There was something terrifying about Tuesday night’s draw with Bayern Munich in the Champions League. In more than 50 fine years of Manchester United’s participation in European competition rare has been the occasion on which United was so palpably adrift of the opposition. Defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou in 1994 springs to mind; two destructive Champions League final defeats in 2009 and 2011 to the same opponent follow in the slipstream. Rare indeed, though, has United approached a game in the mindset of absolute inferiority.
It is hard to analyse Tuesday’s draw any other way despite the positive spin in the aftermath. This was fear personified no matter the result gained, nor the wave of rationalisation that has swept over United’s fan base since. After all, there used to be a time when the United way was an unspoken concept that supporters instinctively understood. Cliché or otherwise.
Yet, in willingly conceding more than 75 per cent possession to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, United resorted, at the theatre of too often broken dreams, to a strategy of desperate hope – and the long ball, with 23 per cent of United’s passing going aimlessly long. Hope that a breakaway might catch Bayern unawares; it very nearly did on an off night for the Bavarians.
It was a night when United created three solid chances to score, and Danny Welbeck fluffed the best of them. But also one that had so much to do with Moyes’ pragmatism, and too little with the hopes of generations spurred on by Sir Matt Busby’s European dream.
Of course there is plenty of argument in mitigation. Some say that United had no other choice. Indeed, data points such as possession say much about patterns within the game, but often so little about context.
The context is, of course, a season in which Moyes’ side has lost 13 times in all competitions, including seven at Old Trafford. That’s just about as many as the Reds had given up in M16 over the past three seasons. Hardly confidence building stuff, let alone a record to inspire fear in the opposition. Fortress Old Trafford no longer.
Yet, in conceding all of the control, if not total impetus to Bayern, United largely threw out whatever way the club once possessed. Moyes’ season-long fear of expression was finally delivered into a performance of which he was overtly proud. There are plenty of supporters who were not, despite the battling draw.
There is another context though. One that says whatever trophies have been gained by a fabulous Bayern side in the past year, and however dominant Guardiola’s outfit has become, not every opponent has approached a fixture with the south German side devoid of ambition. Except perhaps Braunschweig Eintract – 32 per cent possession in a 2-0 away defeat – and Hamburger SV, 25 per cent, at home. The pair currently lies last and second bottom of the Bundesliga respectively. That’s no company for United to keep.
The real debate is not even really in the data though, but in a view of the approach. Perhaps it is a certain generation for whom football is entertainment, not the cynical dash for results. Not everyone is entertained.
Nor, in fact, is this a game of polar extremes; on one flank United’s anti-football as evidenced on Tuesday, and on the other an open attacking philosophy bent on tactical self-destruction. To argue otherwise is indeed disingenuous. The balance eschewed by Moyes was illustrated aptly by Shinji Kagawa’s omission while the utterly hapless Marouanne Fellaini started.
Yet, every decision Moyes made in the build up fell into the former – an ideology framed by trepidation. Real-politik on the pitch. Everything and more that apparently kept José Mourinho from Old Trafford’s door this past summer, and drew significant mire outside of west London for the Blues’ path towards glory in 2012. Or, indeed, that of Internazionale three years before. Those that hold no hypocrisy in this may cast the first stone.
It is a role, however, with which Moyes is intimately familiar. Comfortable even. In a decade at Everton’s helm Moyes’ greatest results were those pressed against the odds, facing opposition with more talent, technique and ambition. His reputation has been forged in fighting those odds.
United’s clash with Bayern was perfect then. Not only because the Scot could barely lose, but that it fell into a tactical sphere at which Moyes excels. It is perhaps, at least on this season’s evidence, the only arena in which that claim can be made.
Little wonder that Moyes was bullish in the aftermath; this was the moment that he finally found himself. His plucky United side had taken on the European champions “toe to toe” and clung on for dear life. In the court of public opinion the judge’s decision has gone with the Scot, although the final round is yet to come.
“We’re delighted with the performance,” said Moyes. “I was a bit disappointed that we conceded a goal in the end, but I thought it was a really good performance. There was a real determination tonight to make sure that we did well. It’s a competition we’ve got really good history in, and I think the players went out and realised that we were playing a really good side tonight.”
There was, of course, a time in which United was the “really good side.” No longer. Or indeed when the Reds faced the very best and took them on at their own game. Barcelona, Juventus, Inter, Munich in the ’99 competition, for example.
The exceptions, such as United’s victory over Barcelona in 2008, or the draw with Real Madrid last season, are now used as a justification for the performances of today. It is little more than comfort in illogical reasoning.
Or to put it another way, there is a greater ideal. As Sir Bobby Charlton once said of Busby; “He always told us that football is more than a game. It has the power to bring happiness to ordinary people.”
“I never wanted Manchester United to be second to anybody,” Busby once said. And yet he was also prepared to concede that “winning isn’t everything. There should be no conceit in victory and no despair in defeat.”
There is no contradiction here. Busby sought both to be the very best, nor feared the consequence of failing. Moyes is after neither; a man too keen to wrap his anxiety in the liberation of inferiority.
The subtle irony is that Moyes’ side didn’t actually achieve a positive result; not in the context of a two-legged European tie. This was a scoring home draw, achieved against the backdrop of unmitigated caution. United will have to repeat the pattern and then win at the Allianz Arena in just under a week. Bayern remain heavily odds-on to secure passage for good reason.
“We know that we need to score a goal,” admitted the manager. “But I said tonight that we wanted to go into the second leg with a real chance, and I think we’ve done that.”
It is a level of ambition that Busby might find odd. Plenty of supporters too. Then again Moyes is a manager who admitted in the summer that “there has to be an element of fear that comes with managing a club like Manchester United.”
He has so ably demonstrated the point since.