For Manchester United, a season that nobody expected

 

(Standard)

(Standard)

Rio Ferdinand was sitting in the near-deserted part of a Yokohama, Japan, hotel reserved for Manchester United’s team. Security guards stopped Japanese fans who had slipped into lifts aiming to reach where they thought the players would be, while an 18-year-old called Adnan Januzaj wandered around in one of Ferdinand’s branded “5” caps, wondering why his mobile phone didn’t work. An explosive five-minute cameo in a first-team training session had earned the youngster promotion to the tour party.

Januzaj was getting to know his new teammates on a lucrative preseason trip that saw United play in six countries last July and August. But he wasn’t the only one getting acclimated. Players such as Ferdinand were familiarising themselves with their new manager, David Moyes, and his coaching staff, who had replaced Sir Alex Ferguson’s trusted coaches, Eric Steele, Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen.

“We want to consolidate on what we did last season, winning the league,” said a relaxed Ferdinand, who was about to enter his 12th season at Old Trafford. “There’s more experience in the squad, and the players who were here last year are still here. They know what it takes to win the league.”

The veteran wasn’t expecting any surprises in the Premier League.

Currently United are seventh, a position where they’ve spent most of this season. It’s been a huge disappointment; the club’s worst season campaign since 1988-89, when average crowds dipped below 40,000 and resentment built against the then-manager, Alex Ferguson. It’s been a season of sustained disappointments and occasional farce, with pictures of the cracked Manchester United badge commonplace in media reports.

2013-14 will be the first time United have finished outside the top three since 1990-91. The team have suffered their worst home form — six defeats — for more than a decade and had a run of three consecutive losses for the first time since 2001.

To compound matters for the 75,000 who fill Old Trafford to capacity for each game, as well as the millions of fans around the globe, the league title looks as though it’s going to the home of one of United’s biggest rivals: Liverpool or Manchester City.

February of this year was the first time Liverpool were ahead of United at that stage of the season for 23 years.

A year earlier, United had 23 more points after 26 league games than at the same point in 2014. Football didn’t begin with the advent of the Premier League in 1992, but United will finish this season with their lowest points tally since then.

Back in the summer of 2013, while his players were concerned about the loss not only of Ferguson, but of his coaches who didn’t want to leave, Moyes was publicly confident at the start about United’s prospects and talked of his pleasure at working with such great players, as though he’d been handed the keys to a Ferrari after years in family saloon.

Privately, however, he consistently said he had a huge rebuilding job to do. He did it in calls to coaches a year ago as he sought to assemble his future staff, while football was still oblivious to Ferguson’s imminent departure.

He said it to people at Everton, too, and he has said it throughout this season. Moyes is entitled to that view and maybe he’s right, but it’s an odd thing to hear about a team that had just won the league by 11 points.

Moyes’ assessment also did not tally with that of his boss, chief executive Ed Woodward, who said that the squad needed “little re-tooling.”

The summer transfer window became a farce and concluded with a deadline day that saw Ander Herrera’s agent think his client was going to United, while United refused to pay Athletic Bilbao’s buyout clause. Marouane Fellaini did arrive at the 11th hour. We’ll get to him.

Moyes was supported and cut some slack. After a limp Community Shield win — 2-0 versus Wigan — and a poor league start, fans expected the season to get going in September, then October, November, December, January … It never did.

Six straight wins around the Christmas period was United’s best run and, as the club were still in four cup competitions at the time, expectations increased slightly.

Yet, by that time, the heavyweight champions had already been knocked down several times. United were 12th after defeat at home to West Brom on Sept. 28 and, not for the first time, chants of “sacked in the morning” would be heard from the away end.

The mood had begun to shift in the dressing room, too. After the 4-1 derby defeat versus Manchester City, heated words were exchanged among players. Wayne Rooney, United’s best player on the day (as he has been for two-thirds of the season), wasn’t happy. But then his teammates weren’t overjoyed about his conduct during the summer when they fully expected him to leave Old Trafford following his fallout with Ferguson.

Other senior players, who Moyes had gone out of his way to meet before he was appointed, could have been his biggest allies, yet it will be a surprise if any of them are at the club next season.

Ferdinand let slip a few thoughts about the timing of team announcements that didn’t cast Moyes in the best light. Maybe it was about getting used to a new boss.

Meanwhile, his defensive sidekick Nemanja Vidic trained as aggressively as Roy Keane ever did, but cut a different figure to the usually smiling Serb off the pitch. Both had been in far happier dressing rooms. Other players blamed each other and the training.

Robin van Persie might tell his own story of this season in years to come — Javier Hernandez has hinted he will — and he wouldn’t be alone in being underwhelmed by the squad management, with players feeling underused and then overused. In October, he was understood to be unhappy with training while the club were equally unhappy as they thought he was ready to play when he said he wasn’t. A compromise was found.

One problem for Moyes has been his public persona. It’s not working and he should receive help — just like Sir Alex Ferguson did — to make him more comfortable and confident in front of the cameras and journalists.

The Mirror’s David McDonnell was handed the dubious honour of being Moyes’ first banned journalist. His crime was tweeting the United lineup hours before the game. Unlike his predecessor, however, Moyes carried out his banning quite calmly and let the journalist have his say: “So you’re banning me for doing my job?” That sort of thing. But Moyes was firm and fair in saying it couldn’t carry on.

On too many other occasions, though, Moyes has sent mixed messages, appearing too tense one day and too relaxed another. He doesn’t project the image of a United manager, and he has often made comments more befitting of the status of his former club than his current one.

Saying he was “hopeful” of winning a game or describing Liverpool as “favourites” before a game at Old Trafford impressed no one. Nor did saying that he would have accepted a draw at Cardiff before the match, or stating he hoped to “make it difficult” against Newcastle United, or blaming referees, or the squad he was left with (Ferguson didn’t appreciate that) and injuries.

After United lost at Stoke in February, Moyes said, “I don’t know what we have to do to win.” However well-intentioned it was, it came out badly.

Moyes has to make himself more comfortable, and the messages he sends out must be clearer. There were many unedifying aspects of how Ferguson dealt with the media, but he was effective in using them as a tool to help the football club he managed.

Moyes needs to give better thought to what he’s going to say, pre-empt and push his own agendas. He needs more confidence in his voice. That would come from winning games, which hasn’t happened enough.

He also needs to realise that he has potential allies: United’s official media can be a help and should not be seen as a hindrance.

With less than a month remaining of a season that was basically over by mid-April, and ahead of his return to Everton on Sunday, Moyes faces multiple problems. It doesn’t help that he’s had players and staff consistently briefing against him. Where the former are concerned, the gripes have been about conservative, defensive football.

With the latter, meanwhile, it’s more personal. In mitigation, they were used to working under Ferguson and his all-conquering ways. It’s hardly Moyes’ fault that he doesn’t yet know not only the staff names as Ferguson did, but also the names of their partners, children and grandchildren.

So what happens now? Match-going fans have stayed supportive, though approval ratings for Moyes have dropped significantly — especially after the away defeat at Olympiakos, followed by 3-0 home reverses to Liverpool and Manchester City. In Greece, 2,000 United fans began the match singing his name and finished it arguing among themselves about whether it was right to support a man who was failing.

Many hope the Glaswegian succeeds but doubt he can. If he was dismissed, there wouldn’t be protests but, if he’s to get it right, he needs time to do a job. Online, the critics started on the first day of the season when United only beat Swansea 4-1 and not 16-0.

Several players will depart in the summer. Ferdinand and fellow club legend Patrice Evra are likely to be among them, while Vidic has already confirmed he is going to Inter. Javier Hernandez is not pleased with his lack of minutes, either.

Another not content is Nani, who is currently as happy as a typical United fan is at the prospect of Liverpool or City winning the league. It’s a shame, for he’s such a talent. I recently spoke to someone who worked closely with the Portuguese winger throughout his career.

“Nani’s a great player,” he said. “It’s tragedy what’s happened to him. What have they done to him?”

The end also looks nigh for 40-year-old Ryan Giggs. United will lose a huge amount of experience this summer.

Meanwhile, there’s more chance of Ferguson returning to Old Trafford than Anderson, who is currently on loan at Fiorentina. Ashley Young could leave if anyone makes a reasonable bid, and Tom Cleverley hasn’t yet been offered the new contract he expected.

Moyes will have his side of the story, too. His job is a very difficult one when the players have so much power. All of them are under contract and would breach their contracts if they spoke out, though some have tried, either cryptically using social media, in private or in interviews that have been pulled by a club keen to keep a positive message and a lid on discontent. In mitigation, some of the players have underperformed and let their manager down.

The club will go into next season without Champions League football for the first time in 18 years. There is concern about season ticket sales and attempts will be made to deliver good news to improve the mood.

Exciting signings, signed early, will do that, just as the arrival of Juan Mata did in January, but the club’s owners, the Glazer family, have to decide if they’re to trust Moyes with the money to oversee those arrivals.

Southampton full-back Luke Shaw, 18, is wanted. He’s a childhood Chelsea fan, but it’s believed that his family would prefer him to go to United, which is perceived as being a more stable club and where he could comfortably be left-back for the next 15 years.

Moyes is also a huge admirer of Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa. Who isn’t? Another Atleti star, left-back Filipe Luis, is also rated. A central midfielder and central defender are other priorities.

United are aware that they need to avoid a repeat of last summer. Though Woodward and Moyes initially defended their actions, they later admitted that they’d learned from their experience. Moyes has been told to be more assertive.

The club are certain that the money is there to spend big and that they remain attractive to prospective signings, despite not having Champions League football to offer. It’s imperative that United make a statement by signing a player to excite fans who won’t take another three months of excuses or being merely linked to names.

It’s not only Moyes’ battered reputation at risk, but Woodward’s, too. He needs to show he is a man who can deliver players and appears to be getting used to dealing with the type of people he’ll need to deal with. The daughter of “super” agent Jorge Mendes was looked after when she did work experience at Old Trafford last autumn.

If Moyes gets time, he’ll make the dressing room his own, but Marouane Fellaini, the one obvious Moyes signing so far, has not impressed and that knocks supporter confidence in the manager.

Fellaini cost more than Yaya Toure, yet when the pair came face to face in September’s Manchester derby, the difference in class was staggering. His coaches insist that the Belgian just needs a goal to lift his confidence, that he’s a very good player and others have taken time to settle, but should a 27 million pound player not be doing more against mid and low-ranking sides? He didn’t choose the fee but, still, he’s a central midfielder for Manchester United.

It has been a dramatic, fascinating, failure of a season for United. No matter how much work Moyes felt needed doing, dropping from first place to seventh is a huge swing.

The fans have stood it until now but, if they don’t see improvements soon, they will turn. And nobody saw that at the start of the season as the first team enjoyed being big in Japan.

Read the entire piece at ESPN Soccernet.

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