It was, frankly, the worst Manchester United performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford for two decades. So limp was David Moyes’ team that the Scot’s decision to bring on substitute Rio Ferdinand for Juan Mata, with the Reds already 3-0 down, summed up United’s ambition. There simply wasn’t any on a day when Brendan Rodgers’ side was superior in every single department from management down.
Indeed, so poor was Moyes’ outfit that all logic points to Sir Alex Ferguson as the Scot’s final hope of remaining in the United job long enough to correct the failures of a disastrous season. Sir Alex, it seems, is determined that Moyes will get “time” in the job. There is little doubt that at each of United’s peers on the continent the former Everton boss would have already been ignominiously sacked by now.
Dumped out of the FA and Capital One Cups, seventh in the Premier League, and seemingly heading for European exit, United’s season could hardly have been worse before Sunday’s derby defeat. It has hit a new nadir mostly of Moyes’ own making.
Yet, the brutality of Liverpool’s performance at Old Trafford is impossible for United’s supporters to stomach, no matter how circumspect the old guard has become amid the club’s slide this season. Not only were the Merseysiders’ full value for a thumping victory, but another brace might not have flattered the Anfield outfit.
If any data point is a précis for Sunday’s match – and there are many, few of them flattering for the home side – then United’s single shot on target over the 90 is perhaps the most succinct. Complaints about the three penalties awarded to the visitors should drown in the complete lack of creativity proffered by the home side.
It was a match in which United looked lost at every turn. Moyes’ side was conspicuous for a lack of shape, an absence of a clear pattern and an approach devoid of philosophy. The visitors, by contrast, were everything that United was not.
And the savage truth, whatever the limitations of United’s squad or failure in motivation with which many of the home side appear to be suffering, is that United’s lack of identity is entirely Moyes’ responsibility.
Worse, the home side was naive as well as mediocre on Sunday. That Liverpool dominated so completely and Moyes failed to make a single change of note before the 75th minute smacks of a coach out of his depth and devoid of ideas. It was ever thus under the 50-year-old Glaswegian. With Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini overrun by Liverpool’s three-man midfield it was little wonder the visitors created chances with such ease. Moyes did nothing to fix an obvious failing.
Meanwhile, in United’s back four Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra proffered a timely reminder that age is no friend of two formerly great players who have appeared on more than 650 times for the club in aggregate. Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones, two talented but frustratingly raw defenders, contributed fully to United’s defeat.
And up front no amount of spin from United’s over-worked communications department can mask quite how unhappy Robin van Persie is this season, nor how poor the Dutchman’s form. In his shadow, Wayne Rooney’s fizz has withered through the winter, although the ink on that £15 million-a-season contract is barely dry. The Scouser looks every inch a player over-trained and under-rested.
But few players summed up the tactical mess better than Juan Mata, the £37 million playmaker forced into a manifestly uncomfortable role on the right wing. Indeed, those observers who continue to press for the Spaniard’s inclusion in a wide role seemingly forget quite how Moyes prefers is his wide men to operate.
In Mata and Januzaj United boast two hugely talented players who prefer to operate from central areas, yet 80 per cent of United’s play was compressed to the two wings on Sunday. It was, as ever, infuriatingly predictable from United, with supporters’ anger building with each new episode.
It should be alarming how few chances Moyes’ side creates, but it has been a season coming. The Reds have scored just 18 goals at home in the campaign – the same number as bottom-club Fulham.
Still, there was little answer from Moyes in the aftermath, where sorry excuses have become the norm and confidence is absent. United’s manager has neither the insight to analyse the Reds’ fall, nor a plan to resurrect a path to success.
“It’s difficult to explain it,” Moyes said. “I felt as if the players were in good shape and good fettle going into it, but we didn’t get to the standards required. I’ve seen confident players who are well motivated and hard-working and conscientious. I’d not seen that coming.
“There’s disappointment for everybody that we didn’t get the result today, and disappointment about the goals and the way they were conceded. We had a spell where we played quite well and tried to get ourselves back in the game with one or two half-chances. It’s difficult to explain.”
Yet, it is a message that sounds so familiar; one of victimisation that is inappropriate for the manager of England’s 20-times champion club. There is now little shock in the whispers emanating from United’s dressing-room that all confidence in Moyes has drained away. That Ryan Giggs is among the disciples lost, according to fanzine Red Issue, is perhaps Moyes’ starkest warning yet.
This was, after all, every bit as poor as United’s performance against Olympiakos in Greece last month – and that was the worst United exhibition in a decade. There is little evidence to suggest Moyes’ side will turn around a two goal deficit in the Champions League Round of 16 clash with the Greeks at Old Trafford on Wednesday night – a game when the Reds’ season may effectively come to an end.
It may well be a night when the patient minority turn on the former Evertonian; when Ferguson’s call for time finally runs out. After all, time is not only a commodity for good, but one in which more damage can be done.
Time may well be less than constructive given the mutinous rumblings from inside Carrington’s closed walls. The regularity with which half-a-dozen United players seemingly switch off says much.
Indeed, defeat to Liverpool cannot be viewed in isolation. The decline in fortunes has been so rapid under Moyes that the Merseysiders’ performance at Old Trafford is simply a précis for a season lost. One, unfortunately, from which United’s manager has no guaranteed roadmap to success.
After all, whatever expenditure the club empowers Moyes to undertake this summer is viewed in the context of the Scot’s tactical and philosophical approach. The £75 million spent on Mata and Fellaini has brought little but confusion, and almost no incremental improvement. There is, in contrast to Sunday’s victors, no clear path on which United now headed.
It is an observation that draws an obvious question: whether Moyes should be trusted with a third transfer window and the time that Ferguson is desperate for his protegé to enjoy? Time that Sir Alex earned in an era of very different challenges.
“It’s a nightmare,” said striker Rooney in the post-match fallout. “It’s one of the worst days I’ve ever had in football and it’s hard to take.”
That is a sentiment which can be applied to a entire season.