Perhaps the most telling moment of Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Newcastle came not on the pitch, as a neutered home side struggled for creativity against the robust and determined visitors, but in a post-match interview.
Summoned to speak to the cameras, magnanimous Magpies manager Alan Pardew lamented the considerable damage his side had just inflicted on “poor old United and David”, as if he had just crushed an unassuming and unsuspecting bunny rabbit under the wheel of his luxury car.
It was the pity Pardew exuded which really told a story. We are not supposed to pity United, we are supposed to fear them. Yet in the seven months since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped away from the touchline for the final time, the complexion of United has unmistakably changed.
Where once teams quaked at the thought of playing at Old Trafford, now they appear to relish it. David Moyes may be a good manager – and his record at Everton demonstrates he is - but during a short reign at United he has succeeded only in completely puncturing the aura of invincibility that Ferguson cloaked this grand club in.
And while there are some mitigating circumstances – the soft belly of the squad bequeathed to him by Ferguson, the total impossibility of replacing his predecessor – things are unravelling alarmingly quickly. It is December 7 and United are in ninth place; if Arsenal beat Everton tomorrow they will be 15 points clear of their rivals.
Attempting to analyse the psychology of players, and indeed entire teams, is a problematic enterprise for one on the outside. But results this season strongly suggest United are shedding their intimidatory veneer, loss by loss.
When West Bromwich Albion won 2-1 at Old Trafford in September it was the first time they had taken full points from Old Trafford since 1978; Everton’s win on Wednesday night was their first away at United since 1992; and on Saturday Newcastle enjoyed a victory at the Theatre of Dreams for the first time since 1972.
These are not the records Moyes hoped to have next to his name when, in the summer, he was promoted above his station to the job of replacing the most successful manager in the history of British football. Barring a couple of brief highlights here and there, it is a task that has proved well beyond him so far.
Whereas Ferguson imbued United with an unbeatable feeling, an iron mentality, under Moyes they are now brittle and vulnerable. Even Arsenal, so used to tasting defeat at Old Trafford, now cast their eyes back to a 1-0 defeat in November and view it as a big opportunity missed. This is what United have been reduced to.
Moyes might counter that he is not the only manager struggling. Jose Mourinho, who a sizeable number of United fans hoped would be anointed Ferguson’s successor after leaving Real Madrid, has just suffered a third defeat with Chelsea which leaves a club he once forged in Ferguson’s invincible image four points behind Arsenal, who have played a game fewer.
Still, the suffering of the two men is on a different scale at present. Mourinho and Chelsea are eight points ahead of Moyes and United, who occupy ninth place. Aston Villa will push them into 10th if they beat Fulham by four goals on Sunday.
Are events spiralling out of control? Certainly quotes from Rio Ferdinand questioning his manager’s method of naming his team so late suggested Moyes isn’t keeping as tight a lid on things as he should. Such an event would have been completely unthinkable under his predecessor.
It is not yet time for United to dispense with him – having made continuity the central theme of the marketing blitz that surrounded his appointment it would make the club look utterly ridiculous to sack Moyes now. But a quick glance at their upcoming fixture list indicates he must start taking three points quickly.
United visit Aston Villa on December 15 before West Ham come to Old Trafford on December 21. Trips to Hull City and Norwich City then follow before the year is out. Should their form remain patchy and pock-marked by defeats after that run of fixtures, then due consideration will need to be had over the suitability of their manager.
Moyes is now appealing to the better nature of United fans, some of whom booed the team off after their loss to Newcastle. "There will be [light at the end of the tunnel] because it is a transitional period and that was always going to be the case," he said. "I hoped it wouldn't have been as poor as it has been in the last few games. When I came here I knew it was never going to be easy and it's proved to be that way.
"I think the United supporters have been great to me and great to the club. They understand there is a big transition going on here and, like me, I don't think they expected us to have lost five games at this stage of the season. We didn't expect that. But I think they understand that there is a change going on. We'll work, try to improve and try to get better."
His emphasis on the word ‘transition’ was significant, and perhaps United will enjoy a sharp upturn in form in due time. But it is too late for their once impregnable mystique. Moyes has made Manchester United ordinary.