On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United recorded their eighth Premier League defeat under David Moyes. The 2-1 loss at the hands of Stoke City has left the Old Trafford gaffer scratching his head, desperately searching for answers and excuses, with the notion of luck becoming the only viable reasoning his logic would allow.
The Scot declared in the post-match interview that his Red Devils side ‘could not have been more unlucky’ against the Potters, telling reporters; “I don’t know what we have to do to win. I thought we were extremely unlucky. We played well but for their first goal it was an incredible deflection and the second was a worldy.”
You can certainly understand that narrative of the 90 minutes from the Carrington point of view. Moyes was two centre-halves down by the interval as Phil Jones and Johnny Evans limped off injured, leaving United with the make-shift centre-back partnership of Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick.
And although Charlie Adam’s second strike of the afternoon was certainly a ‘worldy’ effort, it was set up by Marko Arnautovic falling over the ball just outside of the box, which somehow transformed into the perfect lay-off for the Scotland international. With that in mind, Stoke’s second goal arguably came with as much fortune as their first, which deflected into the net off Michael Carrick to leave David De Gea flapping helplessly.
But in order to subscribe to that theory, you’d have to ignore Stoke’s staunch defensive display and their ability to create clearer-cut chances than the visitors.
In truth, Manchester United never took hold of the match by the scruff of the neck – a nutshell analysis which must sound like a broken to the Carrington boss by now.
Even with a £37million signing and two world-class strikers close to full fitness at his disposal in the form of Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, all included in his starting XI to face Stoke, Moyes still couldn’t guide a United team which walked away with the Premier League title last season to victory against one of the English top flight’s most rank-and-file sides.
Red Devils fans will be quick to point out the Potters surprised Chelsea in a similar manner earlier in the season, but prior to last weekend’s clash, the Britannia outfit had won just twice in their last nine matches and were on a four-game losing streak.
Defeat to ordinary sides has been a regular feature of United’s campaign – in addition to Stoke, they’ve also lost to Newcastle, West Brom, Swansea and Sunderland this season – and it’s hardly the first time we’ve heard Moyes blame results on a cruel twist of fate.
But the notion of ‘luck’ certainly isn’t a word that entered Sir Alex Ferguson’s vocabulary too often during his 27-year Old Trafford reign, and you wouldn’t have expected such an analysis from the current United boss if two Stoke defenders were stretchered off before half time and Saturday’s result had been in reverse.
As The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson has pointed out, ‘the old standby of bad luck [is] the sign of a manager running out of answers’. Moyes has already bemoaned Premier League referees, pointed out the Red Devils’ persistent injury problems and criticised his squad’s performances this term, and none of those reasonings have made the defeats any easier, or brought them to an end.
Perhaps he feels the difference between the current campaign and the last is confidence and confidence alone – the fact Manchester United have lost their ability to come back from being a goal down on numerous occasions this season, in sharp contrast to it being their trademark under his predecessor, would certainly support that argument – and therefore, deflecting from criticisms of underperformance by supporting a narrative of misfortune will stop squad morale taking yet another serious hit.
At the same time, the Scot must feel in a rather precarious position to criticise. He may have been appointed as Sir Alex Ferguson’s rightful successor, but the former Evertonian is a manager who has won a solitary piece of silverware in his entire management career – the Community Shield with United this season – but is now bossing about a dressing room that contains ten-time Premier League title winners.
Not that Moyes’ empty trophy cabinet should somehow be a justification for United’s poor form, and I subscribe to the belief that some of the Red Devils’ more established players should be taking a fairer share of the flack. They certainly haven’t stood up to be counted since Ferguson’s retirement in the summer.
But it’s quite clear that the players simply aren’t as responsive to Moyes’ techniques of motivation as they were under his predecessor. That is what has sourced the undertones of desperation in the United manager’s recent public interactions and created misfortune as the Scot’s only viable response to United’s poor form without drawing attention to his own inadequacies as Carrington boss.
Perhaps that was always anticipated considering the monolithic presence Ferguson had, but not to the extent that United’s title defence would be over by Christmas, and they’d go on to lose five of their first eight fixtures in 2014.
Discussions of summer transfer activity and rumours of a £200million war chest to instigate Moyes’ long-awaited revolution of playing personnel will have Manchester United fans thinking past the current campaign, which could see the reigning Premier League champions not even qualify for the Champions League come May-time.
But the lingering concern is that money on new players will be entirely wasted if Moyes can’t inspire them to perform.
It seems Moyes will be given the benefit of the doubt no matter what comes of his first campaign at Old Trafford, but with desperation oozing out of the Scot’s every orifice at the moment, it’s quickly looking like he doesn’t have the managerial capacity to maintain Manchester United’s Premier League dominance. In essence, the Red Devils boss has the remainder of the campaign to prove himself, or else he will be working on borrowed time.