On the fact of it, the 3-0 win at Old Trafford that sent Manchester United through to the last eight of the Champions League could be seen as a marked improvement.
It was effectively do-or-die time for United and David Moyes, and they did precisely what they needed to do. But with serious doubts still lingering over the way that United are playing, together with the serious underachievement of this season so far, it can be argued that in fact, United’s Champions League progression is merely delaying the inevitable.
Despite the scoreline and the hyperbole surrounding van Persie’s hat-trick and 40-year-old Giggs’ sparkling display, this was still not the performance one would expect from the champions in their own backyard against probably the weakest team in this year’s last 16. A cursory glance at the stats tells us that United – despite their home advantage and three goal winning margin – failed to dominate, with Olympiakos recording more possession, more attempts and more passes (completed and uncompleted).
Of course, stats only tell half the story. After all, United did win the game, but the stats do illustrate what anyone who watched the game will have seen: the same defensive mindset that has categorised their displays so far this season. As soon as they had clinched the third goal, United retreated back into their shell, despite there being more than 40 minutes still to play.
This is perhaps understandable, given what was at stake for David Moyes, but again it indicates the attitude of the United side this season. Despite being the champions, they seem to have embraced the underdog tag, even at home. They consistently fail to play with the Old Trafford swagger that was such a key part of the Ferguson regime. When one compares the statistics from the Olympiakos game and the Liverpool game, it is difficult not to be struck by how similar they are. And yet the scoreline was markedly different in the two games. To me, this points to the United performances being consistently average and the only major variable being the quality of their opponents.
There will be talk this week that United’s progression on Wednesday night should take the heat off Moyes. In a way this is understandable – this was a good result for United and creates an opportunity for them to attempt to reach the semifinals of the Champions League. But has anything really changed?
Is a 3-0 win at home against the weakest side still in the competition really evidence that Moyes should be given time? I would argue not, especially given the fact that aside from the sublime hat-trick and some good work from Rooney and Giggs (a player Moyes has ignored in recent weeks) it was the same negative and defensive setup on display that has led United to seventh – 18 points off the league leaders.
That there was such a massive reaction to what would have been a routine last-16 win in the past highlights just how far United have fallen under Moyes. That Moyes was able to describe a performance in which they ceded possession to the Greek champions at home as ‘magnificent’ highlights the fact that the Scot has a different level of aspiration to what has been considered the norm at Old Trafford.
The question for United is whether they are prepared to accept this level. Are they content to squeeze through against the poorer teams before (inevitably) being torn apart by Europe’s big boys in the quarterfinals? Or do they want something more? Do they want a manager who is able to turn Old Trafford back into a fortress, a manager who is happy to say, “We’re at home, we’re going to dominate the game, and we’re going to win”? If it’s something more that they want, all evidence suggests that they’re not going to get it from David Moyes.
The trouble for United is that Moyes has bought himself time. Had he got United knocked out of the Champions League, this, following on from a humbling at home to Liverpool, would have probably been enough to send the Scot packing. As it is, the levels of optimism have risen, but nothing we’ve seen from Moyes this season would suggest that there is justification for this optimism. Moyes will now most likely get to the end of the season at least, and if United don’t think having the ex-Everton boss at the helm will limit their chances of recruiting the best, they only have to look at last summer’s debacle to see that this is most certainly the case.
With the World Cup due to take place in Brazil this summer, the window for recruitment is far shorter than usual. Most players and agents refuse to do business prior to the tournament, and by the time the tournaments finished and the players have had their post-season holidays, it will be close to August. This leaves a very finite period of time for managers to get the new players they need. Moyes and Woodward showed last summer that they struggle to make United seem like an attractive option for the best players, and it seems unlikely that this will change after a woeful season of mediocrity and without the lure of Champions League football.
Had United terminated Moyes’ contract on Sunday after the Liverpool game, they could have started their recruitment process before the season ended and brought in a truly world-class manager who could assess the players and enjoy a full pre-season. Employing a top-class manager would have also given the club far more chance of landing the heavyweight targets during that short summer window.
As it is, and as a result of Wednesday night’s victory, Moyes will almost certainly be in charge until the end of the season. His team will most likely be sent packing in the last eight, and will finish at very best fifth.
The win against Olympiakos may have given United a short-term boost, but the reality is that it has only increased the amount of time that the Red Devils are under the stewardship of a man who has shown indisputably and regularly that he is out of his depth at this level. United fans should savour this winning feeling, as the chances of them winning a Champions League game for the foreseeable future are very slim indeed.
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