You know things must be bad at Manchester United when a story that they themselves have denied is the best news they’ve had in ages. The speculation linking them to Chelsea’s out-of-favour Juan Mata at least offers some hope of improvement. But why has it taken so long? The transfer window opened 21 days ago. What on earth have United been waiting for?
As the full-time whistle blew at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, one thought was surely shared by all Manchester United supporters. “Please let this be rock bottom, if only so that we have something to bounce off.”
This is not simply a bad start or a troubled settling-in period. This is not something that can be cured with a good talking-to and a look in the mirror. Technically and mentally, too few of United’s players are fit for purpose. There are those of us, by which I mean almost all of us, who may have suggested this during the last couple of years, but David Moyes can be forgiven for buying only Marouane Fellaini and opting to give the players he inherited a chance to prove themselves. As a former resident of Merseyside, he will know well how Graeme Souness’s desire for rapid change backfired on him at Anfield. But those players have had their chance and most of them blew it.
Moyes’ first wobble was in September, when his team lost to Liverpool, Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion. It was a wobble that many had expected. The second came in early December, with back-to-back defeats at home to Newcastle and Everton. That was less expected and should have set the alarm bells off. The third wobble, precipitated by a New Year’s Day defeat to Spurs, should have caused outright panic. How many wobbles do they need?
Those who believe that United shouldn’t simply rush out waving their wallet in the air are entirely correct, but that shouldn’t be the case anyway. United should have a team of people identifying future targets throughout the year. There should be a shortlist of replacements for every position, regularly updated. Is that a practice learned from the ‘Football Manager’ games? No. That’s how Moyes operated at Everton.
In ‘The Nowhere Men’, Mike Calvin’s excellent study of scouting, it is revealed that Moyes’s staff at Everton have an office lined with whiteboards onto which are scrawled the predicted line-ups of the future along with possible replacements. Are there boards like that at Carrington? Have contingency plans been made?
Everyone knows when the window opens. It’s not something that takes you unawares, like Pancake Day. There should have been a point, early December at the latest, when Moyes and his line manager Ed Woodward said, “We’ve got problems here. Let’s go shopping.” By the time the Christmas decorations came down, they should have been unveiling a new defensive midfielder, a new attacking midfielder and quite possibly a centre-back too. Instead, in the 21 days they’ve wasted, they’ve lost two more games in the league and they’re out of the FA Cup.
Yes, early moves in the January window usually mean punitive transfer fees, but so do late moves when the selling clubs can sniff the desperation on your breath from 20 yards. And would a premium fee really cost United more than they would lose if they failed to qualify for the Champions League? Because if they continue with this squad, that’s what will happen. With their global reach, their enormous stadium, their TV revenues and their eclectic range of corporate tie-ups, they’re not exactly short of a few quid. They can afford to do what needs to be done.
Moyes has received extraordinary backing from United’s match-going supporters. Even after the third goal went in on Sunday, they refused to turn on him and continued to fervently and noisily back the club. He could not have asked any more of them. But if the Mata story comes to nothing, if he allows another transfer window to pass him by, he will test their patience to the limit. This team needs to be strengthened. It should have been strengthened already.
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Read more from Unibet columnist Iain Macintosh.