We are only six matches into the Premier League season, but the remaining thirty-two matches must feel like a mountain to climb for the already beleagured Manchester United manager David Moyes as he surveys the wreckage of last Saturday’s home defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion. Over the course of the last week and a half or so, the wheels on his wagon have started to look extremely rickety indeed and the faint but distinctive smell of panic is already starting to settle over the more skittish element of the club’s support. How long might it be, we might reasonably wonder, before the “David Moyes is incompetent” trope becomes The Thing About David Moyes? Time, it is already starting to feel, may be beginning to run out.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why Moyes was appointed into the managerial position at Old Trafford in the first place. His record at Everton was not perfect, but Alex Ferguson saw traits in him that clearly indicated to him that he was the right man to succeed him in this potentially thorny role. The problem with the managerial succession at Manchester United, however, is that expectations have been inflated to such an extent by more than twenty years of almost uninterrupted success that there is no room for a transitional period, as we are seeing now. Three defeats from the opening six matches of the season is only disastrous if you have been enjoying the rarefied air of perpetual Champions League for such a long time that life without it, even for a year, would be unthinkable. Ferguson was granted six and a half years in charge at Old Trafford before delivering what was then the club’s first league title for more than a quarter of a century. Unless results pick up, Moyes will be fortunate to get six and a half months.
The comfort for David Moyes is also, perhaps, his biggest concern. Last season, essentially the team that he has at his disposal now won the Premier League at a canter. It has been suggested that Manchester United won the title last season because those that finished below them, but the fact that his team ended its thirty-eight matches with eighty-nine points comfortably suggests otherwise. They may not have quite played with the sparkle of some previous title-winning United teams, but they just kept going, grinding out result after result with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Principally, the ingredient that is missing from Old Trafford this season is most likely the force of Ferguson’s personality, his deep knowledge of a squad of players that he had built, and his tactical acumen. Rotating a squad, keeping the egos happy and maintaining balance without the eleven players ever becoming so predictable as to be easy to shut down may be a skill that takes time to learn, and to that extent the question that for now remains unanswerable is that of whether Moyes will be given the time to learn.
It’s not only at Manchester United, though, that things have been going less than perfectly, as Manuel Pellegrini’s defeats at Aston Villa and Cardiff City and Jose Mourinho’s loss at Everton indicate. But this degree of unpredictability – which neutrals have long craved – has been the hallmark of the Premier League season so far. Arsenal, emboldened by the deadline day signing of Mesut Özil, have stormed off to a start that has made a mockery of those that spent the summer whinging and whining about the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market. Some felt that the sale of Gareth Bale would have some sort of apocalyptic effect on Tottenham Hotspur this season, but results – a loss in the North London derby notwithstanding – have suggested that he is nowhere near as missed as they might have expected. The appointment of Roberto Martinez at Everton was questioned in some quarters, but Everton remain the only unbeaten club in the Premier League as September draws to a close.
Perhaps the truth is that we’ve all gotten so used to the Premier League being as predictable as it has been in recent years that even the slightest tilt from its normal axis could be considered a seismic shock, but the start of this season has, for older supporters, been a reminder of the way the game used to be, and, below the Premier League, often still is. The pre-ordained “right” to victory is a very modern phenomenon, and if this unpredictability continues it will be to the benefit of the league as a whole. In the realpolitik of modern Premier League football, though, we know that the likelihood is that things will even out over time and that order – whether this is “natural” or not is a debate for another time – will most likely be restored.
It is this that is David Moyes’ responsibility as the manager of Manchester United and, in terms of the expectations of the modern football supporter, he is where he is, whether a culture instant gratification in modern football is desirable or not. And although much has been made over the last few days of any shortcomings from which he is currently suffering, he still has resources available on his side of the calibre of, to name but three, Robin Van Persie, Nemanja Vidic and Javier Hernandez, to help to dig him out of the hole in which he currently finds himself. What he needs at the moment, however, is time. And that is the one thing that may not have much of unless that familiar winning pattern starts to rear its head again.
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