Manchester United did not lose on Sunday, but few defeats in David Moyes’s managerial career will have tasted worse than the draw against Premier League basement-dwellers Fulham at Old Trafford.
While it was not the worst performance produced during Moyes’s increasingly forlorn stewardship, it was one that none the less exposed much of what has been wrong. After the latest nadir, the question again is inevitably raised: where do Manchester United go from here?
Against a Fulham side that were happy to fill their box with defenders throughout the 90 minutes, United played right into their hands. A relentless barrage of crosses, 81 in total, were hurled into the Fulham area with their defenders reveling in the task of battering them away. It was in many ways no surprise that United’s tactics were so rudimentary; they have been all season.
By some distance, United have averaged more crosses per game than any other side in the Premier League this campaign. Yet to have played so heavily into their opponents' hands with a lineup that could have offered so much more was still startling to behold. With the quality of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata going forward, and with Adnan Januzaj joining them in the second half, a strategy that attempted to move Fulham’s defenders around, utilizing quick passing and movement was only ever hinted at. Instead what was put forward was a formula that would have been more befitting to the tandem of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll. Indeed, it would have arguably been better had Moyes been completely unashamed about his tactics and simply stuck Nemanja Vidic up front.
Vidic was hardly needed at the back, although somehow United conceded two goals and should have conceded another. It is there where perhaps the most worrying aspect of the match emerged. As Chelsea have shown on more than one occasion in recent seasons, regardless of the identity of a manger, a quality squad can achieve much simply of their own fruition. United, while having undoubted weaknesses, should be able to challenge for a top-four berth even without the added ingredient of a manager’s input. However, the morale under Moyes now appears so desperate that the players lack the basic will to perform.
After Darren Bent’s late equalizer, Moyes suggested that a “mental softness” was now present in his side. In attempting to rouse his troops, he has instead provided his own noose. If, as has been accurately pointed out, the accolade of title winners masked what was a less-than outstanding squad of players, the one thing they undeniably did have was mental toughness. The only thing that’s changed is the manager. With a better squad -- more than £65 million has been spent -- United are 22 points worse off than they were at this time last season. It is fine to expect no manager to immediately match the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson, but this surely goes far beyond even the bare minimum expectations.
Moyes, unless he takes on a willful come-sack-me mission in the mold of George Costanza, will surely not be sacked this season. Still, there should be serious debate about whether to hand Moyes the archetypal “war chest,” which will doubtless be available to strengthen a squad that is someway short of matching up with Europe’s best, this summer. And to any reasoned, unbiased observer the answer to that question must be no.
There have been many recent examples (Liverpool being the most obvious) of the dangers of the wrong people being given access to the checkbook and how painful it can be to recover.
The excuses that continue to be made for Moyes, from both supporters and impartial observers of the club, will be far more challenging to standup after he has had a bundle of money to spend and over a year in the job. It is therefore easy to envisage a situation where Moyes -- a good manager, but one out of his depth -- is dispensed with midway through next season as results fail to significantly improve.
That would leave another campaign wasted, the likelihood of the club having to cut its losses on players Moyes has brought in as well as the new manager being provided another stack of cash to remold the squad in his image. That could take another 18 months, meaning the best case scenario is a club of Manchester United’s stature having been out of the running for top honors for three years. The Glazer family might want to think what that would do the club’s valuation before deciding on whether to admit their initial mistake this summer or to continue to ride it further down the river.