Upon reflection, it wasn’t so much the fact of Manchester United’s two home defeats in the space of four days as the manner of them. At almost any pont in the last twenty-one years or so, Manchester United would have swatted the likes of Everton and Newcastle United aside in the manner of an elephant dealing with a troublesome mosquito but the last few days have been different. It’s difficult to remember more toothless back-to-back performances by a Manchester United team in recent years, and if supporters of the club might have been able to chalk last week’s loss against Everton down as being a bad day at the office which ended with being struck firmly on the jaw by the visitors, this afternoon’s Manchester United performance was even more difficult to find mitigating circumstances for.
Yohan Cabaye’s goal for Newcastle United at Old Trafford today came with a third of the match left to play, but United offered practically nothing in response to this. There was no tension as the clock ran down, none of the sense of inevitability that would hang over a match when Manchester United were encamped around a penalty area, pushing and prodding for a late goal. The spell that hung over Old Trafford for so many years has, it has felt over the last few days, been broken. Away teams no longer arrive there with the whites of their eyes already involuntarily on display, and even a team as prone to bouts of squeamishness as Newcastle United – who had some or other contrived to fail to win at Old Trafford for forty-one years until today – looked emboldened, as if they’d seen through the face of The Beast only to see that of a withered old man looking back at them.
All eyes, then, will return to David Moyes this afternoon but, tempting though it may be to rest the entirety of the blame for this shambolic last few days wholly at his door, it feels as if to do so might even be slightly unfair. It makes for an easy narrative, of course. The legend departs, having identified the next in line to the throne, and the new guy finds that he has taken his best alchemy books with him. With but a couple of changes, this is the Manchester United team that cantered to the Premier League title at the end of last season, seldom breaking into a sweat as they did so. It seems difficult to believe that the manager of the team could have had such a dramatic effect on the performance of the players as Moyes has had levelled at him since it became apparent that there might be a problem with this team, though, and this, perhaps, is where Manchester United’s biggest problem lays at the moment.
In previous years, it was occasionally noted by commentators that one of Alex Ferguson’s great strengths as a manager was his ability to protect his players. Unlike other clubs, tabloid tittle-tattle seldom leaked from the Old Trafford dressing room, even when things weren’t necessarily going completely according to plan. And there were several threads to this protection. For one thing, it could seldom be denied that Ferguson wasn’t a discipliarian and that players who did fall foul of him would be brought back into line. And perhaps one unforeseen side-effect of that might have been that the cult of the manager might have become too great at Manchester United. The players themselves often seem to have been given a surprisingly easy ride so far this season.
Perhaps, to a point, this is understandable. After all, it might well be argued, what good does getting on the backs of the players actually do? And on top of that, at least there has been a consolation for United supporters that performances in the Champions League group stages this season have been reasonable. Perhaps this is more of a reflection of the imbalance of power between the richest leagues in Europe and the rest at the moment, but it has at least provided a little solace as any realistic chance of the club retaining the Premier League title started to slide in the general direction of the plug-hole. Performances such as today’s however, are only likely to mean that the spotlight will now come to fall upon them to a greater and greater extent. Perhaps this sort of sentiment, from a Manchester United supporter on the RedCafe forum after this afternoon’s defeat, may be about to become increasingly prevalent:
Team is full of fucking bottlers with no stomach for a fight and who think they have some god given right to win. Needs an angry supporter to be allowed in the dressing room to give the useless fuckers a bollocking of a lifetime from someone with real world problems. Overpaid overrated girly little wankers, every last one of them and they don’t deserve to wear the shirt. And if moyes isn’t screaming at the right now he can fucking leave as well.
Of course, one of the requirements for being able to apportion blame is knowing who to blame, and the manager is the easiest target. He is, after all, easily identifiable, the public face of the playing side of the club and, of course, is the indivdual responsible for setting out the personnel and positioning of the team. But there will be those who will continue to defend him, who will argue that Alex Ferguson had six years to get it right, and that, although panic may be an obvious reflex reaction – especially amongst those under the age of thirty, who would have no concept of losing matches with anything like regularity as being anything other than something that happens to other clubs – to such an unusually poor start to the season. The players, as mentioned above, might well start to feel the heat beneath their feet starting to increase following two consecutive performances at home that were so devoid of anything positive that they might as well have stayed at home.
And then, of course, there are the owners of the club. The green and gold protests of of four years or so ago died away because the team kept winning, but the club’s continuing lack of activity in the transfer market in recent years has continued to be a thorn in the side to many supporters. Arsenal’s form this season has demonstrated that a club doesn’t have to drive itself insane in the pursuit of new players. Sometimes, perhaps all it needs is one or two players to act as a conduit for the abilities of the others, and Arsenal seem to have found, in Mesut Özil, who is not only an outstanding player himself but also seems to be able to bring out the best in those around him as wel. But Manchester United don’t have that talisman on the pitch at the moment, and it’s difficult to believe that hostilities against those running the club – which had been in something of a state of detente of late – could easily break out again, unless form – and perhaps one or two attitudes – improve significantly over the next few games or so.
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