David Moyes has been criticised (not least by myself) for a variety of reasons this season – the results, the performances, his negativity, his decisions (or lack thereof), the silly things he says to the media and for just … well… being David Moyes.
You see, although we’re nowhere in the Premier League title race, our domestic cup runs were ended at Old Trafford by teams that really shouldn’t be beating us at Old Trafford and our Champions League campaign was very nearly ended by a team we really should have beaten out of sight, it isn’t just the results that have led to a large section of the fan-base starting to go against him.
For this little Red Devil, at least, the worst thing about this season has been the awful football we’ve played most of the time.
A lot of it has been (supposedly) safe, predictable and boring. Get it out wide, smack it in, watch it get cleared, repeat.
However, following his finest hour (or two) against Olympiacos in midweek, there seemed to be a new David Moyes in front of the TV cameras . After looking like a dead-man-walking for the best part of the season, David Moyes suddenly cracked a couple of smiles and he expressed in more than just a monotone how delighted he was to have been in the Champions League Quarter Final draw and that we drew Bayern… so what? Bring ’em on! (OK, he didn’t quite go that far).
It remains too early to say whether the result against Olympiacos was a turning point for David Moyes in terms of how the hierarchy at Manchester United are viewing the situation but, for Moyes himself, it seems to have given him a shot in the arm.
As we went into the match against West Ham on Saturday evening, we all knew that this was precisely the kind of banana skin we’ve been slipping on with the kind of predictability that long ago stopped being funny to the extent that even our fiercest rivals have been asking, “Why does he keep doing that? Why is he even still being allowed to do that?”
However, I did describe this one as something of a “free hit” for David Moyes in my pre-match write-up and suggested that the result wasn’t perhaps all that important because despite Arsenal now starting to tease the teams just below them with the promise of one almighty collapse, I feel that we’re simply too far behind with not quite enough games to make up the difference and finish in the top four.
We also knew that, for a variety of reasons, Moyes had to make several changes to the team that had beaten Olympiacos in midweek.
What Moyes went with against West Ham surprised everybody, though.
Chris Smalling has been spotted leaving a nightclub singing, “We’re Manchester United… we’ll do what we want!” and I can only assume that Moyes was humming this to himself as he selected the starting eleven for this one.
Carrick at centre-back, Buttner at left-back, three Number 10s all in the same team. “We’re Manchester United… we’ll do what we want!”, sang Moyes as he applied his signature to the bottom of the teamsheet… probably.
However, I’ve said a couple of times this season that Moyes’ squad is top-heavy and this line-up probably served as the perfect illustration.
Carrick was playing in central defence because we had no other fit defenders, Buttner was playing left-back because he really is the only cover we have for Evra but the fact that Moyes was then able to bench Welbeck, Januzaj and (perhaps less so) Nani shows just where the shortages are in this squad.
Anyway, with this decidedly un-Moyes-like line-up blowing our minds prior to kick-off, we looked forward to seeing if this Rooney/Mata/Kagawa triumvirate could tiki-taka their way through the opposition defence in the same way they’d always done in our dreams.
In some ways, Wayne Rooney spoiled it all, though.
With just eight minutes played, Rooney demonstrated that he has his very own “Third Way” – bypass the opponent’s half completely and score from the halfway line. Simples.
It was a stunning goal and one which drew immediate comparisons with that scored by (the onlooking) David Beckham way back in 1996. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching either but Rooney’s just edges it for me.
Given that we’ve only seen two goals like it in the best part of twenty years, it’s clearly not something that we can rely on to win us too many matches though so thoughts quickly turned back to how this sexy line-up would go about scoring more orthodox goals.
As it turned out, it worked well but, personally, I would have liked to have seen it yield one or two more goals although some credit has to go to the West Ham ‘keeper Adrian who had to pull off several half-decent saves.
In the second half, we started to drop a bit deeper and this allowed West Ham to get forward a bit more but to no avail as the defensive partnership of Carrick and Jones held firm despite the constant aerial threat of the likes of Andy Carroll.
I don’t really want to talk about the game though – I said beforehand that it was a largely meaningless fixture in the great scheme of things so I’m not going to try to suggest it was the be-all and end-all now that it’s won. It was a good result and a very good team performance but more worthy of comment were the performances of a few of the players.
First, Fellaini. With two goals (one of them the aforementioned “wonder strike”) and a generally very good all-round performance, Wayne Rooney was always going to be awarded Man of the Match but running him a close second was surely Fellaini.
Eyebrows were raised when Moyes signed Fellaini. “Never a Manchester United player”, spouted the eternally ABU Jamie Redknapp at every opportunity and I must admit that watching the ungainly Fellaini misplace passes, fluff shots and generally look a little out of his depth earlier in the season, I too had my doubts.
However, I do remember the times he played against us at Everton and thinking what a bloody nuisance he was and this is what we saw from Fellaini today.
There must have been times when West Ham thought we had more than eleven players on the pitch because Fellaini was absolutely everywhere. He was obviously playing in midfield but he’d miraculously appear in our penalty area whenever West Ham were sending in the aerial bombardment and then would appear in the West ham box when we were on the attack.
I was so interested to see how much distance Fellaini had covered in this match that I looked up the stats and was quite surprised to see that two other players actually covered more ground – West Ham’s Mark Noble and our own Shinji Kagawa.
Still, it was an impressive shift from Fellaini and despite all this, he was still able to pick up the ball just inside the West Ham half in the dying minutes and run into their box despite Nocerino and Collins both pecking away at him. It came to nothing in the end as Fellaini went to ground as he took his shot and I’m still not sure if it was because he was cleanly tackled, fouled or he simply collapsed due to exhaustion but this lad has one hell of an engine in him and from this day forward I will be referring to him as the Belgian Beast.
Then we come to Shinji Kagawa. Another player who worked his socks off in this game and made up the numbers in all areas of the pitch. It’s impossible not to feel enormous sympathy for him, though.
When players are out through injury for a couple of months, they’re always given the benefit of any doubt in their first couple of games back. “He needs a few games to get his sharpness and match-fitness back”, come the words of the wise footballing sages.
Shinji Kagawa seems to be in this situation every time he plays (even though he’s never actually coming back from injury) and it just seems so unfair that his entire United future seems to hinge on every little touch when he’s never even been given the type of run in the side necessary for him to settle.
I thought he did well in this game but, as has happened several times in his previous appearances, he doesn’t always seem to be quite on the same wavelength as his team-mates but surely that is a symptom of rarely being played?
With Van Persie now looking increasingly likely to be missing for the rest of the season, I do hope that Kagawa is given more opportunities to show us what he can do.
He’s no stranger to victories over Bayern Munich, either.
Thought that I should also give a mention here to Buttner. He’s one of those who tends to come in for some heavy criticism from some United fans. The general opinion is that he’s decent enough going forward but the defensive side of his game leaves a lot to be desired.
The funny thing is that Evra has come in for much the same criticism over the last couple of seasons.
The feeling is that Moyes gave him an opportunity in this match in order to give Evra a rest before the City game and to give Buttner a run-out with one eye on the Bayern game for which Evra is suspended.
I would have to say that on this evidence, he seems to have brought a bit of balance into his game. The attacking side of his game was still there but his defensive side seemed much improved.
Obviously, West Ham aren’t Bayern Munich but I just have a feeling that he’s one of those players who can be counted on to give 100% and at this moment in time, I still think he represents the best alternative for the Bayern game.
I could go on through the team as there were many very good individual performances – Jones did his permanent centre-back claims no harm in this one and whilst Carrick might not like to hear it, neither did he!
Mata looked far more at home in this one, showed some great passing and control and was only denied his first United goal because West Ham’s goalkeeper Adrian generally had a very good game himself.
I’m afraid that Ashley Young continues to do little to justify the undying love and support he’s been getting from Moyes this season and I can’t help but feel that if Kagawa had been given half the love Young has been shown then our season may well have been different.
And then we have the man himself – Wayne Rooney. Celebrated what is surely going to become a regular Captains role with two goals to take him above Jack Rowley and into third in Manchester United’s all-time record goalscorer table. His first harked back to the ridiculously audacious prodigy Moyes will remember from the first time he was his manager, his second was more a case of being in the right place at the right time but that’s never a bad thing for a striker, is it?
As I’ve said, he will surely be our official Captain next season and more than likely for the majority of our remaining games this season and if he continues with this goalscoring rate then I can certainly see him overtaking Denis Law to take the second spot by the end of next season and then Sir Bobby Charlton the following season.
Finally, I’d just like to pass a few comments about the player who wasn’t out there in this most experimental of David Moyes’ line-ups – Robin Van Persie.
There can be no doubting that Van Persie does the most important part of football (sticking the ball in the net) better than most, I do feel at times that his very presence on the pitch almost forces us to adopt a more rigid and therefore predictable style of play.
A few weeks ago, he was complaining to a Dutch reporter that sometimes his team-mates play in “his” areas which means he has to adopt positions where he feels he is perhaps less effective.
On the evidence of this game, I would suggest that the opposite is actually closer to the truth – that RvP actually gets in the way of his team-mates and that the team plays far better without him.
RvP is looking very much like a player who likes to be the “main man” – Van the Man – but when asked to sacrifice even the tiniest portion of his game for the greater good of the team, starts to spit out the old dummy.
It’s hard to say whether this team line-up was just Moyes going with what he had in the face of a lengthy injury list or whether it’s something he has wanted to try for some time but if it’s the latter then he would have my wholehearted support if he decided not to wait for Van Persie to be injured before trying it again.
So, anyway. A very good week for Manchester United and great week for David Moyes on a personal level but without wishing to appear churlish, the likes of Olympiacos and West Ham are not the barometer by which Manchester United sides are judged.
That level is currently set by the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich and if Moyes can continue this against those two in the next week or so then not only will I have to eat an awful lot of humble pie, I would be delighted to do so.
In the meantime, Well done David Moyes and well done to the players for not wasting the opportunity to show the manager how well things can go when you remember that we are Manchester United… and that we can do what we want.