Time, they say, is a commodity David Moyes has earned. Time for the Scot to revitalise a fading side after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement last summer. Time for Moyes to remodel United in his own image. Time to restore the club to a primacy lost over the past six months. Precious time. Time, also, it seems to undo much of the work achieved by Ferguson in a season too often characterised by utter incompetence.
It started in the summer, with executive vice president Ed Woodward flaunting his lack of transfer market nous all over Europe – to much hilarity among United’s peers on the continent. More than £27 million spent on Marouanne Fellaini became the summer’s punchline. One funny only to those resident beyond M16.
Then Moyes fired, replaced or drove away many of Ferguson’s coaching staff, instigating a waterfall of change that was totally unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive. United’s tactics, too, have regressed sharply, leaving the Reds stagnant, incoherent and frankly, at times, seemingly from another age altogether.
But if that ranks as incompetence, or at best misjudgment of a club’s requirements, then it pales into comparison with Moyes’ handling of Robin van Persie this season.
The Dutchman, an expensive, brilliant jewel whose capture last summer brought one final Premier League title to Sir Alex, is notoriously fragile. In nine seasons with Arsenal van Persie spent far too long in the treatment room – finding consistent fitness in his final campaign with the north Londoners.
Sensible, then, for the striker to take an active role in both his training and participation at United. He is a player who understands the limits of his body. And it is in this context that rumours of the Dutchman’s unhappiness with Moyes’ training regime have flourished. van Persie was, after all, deliberately “over-trained” in the summer – a practice denounced in some quarters as being from “Jurasic Park.”
Then to the past week, when Moyes admitted leaving the striker on the pitch against Newcastle United for the full 90 minutes because of a concern about the public reaction to a substitution. van Persie had missed almost a month of the campaign with a groin injury leaving Moyes’ admission, as the kids say, something of a WTF moment. One that has proven devastating to United’s hopes this season.
There was little surprise with the announcement on Friday that van Persie is set to miss a month of football with a thigh injury – it could be nine games before the Dutchman returns, possibly against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 18 January.
First, United travel to Aston Villa on Sunday in a game that fulfills the criteria of every clichéd ‘must win’ fixture going. United will kick off 13 points behind Arsenal and 10 adrift of Manchester City, surely the new favourites for the Premier League title after smashing six past the leaders on Saturday.
Villa is the first of four December league games in which United cannot afford to drop points. The title is surely already gone, but a back-of-the envelope calculation leaves United potentially chasing 70 points to qualify for the Champions League next season.
“We have got a long way to go and we have to try to make sure we only take one game at a time,” said Moyes on Friday.
“We can only take it one game at a time and see what happens later in the season. We’re too far away from it but we’ll do everything possible to get closer [to the top]. We want to play well. We’ve not done as well in the league as we should have done but we’re working hard to try to put it right.
“There were a lot of games we were expected to win before but this club is expected to win all its games. That’s the fact and why, if we lose one or two, things get said. We’ve got a lot of games coming up where we can pick up points, but what we need to do is not talk about it and make it happen on the field.”
On the pitch United will be without not only van Persie, but Michael Carrick who is still two weeks away from full fitness. In his stead Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Fellaini have struggled to impose consistent quality in the middle of the park. It is a long-term failing that the Belgian has so conspicuously done little to amend.
“Michael Carrick is getting better and has started some light work back on the grass,” said Moyes.
“I would still expect it’ll be around another two weeks, give or take a few days either side of that. He’s not joined in any football yet. I think with the injury he’s got, it’s something he’ll not be able to play game after game after game. It’s just something we have to take care of. Obviously Michael is a big influence as far as what we’ve got in central midfield.”
Moyes will look to one of Shinji Kagawa or Danny Welbeck to fill in for the Dutchman. Kagawa is yet to truly impress in a more extended run at number 10 in recent weeks, although the Japanese was bright in United’s victory at Bayer Leverkusen. There is surely more to come from the former Borussia Dortmund player.
Phil Jones may also continue in central midfield with Fellaini injured. The Lancastrian’s energy is always impressive, but his tactical indiscipline almost cost United during the recent victory over Shaktar Donestsk.
Meanwhile, the hosts are without suspended midfielder Fabian Delph, while Ron Vlaar is suffering with a calf injury. Libor Kozak and Antonio Luna could return to Paul Lambert’s squad.
Villa has suffered a mixed campaign to date – beating City, but losing six times in an underwhelming season. In truth it is a side struggling for an identity, where a rash of young players have largely failed to progress as hoped. There are few pointers towards a home win.
Still, it has been season for broken records. Everton hadn’t won at Old Trafford in more than 20 years, Newcastle in over 40. Villa’s last home league victory against United came more than 18 years ago, after which Alan Hansen famously proclaimed that the Reds could “win nothing with kids.”
Anything close to a repeat is unthinkable. Yet, in a season of predictable failures, few might be surprised.
Aston Villa v Manchester United, Premier League, Villa Park, 1.30pm, 14 December 2013
Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Bacuna, Clark, Herd, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Tonev; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Kozák. Subs from: Baker, Weimann, Albrighton, Steer, Sylla, Tonev, Lowton, Bowery, Helenius, Burke, Johnson
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Jones, Cleverley; Valencia, Kagawa, Welbeck; Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Ferdinand, Anderson, Young, Nani, Giggs, Zaha, Januzaj, Hernández
Villa 49 Draw 38 United 93
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: A Garratt, R West
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg