The handover was never going to be velvet. Despite the apparent smoothness of the transition from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes it was delusional to expect Manchester United’s new manager immediately to fill the void left by his canny and charismatic predecessor.
|Feeling blue: Marouane Fellaini was one of several Manchester United players who struggled against Manchester City|
For all the talk of United being a brilliantly constructed machine that would go on clearing everything in its path regardless of who was steering, Moyes has woken in another world. There remains every chance of him fulfilling the hopes invested in him by Ferguson, who effectively nominated his own successor. But only now do we see the scale of the leap he has taken from overachieving Everton manager to helmsman at Britain’s most successful club.
Many of the obstacles facing Moyes were not of his making. The first is that Ferguson’s departure has caused an intensity drop in this Manchester United squad. This 4-1 thrashing at the home of the noisy neighbours exposed not only a gulf in class but a lack of diligence among players who no longer have to go around fearing Ferguson’s wrath.
Specifically, Manchester City strolled through United’s ranks to run up a 4-0 lead inside 50 minutes. City were slick and powerful, authoritative and ambitious. Their front players were rampant and their defending fierce. All the while, Antonio Valencia jogged back to defensive positions and let City’s attackers work the ball around him. On the other side, United’s left, Ashley Young was abject. Marouane Fellaini, who was much too casual and moved too slowly when danger loomed, was given a nasty shock that not even Merseyside derbies prepared him for back in his Everton days.
Behind a scrambled midfield and forward pack, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were taken apart by Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Samir Nasri, while Yaya Toure and Fernandinho formed a mighty central midfield block. The new City announced themselves with thrilling verve and power while Wayne Rooney stood up to the cross-town enemy almost alone. Rooney’s performance was a thing of wonder, embellished with a sumptuous free kick that was greeted with an eerie silence. It emphasised his own great jump from outcast to indispensable.
With Robin van Persie injured and watching from the stands, United looked outgunned on the team-sheet; and so it proved as Young donated the ball to opponents, Danny Welbeck struggled to organise his feet and Fellaini and Michael Carrick were overrun. United’s centre-backs cannot shoulder all the blame for the lack of midfield protection in a side who have now lost to City and Liverpool and drawn tamely with Chelsea. Only the emphatic Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen and a stylish win at Swansea can be set against these disappointing shows against top opposition.
Even Rooney took his hat off to City, twice losing the skull cap that protects his gashed head. And as City fans sang “There’s only one David Moyes”, United’s fans grumbled about Young and Valencia and asked why Shinji Kagawa had not started. Most of all they bemoaned a quiet summer in the transfer market and demanded to know why United’s midfield was outshone by City’s marauding band.
In the other column plenty point out that one of Ferguson’s first Manchester derbies ended with a 5-1 caning for United, in September 1989, which sent the manager to his bed in despair. The difference of course is that Moyes inherited the Premier League champions, not a side being broken up.
Even so, feelings are now raw around the United camp. Part of Ferguson’s managerial religion, though, was that undulations in form should not be allowed to divert the club from its course. To maintain that faith, the manager must be immune from internal panic and resist outside pressure.
This is where force of personality comes into play. If the Ferguson mode still applies, Moyes will need to have motored home on Sunday night thinking of the flaws he has spotted and thinking how he will correct them, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the size of the United job.
Chances are his equilibrium is undisturbed. The qualities that made him the first choice for the United board will come to the fore. Composure and strength of purpose will rush to his assistance. But he will also be told by others around him that some of these United players have relaxed just enough to lower their effectiveness by 5-10 per cent, which can be sufficient at this level to bring the ceiling down.
Plainly, in this form Young should not be in the team and Valencia should be forced to watch DVDs of his poor defensive work. Fellaini will have to make a mental adjustment from Everton star to United gladiator. Welbeck, too, has appeared distracted and clumsy in recent games. The suspicion that it might take some United players a whole season to get used to the new culture imposed by Moyes is starting to look like clairvoyance; yet a rapid self-reappraisal throughout the squad should prevent any more days like this, which was more damaging than the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford two seasons ago, when United merely shipped late goals chasing a game they still thought they could win.
This time they were in the grip of City’s dominance from the whistle. They were pushed around and shown how to play. Ferguson would have been incandescent. Rarely did he berate his team in public but this performance would have goaded him into issuing a warning to his players. Moyes’ substitutions were on the negative side, but by then his thoughts were probably fixed on avoiding a 6-0 or 7-0 defeat.
Van Persie’s return will help greatly. Rooney’s sparkling form is another comfort. The creativity deficit in midfield is a longer-term problem. Above all, you sense the temporary disorientation of a team accustomed to obeying a manager of ferocious resolve, and now feeling there is more calculation and less boldness in their attacking play.
The Bayer Leverkusen game showed how good the new United can be. This one showed how hard the transition is. Hardly a shock.