The next four weeks will go a long way to deciding the outcome of Manchester United’s season.
The arrival of one or two key players in January, plus wins in crucial league and cup fixtures, could ensure that David Moyes’ first season in charge remains a successful one.
A failure to do one or both will guarantee a turbulent second half to the season for United.
Either way, January is set to be a defining month.
The first five months of the campaign haven’t been disastrous—a Capital One Cup semi-final and a manageable Champions League tie against Olympiacos attest to that—but United haven’t exactly been convincing.
Moyes Faces a Crucial January Transfer Window
With the transfer window now open, United will be linked with players on a daily basis, regardless of whether there is genuine interest or not. And even though Moyes has played down the chances of United signing players in January, we mustn’t read too much into that.
The BBC’s Howard Nurse picked up Moyes’ quotes in his post-match interview after the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur:
David Moyes: "If we can make changes happen in January we will do, but it would be wrong for me to get people's hopes up."— Howard Nurse (@howardnurse) January 1, 2014
As one United fan was quick to point out, however, Moyes’ comments are not what matters:
It doesn't matter to me what Moyes says about signing players or not. It's all posturing & doublespeak anyway. What matters is what happens.— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) January 1, 2014
In the next two transfer windows, Moyes must target one or two central midfielders, an attacking midfielder or winger, a central defender and a left-back. That’s what’s required to bolster United’s squad in order to maintain a challenge on domestic and European fronts. How many, if any, of those players will arrive in January remains to be seen.
It’s quite a shopping list, and one that will be met with a similar number of departures.
For Moyes, then, the summer will be the time for real change. January must be a month in which he attempts to secure the services of a midfielder, however. It’s been a necessity for some time now, and that hasn’t changed in recent months.
Anything other than that will be a bonus.
United Face Key League and Cup Fixtures
In many ways, one could argue that the next week will be pivotal in the context of United’s season.
Sunday’s FA Cup tie at home to Swansea will be followed by Tuesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against Sunderland.
In the midst of a difficult league campaign, cup competitions could be exactly what Moyes needs to inject some life into United’s play. It’s not a time for experimenting, of course, but there is less pressure.
A top-four league finish is a priority, so cup competitions come as welcome relief.
And those two cup fixtures precede what will prove to be three vital league fixtures against Swansea, Chelsea and Cardiff. Seven points from nine would be a good return, particularly as Chelsea are so strong at home under Jose Mourinho.
Anything less than seven points will be a disaster.
United’s Squad Problems Continue into January
United’s mixed season has been hampered by injuries to key players at key times.
It’s not an excuse, of course, but it’s becoming a real issue for Moyes. While Robin van Persie nears a return to action, injuries to Phil Jones, Rafael, Marouane Fellaini and Nani give United’s squad a threadbare look.
With so many key fixtures coming up in January, van Persie’s imminent return is hugely significant.
Tottenham's visit to OT comes too soon for Robin van Persie's return. Moyes: "He's not quite ready. Hopefully he's not too far away." #mufc— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 31, 2013
The sooner the Dutchman, Jones and Rafael return to action, the better off United will be. That triumvirate has been crucial to United in the last 18 months, which is why their absence in the defeat to Tottenham proved so telling.
What’s the Best-Case Scenario for United in January?
If United reach the final of the Capital One Cup, the fourth round of the FA Cup and remain within touching distance of the top four in the Premier League, then David Moyes can deem January a success. That will be especially true if the squad is strengthened in the transfer window.
It’s going to be a tall order to achieve that, though.
Realistically, United’s stop-start season will likely continue in January.
It wouldn’t be surprising if United went to Stamford Bridge and beat Chelsea, nor would it come as too much of a shock if Swansea and Cardiff won at Old Trafford.
That’s the sort of season United have had.
For Moyes, though, it’s clear what he wants out of January and the remainder of the season.
David Moyes, writing in United Review: "We will do everything we can to make sure we give you a winning team and a positive year ahead."— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 1, 2014
Only time will tell if Moyes can deliver on that front.
Recent weeks have shown that United can pick up points, but a disappointing loss at home to Tottenham took the gloss off what was a successful festive period.
Nothing is won or lost in January, obviously, but for United it could prove to be season-defining.