So there it is: Manchester United’s “toughest start for 20 years” done and very much dusted, four wins, one draw and two crushing defeats later. David Moyes may have overplayed the severity of United’s opening seven fixtures this season, but it has been a chastening experience for the 50-year-old Scot, his squad and supporters alike. From here until Christmas the journey should be somewhat less jarring. That is the theory at least.
Defeat to Manchester City last Sunday has cast a long shadow over Moyes’ opening few months in charge at Old Trafford. Five out of 10; must – can only do – better. Taken together with United’s loss at Anfield, and the home draw with Chelsea, Moyes’ outfit has dropped eight valuable Premier League points already this season.
Still, Saturday’s fixture at home to West Bromwich Albion is followed by matches against Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke City, Norwich City and Fulham, before the Reds meet Arsenal in mid-November. Throw Tottenham Hotspur into the mix during December and it looks ready for Moyes to take his stand as United manager this side of Christmas.
Or to put it another way: the season’s start struck fear into the new manager. Now is time for Moyes’ United to truly emerge.
Football isn’t as simple as all that of course. Hubris has a tendency to decisively bite back. Yet, Moyes will discover a little more of his squad in the coming weeks, with the Scot now ready to deploy players beyond the limited range used to date. It is a policy that backfired spectacularly at the Etihad last weekend when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, in particular, looked short of peak fitness.
“We used the word ‘rotation’ but I want to see good form. If you play, it makes the job much easier if you play well,” said Moyes.
“Obviously, the performance against Manchester City didn’t merit people thinking they were necessarily playing the next game.”
Winger Ashley Young came in for stinging criticism for his part in the defeat in east Manchester, although he was certainly not alone in failing the new man. Meanwhile, Moyes is keen to seen more of players rarely used to date this season: Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Adnan Januzaj.
“Ashley Young played in the game before against Crystal Palace and probably won us the match,” said Moyes, who hauled off the former Aston Villa winger short of the hour against City.
“He got the penalty kick and had the chance to score another goal when he went through. You could probably pick half-a-dozen players who didn’t play particularly well against City but Ashley is fine and will be okay. We’ll give him every chance to prove what he can do.
“Wilfried Zaha has not appeared as we’ve just not felt we’ve had the opportunity. I want Wilf to get used to what happens here. I think it’s important Wilf gets to see the level of training and the level of the players and the quality they have got.”
Meanwhile, central defenders Evans and Smalling should feature at some point in the fixtures against West Brom and Shaktar Donetsk in the coming week. Moyes has almost exclusively turned to the trusted Ferdinand and Vidić in the opening two months of the campaign, but with age and injury blunting the veterans’ form the Scot may now protect his star men a little more closely.
“Everyone told me how well Jonny played last season but he had a bit of a stop-start pre-season and didn’t get enough momentum to be ready to play at the start of the campaign,” added Moyes.
“I thought Smalling played really well, as did Jones in midfield, and the younger ones were good on the day. But I think Rio and Nemanja are two top centre-halves. ‘Vida’ is probably the best centre-half I have ever worked with, I would say. He is that good, he really is. Rio has really impressed me by how fit he is and the condition he has been in. He has not missed a day’s training since we came back.”
Moyes will Robin van Persie is available for the weekend fixture, with the Dutchman now back in full training following a groin problem. Tom Cleverley is back in the squad after missing United’s midweek Capital One Cup victory over Liverpool, meaning Moyes boasts a full squad from to select as United look to put together a run of victories this side of the new year.
But it is to the youngsters that many supporters hope the new manager turns. Zaha may have joined for £15 million this summer, but it is the youngster Janujaz that has garnered more positive headlines. The winger’s close control, balance and attacking instincts have brought the Belgian to the fringes of Moyes’ first team this season.
“We really think an awful lot of Adnan,” said Moyes, who is yet to tie the 18-year-old down to a new contract.
“We think he is a Manchester United player and I’m sure he will be. We think it’s the best place for producing and giving young players opportunities. We think we do it better than anybody.
“I think I do it, maybe not as well as my predecessor, but, at Everton, I always put young players in the team when I felt the time was right. It’s what we want and it’s part of my remit, to promote young players and Adnan has been promoted already.”
Meanwhile, the Baggies arrive in Manchester sweating on strikers Victor Anichebe and Nicolas Anelka. Both should be available despite minor injuries. Chris Brunt is set to miss a third successive game, but Claudio Yacob is fit after recovering from a dead leg.
Anichebe and Anelka are surely be vital if the Baggies are to turn around a poor record against United. The visitors haven’t beaten United in the Premier League, losing 11 of 14 fixtures. Indeed, it is 18 games since the Baggies’ last league victory over the Reds – at the Hawthorns in March 1984. Few expect the Midlanders to turn that record around on Saturday.
Still, United must show more quality in addition to the grit demonstrated against Liverpool on Wednesday night. It wasn’t pretty, but following the humbling loss at City, Moyes will surely be pleased with United’s determination. It was, in the parlance, “a response.”
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion, Premier League, Old Trafford, 3pm, 28 September 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Ferdinand, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Valencia, Hernández
West Brom (4-4-1-1): Myhill; Olsson, Ridgewell, McAuley, Jones; Morrison, Sinclair, Amalfitano, Mulumbu; Sessegnon; Anelka. Subs from: Camp, Popov, Lugano, Yacob, Rosenberg, Anichebe, Berahino
United 52 Draw 30 West Brom 40
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Long
Fourth Official: A Taylor
2 – 0