Perhaps a recurrence of this season’s same old story should not retain so much of its shock value and provoke this level of pronounced disappointment, but today, Manchester United find themselves on the brink of a European exit after a fully-deserved 2-0 reverse away to Olympiakos on Tuesday night. This was another crushing low in a season rife with poor performances with only one chance of note against a limited side that thoroughly out-worked United at every turn as mentioned on BBC Sport. Worse still is the ominous feeling surrounding David Moyes continued employment as the club’s manager as a tenure that is causing an increasing level of damage rumbles on. Here’s what we made of it;
Conservative line-up costs United again
It wasn’t a great surprise to see Olympiakos fired up for United’s visit last night, nor was it a shock to see them playing with such energy and desire. The real issue was that United weren’t more prepared for it, because why wouldn’t the supposedly inferior team want to expose the failings that United have shown all season? Time and time again we have seen teams show no fear in the face of Moyes’ conservatism, and United were punished for it again here.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were gleefully exposed against Olympiakos’ energy, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley provided them with little support with their static performances when passing targets were required and Chris Smalling spent most of the evening locked in combat with the pitch in an effort to stay on his feet. Vidic, to his credit, marshalled his backline to the best of his abilities but these central duos left United gleefully under-powered through the middle, with Robin Van Persie feeding on scraps and receiving one decent delivery in the entire match.
When Joel Campbell doubled the home side’s advantage, Moyes threw caution to the wind with the inclusions of Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck, but the necessary urgency was still sorely lacking, more proof (if it was needed) that the Scot cannot simply engage United’s famous fighting spirit at will if he sets his team up so cautiously in the first instance. Saturday’s win was built on a highly talented front-four combination backed up by Marouane Fellaini and Carrick in midfield; even if the Belgian has recently returned from injury, and with Juan Mata’s ineligibility in mind, surely a similar set-up in a game of this magnitude would have offered more. Having failed to record a single shot on target last night, it’s hardly stretching the boundaries of imagination.
The players are not turning up
There are a multitude of reasons for this; perhaps a lack of belief in Moyes, his tactics or decreasing faith even in their own abilities brought about by the absence of a man that should be inspiring them, but the bottom line is that the majority of last night’s starting XI did not play well enough. It’s becoming a recurring theme this season that exerting prolonged periods of pressure or upping the tempo when necessary appears to be beyond a set of players that previously seemed to be able to flip a switch and offer just enough effort in order to get by tricky opponents. Not so, anymore.
Wayne Rooney was ineffective, and whilst United’s 4-4-2 hardly provided him with the greatest of platforms from which to create, he justified many fan’s reluctance in accepting the club’s decision to reward him so handsomely with that oft-cited new contract. Of course scrutiny is higher after this extension, but this was another performance that only adds more fuel to his detractors. Tom Cleverley, so often a magnet for criticism this season looked scared to approach the ball, frequently gifting the ball to the hosts and seemingly frozen with fear in the face of their intensity. Criticising Chris Smalling for being unable to produce accomplished displays at right-back isn’t necessarily fair given that it isn’t his natural position, but the England international’s grapples with the pitch were harrowing.
Anyone who has watched United with any hint of interest this season knows that there are problems that go well beyond match day performances, but letting the playing squad off the hook so lightly does them a great kindness that they do not deserve.
Moyes cannot count on the backing of his team
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of evidence to suggest that this bunch of players were ever truly behind Moyes in the first place due to legitimate concerns over the Scot’s calibre, ability and suitability for the position of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor. It’s becoming seemingly routine for United to coast through games whatever the scoreline, seemingly devoid of any urgency or confidence and with a newly soft underbelly now in full view, ripe for probing. Moyes’ job description isn’t just about picking the team, it’s about inspiring them, leading them and giving them a shot in the arm when he feels that they aren’t doing themselves or their club justice; all we’ve seen this season is evidence of rallying cries falling on deaf ears and tactical plans that no player appears comfortable with. Each post-match interview with player and manager speaks of a desire to turn things around, but there has been no evidence to support their claims. Put simply, it’s a United front in name only, and when the lines of communication between manager and his charges are cut so severely, there is usually only one outcome.
Still, when the overriding image from a game is a beleaguered manager slouching in his chair looking more nauseous than apoplectic, perhaps it’s little wonder that his charges are so listless.
Olympiakos will relish the return leg
Michel, manager of the Greek champions was quick to downplay his team’s chances ahead of the second half of this tie at Old Trafford where our Manchester United Blog will be there, but the reality is that even he, privately at least, must fancy his chances of advancing to the quarter finals after this display. If his team were hampered by the sale of leading goalscorer Konstantinos Mitroglou then it didn’t show, as they out-worked, over-powered and out-shone United in almost every department. Of course, the declining power and confidence of the visitors helped, but Olympiakos took to their task with impressive gusto and deserved their victory. All of the evidence was in their opening goal, a slice of pure instinct from Alejandro Dominguez in diverting Giannis Maniatis’ effort beyond David De Gea’s reach. When the effort is present, moments such as these are all the more likely to happen.
Old Trafford’s history and heritage will be enough to make the Greek champions pause, but on this basis it will hold little fear for a side guaranteed chances if they if they repeat this level of effort. On paper, the Spaniard was humble in victory as almost any manager would be in his shoes, but reality suggests that halting United from the sort of victory that would guarantee their own progress to the quarter finals may not be quite as difficult as he makes out.
Moyes’ days are numbered
This is not some idle threat, more of a considered opinion at the state of Manchester United under the current manager’s stewardship. At present, the club are underperforming, failing in all competitions and are in possession of a group of players that have a clear lack of belief in the man charged with leading them. The board, based on their silence, do not wish to sack him and Sir Alex Ferguson’s words on the Old Trafford pitch about supporting his successor are a stick with which to beat back the more vocal of Moyes’ detractors, but the reality is that United are hurtling closer towards the Scot’s exit with each new low. Home derbies against both Liverpool and Manchester City are on the horizon; if the expected thrashings take place at the hands of those most hated rivals on our own hallowed turf, then match-going fans that have thus far held their tongues will surely break their silence. Once the support of the players and the fans has gone, any way back for David Moyes will be near-impossible to navigate.
But let’s not suggest that this is a universally positive outcome for the club, to sack a manager with three months of the season still to play. It’s negative on every single level and a situation that no one connected with the club should have hoped for in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement, regardless of their feeling on Moyes’ appointment. But the stark reality is that if this situation deteriorates further, then Manchester United simply must act decisively and ruthlessly. If they fail to, there’s more than just one season of failure at stake.