Back in the depths of a dark December, in the wake of Newcastle’s first win at Old Trafford since 1972, a misty-eyed Gary Neville memorably and grandly wrote of Manchester United that, “as a club they stand against the immediacy of modern life.”
It was a bold claim to make of a listed company on the New York Stock Exchange which is proud to have Mister Potato as its ‘official savoury snack partner’, as well as counting Kansai Paint and Aperol Spritz among an extensive retinue of commercial sponsors which is longer than the average Premier League squad list.
However, as a spiritual lieutenant for the club, Neville’s message was clear: Manchester United respect history and tradition and embrace continuity. Not for Old Trafford is the revolving-door culture which has come to characterise, and indeed blight, contemporary football.
But there comes a point where continuity becomes to look rather more like atrophy.
And it seems Manchester United, a once virile body, are irreversibly breaking down, wasting away to the point where they are but a shadow of themselves.
Sunday’s 3-0 defeat to Liverpool was a case in point. United can hardly have envisaged a more chastening afternoon.
While not hitting their absolute worst level in a season which has consistently shocked in its incompetence, they still allowed Liverpool to enjoy the run of the turf at Old Trafford, Steven Gerrard claiming boldly and correctly in a post-match interview that his side “bossed” the midfield battle.
The same symptoms were there again, particularly in attack where United do not appear to have a functioning approach befitting a team of their alleged grandeur. The contrast between the stale front line employed by Moyes and the rather more lively and intelligent one constructed by Brendan Rodgers was clear to see.
Rodgers is a coach who has vastly improved Liverpool, increasing the technical scope and cognitive power of his players to a significant degree. He has infused the club with belief. Can Moyes say the same of his work with the talents at his disposal?
Not on the damning evidence of this season, and not the evidence of Sunday.
It was a telling moment in the post-match press conference when Rodgers spoke of his surprise at Moyes' downbeat demeanour even before the match.
“I was probably surprised before the game when I heard we were supposedly coming to Old Trafford here as favourites,” Rodgers said. “I would never say that at Liverpool – even if I was bottom of the league. Anfield is Anfield. We expect to win.”
There has been a lowering of expectations at Old Trafford.
Despite Moyes’ recent switch to 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Mata, Van Persie, Rooney and Januzaj in the same team, United also seem to be playing an outdated form of football. Where Rodgers favours fluidity, Moyes wants functionality; where Liverpool thrill, United bore.
At times, as they struggle to construct a passing move worthy of the name, you wonder if they stand against the immediacy of modern football tactics too.
Continuity was the key theme promoted in a rather heavy-handed manner by the club at the time of the surprise appointment of Moyes – or, as he was nicknamed, The Chosen One, a title which looks ever more unflattering by the day with its implicit demand to draw comparison with The Special One.
Now it has reached the point where continuity is the sole line of argument for keeping Moyes in a job. Continuity for continuity’s sake. There may be a case for that in the short term – they have nothing to play for, and alternative managers may not be available – but Moyes has not demonstrated he is the right man to entrust a huge transfer fund to in the summer.
It is all very well attempting to sign a player like Paul Pogba or Marco Reus – just as United succeeded in signing Mata in January – but a United team cannot just accumulate star names, it must knit together under the control of an elite coach; it must be a dynamic attacking force; it must be much more than it currently is. This is the modern way.
After a match in which United's best outfield player, Rafael, gave away a penalty and should have been sent off, Moyes struck a familiar tone: "I felt as if the players were in good shape and good fettle going into it," he said.
"But we didn’t get to the standards required. We didn’t play well. Liverpool deserved the victory. Some of the decisions were correct, some of them were incorrect. It’s difficult to explain it."
He never seems to see it coming and, increasingly, Moyes seems a man incapable of changing his fate, of affecting the deep undercurrents which threaten to drag him under. The club, though, need to be rather more decisive.
Forget standing against the immediacy of modern life, United need a future they can believe in. And that probably means one without Moyes.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
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