type of team he wanted to build at Old Trafford. Fast, fluid, swiftly-interchanging: there was a philosophy there.
And yet, since the Spaniard’s arrival, Moyes appears to have been afflicted by the caution which always characterised his time at Everton. Against Fulham Mata was deployed on the right, barely encouraged to flit.
Moreover, Moyes has yet to start a game with all of his gilded front four in action together. In the player’s debut game against Cardiff, he started with Mata and Van Persie, then brought them both off to be replaced by Rooney and Januzaj. It is almost as if he is worried that having too many of them on the pitch at once is a tactical over-indulgence.
Again, against Fulham Januzaj began on the bench. Yet it was not until he came on the pitch that United really began to threaten, by offering a different approach to merely hoofing the ball from 30 yards high into the box in order for it to be headed away by a 6’7” centre back.
And we can almost expect that tonight, away at Arsenal, the manager will again be gripped by safety first. If Mata, Rooney and Van Persie do line up at the kick off, then Januzaj, so bright, so sparkling, so capable, will be left on the bench, only to be brought out when the cause is beginning to be lost. Yet, you wonder what it is that the manager fears?
David Moyes is a fine man who more than deserves his chance. Things have gone horribly wrong for him so far.
But, even now, even as his reserves of good will shrink by the day, it is not too late to send out an unequivocal message about his philosophy and intentions.
For the remaining matches of this term – Champions League and all - just go for it, David. After all, you have nothing to lose. This season is already gone.
Jim White - on Twitter @jimw1