The Champions League victory that Manchester United recorded over Bayer Leverkusen in the middle of the week was welcome in a number of ways: Wayne Rooney got his 200th goal for the club and is fast-reassuming his role as Old Trafford’s favourite teddy bear; Shinji Kagawa played, and put the conspiracy theories surrounding his non-selection up till now to bed; mostly, though, the victory provided David Moyes with some welcome respite from the critics who have spent the last month queuing up to lambast him. Quite what he was being criticized for remains very much a mystery.
The modern day supporter usually has two demands: that his side plays beautiful football, and that his side wins. Of course, these two demands are of contrasting natures. The idea of beautiful football is somewhat criterion-based – there is usually some idea of a style of play a team has to adopt before we accept that they play beautiful football – in other words, there is a model and everyone is expected to match up to it.
Winning, the way it works in football anyway, is relative. A team does not have to hit a certain standard or score a certain number of points to win a trophy; a team simply has to outperform the rest of the competition. Managers, then, come under pressure when either one of these two demands are not met, which, even if unjustified, is still understandable. The case of David Moyes, though, is particularly curious in that he’s not exactly guilty of failing on either count.
United have admittedly not been playing scintillating football so far this term. But then again, neither have Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester City. And we should keep in mind the idea of winning being relative: winning a game requires that you be better than the other team; winning the title requires that you be better than the rest. Restated in less elegant terms, that reads: winning a game requires that you be less poor than the other team; winning the title requires that you be less poor than rest. So given that most of United’s challengers haven’t been playing well either, nor achieving the necessary results, it is quite odd that United and Moyes are being singled out – it is not as if the other contenders aren’t without problems either.
The other factor is, of course, the style of football, or the beauty factor. There is this idea of beautiful football: a team that is cohesive, and plays football in a manner that is pleasing to the eye, in a manner that flows, amongst other things – there is an allure to it, in addition to its intrinsic beauty, the idea of beautiful football itself is alluring – it is in some sense it is seen as the moral way. This often plays out when supporters and managers comfort themselves after a loss by saying things like “we stayed true to our style of play…” or “we didn’t compromise our beliefs…” etc. But while it’s quite reasonable for supporters to demand that their team play beautiful football, expecting a new manager to do it in less than 3 months, is close to the definition of unreasonable – with some luck, the Oxford English Dictionary might even accept it as one of the definitions.
We are left with the conclusion, then, that United are being criticized, or more precisely, David Moyes is being criticized not for anything that his team is doing or not doing – he is being hammered simply for being David Moyes. His opinions are criticized not because of their content, nor their form, but their provenance – he could say absolutely anything really, and he would still be slammed from pillar to post. One might even take it a step further and say that not only is he being criticized simply for being David Moyes, an idea that is already quite absurd, he is being criticized for not being Sir Alex Ferguson.
Nobody would have questioned United under Sir Alex if they’d made a similar start. In fact, United have endured worse under Sir Alex and football commentators have dared not question him as robustly as they are doing now. Many-a-time, even as recent as last season, Sir Alex made some rather far-fetched claims about the team having played well even when the contrary was patently clear; he didn’t face the sort of introspection that David Moyes is being subject to presently.
Which just goes to show how the person delivering the message is so important – sometimes even more important than the message itself.
This isn’t something singular to Manchester United either. Jose Mourinho at Chelsea is on the receiving end of it too – just in the reverse fashion. Mourinho’s side has not enjoyed the best of starts either. They have just lost three games consecutively. Now, if it were any other manager, they’d be receiving blows from pens that are famously mightier than swords. But it’s not any other manager, it’s Jose Mourinho. Perhaps it’s his irrepressible confidence that creates the illusion that he’s right – an illusion possibly so convincing that it causes skeptics to end up feeling skeptical of themselves.
Extracting ourselves from the personalities involved, we find that Manchester United aren’t in too bad a position after all – after tonight’s derby they would have played Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City, all potential title rivals, and even the worst -case scenario of a loss will still see them only five points off the top – a gap that isn’t irrecoverable, especially when we consider that the other contenders have mostly yet to play each other. One gets the feeling that they will drop points both against each other as well as to other teams along the way.
Already Chelsea have dropped three at Everton last week; midweek they lost to FC Basel in the Champions League and their defence looked hopelessly at sea, especially during set plays – clearly all is not well at Stamford Bridge.
Man City too, have been blowing hot and cold – they suffered a reverse at the hands of Cardiff City and were held to a draw by Stoke City; there are question marks over their players’ concentration levels – a criticism that has been leveled at them for the past few seasons. Pellegrini might be effecting a change but it too, will take time.
Arsenal have undoubtedly strengthened with the addition of the mercurial Mesut Ozil. But they’re still relatively lightweight up front; their defensive problems have not been resolved either – even a genius like Ozil cannot compensate for a Koscielny.
All things considered then, Moyes’ United aren’t in that bad a position, and all the negative press he’s been facing looks like little more than a gross overreaction.
Then again, United’s position is merely the “what” of the situation; it’s the “who” that’s at the centre of it all – and that’s precisely the problem.