It was a fact that was carved in stone for more than two decades—Manchester United will qualify for the Champions League. It was as certain as sunrise: an irrefutable detail that only fools would oppose.
However, less than six months into the 2013-14 season, defending champions Manchester United are struggling to keep pace with the top rung of the Premier League, having dropped 26 points in 20 games and sitting 11 points adrift of leaders Arsenal with less than half the season to go.
The last time United found themselves in similar territory was back in 1990-91, when they finished sixth—24 points behind the champions, who were coincidentally the Gunners.
Finishing sixth would be a catastrophe for the 20-time Premier League champions, who until recently had the habit of winning ingrained in them. However, ever since their manager of 26 years, Sir Alex Ferguson, decided to put his feet up at the end of last season, United have never quite been themselves.
A lot has been written about this being a period of transition for the most successful English club in history. New manager David Moyes was handed the keys to a sprawling mansion, only to realise that the foundation wasn’t as strong as he expected. He appears to be in a race against time to seal the cracks.
A section of the fans, presumably the younger lot, are already baying for his blood after never having witnessed their club in such shambles before. The older, more greyed ones are calm, perhaps remembering the days when Ferguson himself was the most wanted criminal in the red side of Manchester, before he swung things around in the early '90s.
In today’s era of the want of instant gratification, Moyes perhaps has the cushion of a few more days to spark a turnaround than he would have perhaps got in another club. But one area he will have to work on immediately is inspiring the players to play at their potential.
This United squad is not very different from the one that won the title last season. Agreed, other clubs have splurged the cash and bolstered their squads with big names, but it cannot be refuted that the Red Devils have been guilty of lacking the passion to turn difficult games around.
The unique selling point of Ferguson’s United was their never-say-die attitude and refusal to throw in the towel before the final whistle. Against Spurs on New Year’s Day, United looked deflated and unenergetic for more than two-thirds of the game, until Danny Welbeck found the net to make it 1-2. You would count on Ferguson’s United to make that 3-2 eight times out of 10; but Moyes’ red army seems to lack that drive to go on and win the game.
The first thing United have to do is accept that the title is out of their reach, something Moyes refused to do before the Spurs game. The sooner the Scotsman accepts it now, the better it would be for his team.
The Premier League’s top three—Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea—are favourites to lift the trophy in May. United, meanwhile, have to realise that the only race they are currently part of is the one for the vital Champions League spot. Standing in their way and fourth place are two strong, determined Merseyside clubs and a rejuvenated Tottenham.
United would need at least 70 points to secure fourth place (even those many weren’t enough for Tottenham last season, who finished fifth on 72). This means that United need to win at least 12-13 of their remaining 18 games and avoid defeat in as many as possible. It’s a mountainous task, given the form they are in.
United’s primary problem this season has been their one-dimensional brand of football: haul the ball over to the wings, cross it into the box and hope for a deflection into goal; and if the winger can’t find the room to cross it, pass it over to Wayne Rooney and hope for some magic.
Other clubs have latched on to United’s game plan and are exploiting their lack of creativity in the midfield. Add to that a defence that is in tatters, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for a mid-table finish.
United need to shake themselves off their inertia and fight for three points. Their 10 wins this season have majorly come against teams in the bottom half of the table. Against the top 10, United have managed to scrape just eight points in 10 matches—statistics that would not even flatter a mid-table team. Narrow that down to their performance against the top eight teams and you’ve got some even more depressing numbers:
United fans would hope that Moyes has more inspiring words for his players than the ones he seems to be dishing out in the post-match press conference after every defeat.
"We'll keep trying to win the next game now. That's all you can do. We're not necessarily looking at the league table—we'd like to be higher but we'll go and try and win the next game."
For a first, Moyes needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Saying that United were the better side and did not deserve to lose is clearly not a valid excuse anymore. What matters is busting your guts and winning the three points, a habit that seems lost on his team.
That United need to invest in quality players is a given. They need to plug the gaping holes in their defence and midfield and perhaps need to get rid of players who, whether due to age or form, clearly do not deserve to wear the red shirt any more.
Replacements for Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Tom Cleverley, Nani and Ashley Young are a must, whether in the current transfer window or the next. Since the title is already gone, Moyes could even consider giving a run to some of his reserves and youth players.
The 2013-14 season, that appears to be heading toward a major black mark in United’s illustrious history, could still be saved from major embarrassment if Moyes and the club get their priorities and focus right. Priority No. 1 would be securing a Champions League spot, followed by winning the League Cup, where they have reached the semi-finals.
Winning some silverware in January could provide the necessary confidence boost that the squad so desperately requires, after which they could push for more success in the FA Cup and Champions League.
It isn’t over until the fat lady sings, goes the expression. With regard to United’s title campaign, the fat lady's song is long over. But United still have the chance to salvage their season and lay the groundwork for the future. This transitional period could last at least two seasons and what’s important is how much United can limit the damage and grow.