And then, it got worse.
Manchester United were not having a dream season by any standard. The club which won the Premier League title by 11 points last season is now languishing behind the leaders by the same number of points in seventh place with more than half the season over.
With their title hopes definitely gone, the defending champions now see themselves desperately fighting for a Champions League spot. If they fail to achieve that, it could spell doom for the club both financially and in terms of retaining their best players, leave alone signing new ones.
United's only hope of silverware this season is in the domestic and European cup competitions. They have progressed to the semi-finals of the league cup and the Round of 16 in the Champions League. However, even the staunchest of optimists in their fans would not give United a snowflake's chance in hell of winning either of those competitions after the Reds were knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round by Swansea City on Sunday.
The defeat was United's seventh of the season and an alarming fifth at home. Long gone is the imposing aura engulfing the Theatre of Dreams for opposition teams, who now come to Old Trafford confident that they can win. If anything, United appear to be relishing trips away from home, where their record is much better.
So, as United head into the first leg of their League Cup semi-final against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday, the future appears bleak. Even if United sneak through to the final, potential opponents include neighbours and arch rivals Manchester City, who are in scintillating form.
It has reached such a point that United are failing to inspire any confidence in their supporters. Who is to blame for it? Here is a look at the accused:
At the outset, manager David Moyes is the first culprit in the eyes of the fans, as can be observed in the online club forums. United have been accused time and again of playing defensive football, with their game lacking any identity.
Creativity was a problem even in Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, but Moyes seems to be stuck in a prehistoric era with regard to footballing tactics. United’s game, as a result, has become rather one-dimensional with the 4-4-2 system. Add to that uninspiring wingers and you've got yourself a recipe of disaster.
Moyes’s tactics with regard to team selection and positioning are also puzzling. Take the recent FA Cup third-round defeat to Swansea; with both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie out injured, you would expect Shinji Kagawa to play his natural central role in the midfield. Instead, the Japanese was deployed on the left flank, thus blanking his best qualities.
Moyes has inherited the same United squad that won the league last season. A whole squad cannot lose their class and winning mentality over six months, can they? Let’s face it, Moyes is in no way as inspiring a figure as his predecessor, who had the ability of turning a game around after half-time. United’s innate ability to come back from behind seems to have withered away. The blame can only lie with one person.
In 10 years at Everton, even though his team had a knack of being party poopers for the top four, Moyes did not win a single trophy. As it turns out, Everton under Roberto Martinez are doing just fine, sitting even above United in the league table. It raises the question: does Moyes have it in him to be a successful, cup-winning manager? Does he have it in him to salvage whatever is left of the current season?
If anything, the fans deserve something better than his parroted "We played well and were unlucky to lose" responses after every defeat.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have timed his retirement perfectly, with United winning their 20th league title in his last season as manager, but has he left the club a team that can carry forward their two decade-old dominance of the English game?
It does seem that Ferguson has hung the club out to dry. He has left an ageing squad with a poor defence and midfield, a talismanic striker who does not seem convinced about his future at the club and a manager who appears to have no clue of solving the mess.
For all the visionary buys during his 26-year tenure, Ferguson purchased a number of mediocre players worth a lot of money, such as Bebe and Anderson, who haven’t done the club any good. He got Paul Scholes out of retirement at a time of crisis, which might have pleased the fans at the time but was in no way a long-term solution. The result: a midfield with no creativity apart from Wayne Rooney, who is essentially a striker.
Whether he likes it or not, Ferguson has to shoulder some of the blame for the club’s current condition. It was on his recommendation that United hired Moyes. Did the directors and management think twice before heeding to Ferguson’s recommendation? If not, they have to take some of the blame as well. And even so, is there any kind of pressure on Moyes to improve the appalling results?
At the end of the day, Manchester United is only as good as their players. With five home defeats already this season, have the non-performers done any introspection? What have players such as Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young done to warrant wearing the famous red jersey? What are the senior players such as Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand doing to help the rest of the players' confidence?
In current form, perhaps just four players—Rooney, Robin van Persie, David de Gea and Adnan Januzaj—would walk into any of United rivals’ squads. The others would have to just take to the bar.
It’s not that Manchester United do not have any quality players in their ranks. The problem is that teams with lesser talent are playing with much more purpose and intent than United and are scraping points off them.
Where and when will the rot stop? When will the players stand up take the onus on themselves to turn the team's fortunes?
The green and gold revolution of three seasons ago has withered away, but Manchester United continue to be in considerable debt. Apart from van Persie, United haven’t made a single world-class purchase since the Glazers took control in 2005.
That being said, the profits and revenue generated by the club through sponsorship and commercial deals is rising, so it is hard to give the Glazers much of the blame. Money does appear to be available for spending, then why isn’t it being spent?
Right, so now that the fan rant is over, let’s all take a deep breath and calm down, shall we?
Agreed that Moyes has not performed to the level expected from a Manchester United manager, but sacking him in the middle of the season is going to do the club more harm than good. Even if Moyes has to go, it should not be before the end of the season. And considering United’s history of persevering with the manager, it does not seem likely that the club will take any drastic, knee-jerk measures like the ones seen at other clubs.
It is easy to point the finger of blame on someone and be an armchair critic. But United fans will have to learn to keep calm and believe in the professionals who are in charge of the club. Having tasted success in voluminous quantity over the last two decades, many of United’s younger fans have never experienced times like the ones the club is currently going through.
However, for the time being, it would be prudent for the fans to be optimistic and look at the positives: a cup final looms in the horizon, following which the Champions League will be the only competition where United will have to concentrate their resources on apart from the league. The battle for fourth in the league, which the club hasn’t experienced in a really long time, will be testing and exciting with the two Merseyside clubs and Tottenham also in the running.
United should make the best out of the January transfer window and show some intent. Gaping holes in the midfield and defence need to be filled at the earliest. But the most important thing is for the fans to not push the panic button yet and turn against the club.
Scenes at Old Trafford of fans leaving the ground before the final whistle are growing by the day. While the frustration of the fans is understandable, it is imperative that they stick by their club, come out in high voice and give full support to the team in each game till the end of the season.
Why? Because that is their job.
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