Even the most optimistic of Reds can admit that bright spots for Manchester United have been few and far between this season. From the crushing home defeats, to being unceremoniously dumped out of every domestic cup competition, to hanging onto the Champions League by the skin of the players’ teeth, to David Moyes’ insistence that the team has “played well” and has simply been “unlucky”, it is no surprise that some supporters are becoming impatient.
The bottom line is that silverware is not a luxury in M16. It has become a necessity.
A quick glimpse inside Old Trafford’s prestigious museum reveals glass cabinets in every room, piled high with trophies, medals and cups. Photos adorn every wall, snapshots of smiles, from Best to Robson, Neville to Ronaldo. There are sections dedicated to Charlton, Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, corridors lined with mementoes of Stiles, Hughes, Cantona, Keane. The history boys. It is a wonderful yet equally daunting sight. David Moyes’ first walk around the museum must have been an overawing experience. Amongst his first thoughts was, surely, “I must add to this.”
Whilst the Scotsman has failed to deliver any glory of note this campaign, and although the last eight months have been largely disappointing, there have been encouraging signs for the future of the club. Whether that is a long-term future for United with Moyes at the helm remains to be seen, but he deserves credit for the few positives to come out of 2013/14. This is neither a rallying cry of, “Moyes in!” nor an exclamation of, “Moyes out!” It’s simply a case of accepting this season for what it has been: not great, but not quite of apocalyptic proportions.
Admittedly the most obvious of the silver linings, the emergence of Adnan Januzaj in 2013 was a breath of fresh air. An unused substitute in the final Premier League match against West Brom last season, this was perhaps indicative of the coaching staff’s plans to integrate him with the senior players in the future. It is doubtful, however, that even the staunchest of Januzaj enthusiasts could have anticipated his rise to stardom within such a short period of time. He was, in the eyes of some, not even the most impressive player at Academy level, so his progression has been remarkable and some of the plaudits must go to the manager for taking a leap of faith with the young boy from Brussels. Would his rapid development and escalation to senior football have happened had the team been challenging for the title? It would seem unlikely.
In terms of transfers – and with the jury still out on Fellaini – the capture of Mata, despite its necessity questioned by some, could prove to be an excellent signing. In addition, by not only resisting the advances of Jose Mourinho to bring Rooney to Stamford Bridge last summer, but tying the United forward to a new contract, the manager has highlighted the importance of holding onto his best players. With Mata on board, Rooney fresh from his £300K-a-week deal and Januzaj now an established first-team player, if the club can hold onto Robin van Persie and make a few additions to the squad, the promise of “The Fantastic Four” should come to fruition next season. For this to happen, however, Moyes’ favoured 4-4-2 set up will need to be reassessed and the team moulded around Mata, Januzaj and Rooney. Getting the formula right will ensure that van Persie receives the service he has been starved of thus far this campaign.
The last twelve months have seen David de Gea, often labelled a “liability” in the past, come of age. Still only 23 years old, he will no doubt make mistakes, but has rescued points on a number of occasions with a string of impressive stops, arguably his best coming at the Stadium of Light in October. Just as Emanuele Giaccherini’s header seemed destined for the net, the United goalkeeper’s outstretched fingers denied him, tipping the ball around the post. While Januzaj was shining at one end of the pitch, de Gea was keeping his team in it at the other. Fending off interest for the Spaniard will be a top priority come the summer; whether he will want to stay at Old Trafford with potentially no Champions League football on offer is another matter.
The return of Darren Fletcher after an extended break from football due to his battle with ulcerative colitis was welcomed by United supporters with open arms. Whilst nobody is under the impression that, at 30 years of age and still dealing with the daily setbacks that accompany his illness, Fletcher will transform the club’s midfield fortunes, to have a player of his experience back in the fold will only be good for the team. Credit must go to Moyes and his staff for managing the Scotsman’s condition and easing him back into first-team football.
One positive which might just have slipped under the radar has been Chris Smalling: the centre-half. Whilst his performances at right-back have been unconvincing at best, the England international has been imperious at times in central defence, putting in sterling shifts most notably away at Arsenal and against Sunderland in the League Cup. The phasing out of the old guard, especially three influential leaders within the dressing room in Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand, is not a task to be taken lightly, although it is not an impossible job. When the time comes, the team can and will cope without Rio and Vida in the heart of the defence, and it is up to Smalling to stake his claim for a place alongside, it would seem, Phil Jones.
The manager himself has split opinion amongst Reds since the start of his tenure. The majority were willing to give him time, but his reactive tactics, flat and repetitive 4-4-2 formations, perceived naïvety in his press conferences, and reluctance to heed the pleas of the fans to “#playkagawa” has seen the faith dwindle in some instances and plummet through the floor in others. As much as the viewpoints of supporters make for interesting debate, it was essential from the outset that Moyes use this season to get to know his players and identify which of them do not fit into his plans. By signing Mata and Fellaini, promoting Januzaj, loaning out Anderson and Zaha and limiting Kagawa’s appearances, the manager appears to have set the wheels in motion, with one eye firmly on the summer. The importance of the approaching transfer window should not be underestimated. It could make or break David Moyes’ managerial career at Manchester United – that is, if he will still be around to make those decisions, of course.