Another night, another truly woeful performance from Manchester United. Whilst the demise of the greatest team in English football history is still funny for non-United fans, it is rapidly reaching the point where it is expected, predictable and rather depressing.
Although there is no doubt that Olympiakos played particularly well on the night, we should be under no illusions as to the strength of the opposition that David Moyes’ side faced on Tuesday. The Greek champions were widely regarded as the weakest side to have made it through to this year’s last-16 and came a distant second to a PSG side in their group stages. For a United side to pitch up and play this badly and lose this emphatically against a side of this ilk is unforgiveable.
The most concerning thing about the current malaise (has the malaise perhaps gone on too long for it to be called a mere malaise?) is that there is a palpable sense of apathy among the players on the pitch. Olympiakos did not comfortably win Tuesday night’s game because they had 11 better players on the pitch, but rather they won because they wanted it more. Michel’s side pressed and pressed and pressed, and United simply had no answer for this tactic. Rather than doing some pressing of their own, it seemed that United’s tactic was to sit back and soak up the attacks of a supposedly weaker team and then hit them on the counter attack. However, their inability to stifle the Greek raids meant that the latter part of that gameplan never reached fruition, and on the rare occasions it did, the players looked lacklustre, disinterested and at times, downright clumsy.
It is looking increasingly likely that Moyes is getting a ‘bye’ this season. I see no other reason why he is able to send out his team serving out this sort of nonsense and get away with it. If Jose Mourinho had taken over Chelsea, taken them to 11 points shy off fourth place, out of the FA Cup in the fourth round and lost their last-16 away tie against the weakest side in the draw by two goals all the while spending around £65m, there is no way he would still be in a job. However, the message after every devastating loss is an all-too uninspiring “We’ll just keep going”, and the board seem to be swallowing that claptrap too.
Plenty of pundits last night seemed to be suggesting that the players needed to carry the can for the performance, and there is obviously a sense in which that is true. But the long and short of it is that David Moyes picks the players, and he tells the players how to play. He then has 90 minutes to attempt to alter the way his players are playing if he doesn’t think it’s working. He is also at liberty to make three changes to his team during the course of the match to further try to alter the way the game is going. Ultimately the buck stops with Moyes.
There is plenty to question about the team that he sent out on Tuesday night. Rio Ferdinand in particular was absolutely woeful and seemed short on match fitness, confidence or both. It is Moyes’ job to address that concern, and if he had any concerns about Ferdinand’s fitness, he should not have picked him. If he didn’t have any concerns about his fitness, one has to question why, given that it was clearly evident that Ferdinand wasn’t at the races on Tuesday night.
The curious case of Adnan Janujaz looms over Moyes’ head too. In the buildup to this game Moyes had cited Liverpool’s Champions League winning season in 2005 in which they qualified for the Champions League despite finishing outside the top four as a possible inspiration for his side this season. In other words, this was Moyes admitting that the Red Devils are unlikely to qualify for the Champions League via league position. Once this admission has been made, the Champions League assumes an increased level of importance, as is the only way United will get back into the competition next year. With that in mind, it is mind boggling to think that United chose to make the trip to Greece without one of their most devastating players. He may be young, but Janujaz has been one of the few bright sparks in a torrid season for United, and his lack of faith in the youngster was rewarded with a loss that will make it very difficult for United to progress beyond this round.
In saying that, Moyes has been given a bye for this season, I am perhaps reckoning without the opinion of the players. If the Scot were to lose the dressing room, I feel fairly confident that that could spell the end for this disastrous regime. During Michael Carrick’s post-match interview, I believe we may have seen the tide turning. He was courteous and polite as he always is, but when asked whether it was the players who should receive the blame rather than the manager, he refused to give a straight answer. Generally, when players are behind their manager, there is only one answer to that question, and that’s, “Yes, we are to blame, we are going to try harder for David”. This sort of answer was notable by its absence and given the rumours surrounding the happiness of Van Persie, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, it is not a stretch to surmise that perhaps Moyes may have already lost a proportion of the dressing room. Surely a last-16 exit will account for the rest.
If the United hierarchy are sensible, Moyes will have one final chance to save his job: at home to Olympiakos. Failure in the return leg is unthinkable, and logic would dictate that such a failure would result in the curtain being closed on a truly disastrous reign.