Daunting questions, scenarios loom for Moyes, Manchester United

Wednesday January 22nd, 2014

This season has been full of frustrating expressions for first-year Manchester United manager David Moyes.
Matt Dunham/AP

August 11 seems a long time ago now.

For the stragglers who were still at Wembley Stadium long after Manchester United had made a winning start to life without Sir Alex Ferguson, beating FA Cup holders Wigan 2-0 to claim the Community Shield, there was an interesting sight. Out on the pitch, about two hours after the game was over, David Moyes stood with his family and the trophy and had his picture taken.

Moyes looked proud, tanned and happy - as well he might. Today, he is paler, grayer, and those intense eyes have a haunted look. It's a snapshot of what pressure - and losing four of the last five games - can do to someone.

A few weeks after that win against Wigan, Moyes admitted that it might take him two years to develop a side in his own image at Old Trafford. And while the problems afflicting the squad are not all his fault - certainly last summer's appalling recruitment was not his failure alone - there is one clear difference between his side and Ferguson's. Moyes' United side, in recent weeks, has been meek.

The last time United was 3-0 down to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in February 2012, United came back with three goals in the final 32 minutes to draw 3-3. That was never on the cards last Sunday. As soon as Chelsea took the lead, United rarely looked like coming back.

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"The previous coach left incredible things in place," Moyes told France Football at the start of the season. "The most important is the mentality, the mentality of winning. We won the title? OK. Win the next one. This is something that is difficult to express in words, but when you are immersed in it you feel it, you see it. The players have this spirit of competition."

If they still have it, it was in short supply at Stamford Bridge; in their previous recent defeats, to Spurs, Swansea and Sunderland, there was not the drive of old to push on for an equalizer (and in the case of Swansea game, no time either).

This season is far from a disaster for United - but it could yet be. One United fan said he would rather lose to Sunderland in Wednesday's League Cup semifinal rather than face a drubbing from rival Manchester City in the final. United is six points off fourth spot and Champions League qualification, and has every chance of going further than City or Arsenal in the Champions League, given it faces Olympiakos as opposed to Barcelona (City) or Bayern Munich (Arsenal).

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The question the United board might need to start asking is this: Will we give Moyes the two years he might need? In the worst-case scenario, United finishes outside the top four this season, sells Wayne Rooney to Chelsea and struggles to recruit the top echelon of player that Moyes claimed last week wanted to join the club.

Would Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke swap fighting for La Liga and being a real contender for the Champions League, plus a burgeoning career in the national team, for a Europa League campaign at Old Trafford? What about Marco Reus or Ilkay Gundogan, the Dortmund pair who lit up last year's Champions League? Like it or not, a season outside the Champions League will lead to a different type of recruitment strategy and, given Tuesday's reports that the summer tour dates in the USA are not yet confirmed given potential Europa League qualifying commitments, it's something the club seems to be considering as well.

OK, so it may not be terrible if United does some shopping at Newcastle (Yohan Cabaye) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Hulk) rather than PSG (Edinson Cavani, optimistically on Moyes's radar according to the French press) and Atletico. And it would only be fair for Moyes to have a full summer transfer window to bring in some of his own choices of players and start to rebuild the squad.

But what happens after that? If United starts next season like it has this, will it stick with Moyes, whose six-year contract would surely only financially prohibitive if the club faces more than one season out of the Champions League?

And where does Ferguson fit into all of this? As Moyes was his appointment, is there a point at which he decides that his pick has not worked out, and then chooses the next guy? Or does the club of which he is a director take the decision out of his hands and look to appoint its own choice? Ferguson is not the type to admit to any mistake: proof in itself that Moyes will indeed be given time to turn things around.

Though let's not forget that he may do so, and quickly as well. There is every chance that when Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie return to fitness, United's results will pick up. In its season home stretch, only one of its last eight matches is against a top-six side (Everton). United might still sneak in to fourth place and we might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

If not, United fans will have to ignore the fact that coaches available this summer might include Fabio Capello, Guus Hiddink and Louis van Gaal. Moyes will have a squad-rebuilding job on his hands, and this time, he will need to be decisive in the transfer market.

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