Monday, 20 January 2014

Chelsea Provide A Benchmark For United's Decline

Given that their first encounter was a week into the season when neither manager was ready to risk defeat and the game fizzled out into a scoreless draw, Sunday presented the first real chance to see the 2013/14 versions of Chelsea and Manchester United face off. A fixture that has dominated English football for the best part of a decade with these two clubs winning 8 of the last 9 Premier League titles and even contesting a Champions League final in 2008, has decreased somewhat in stature and this event proved a complete mis-match. One club is buoyant and on its way back to the very top, the other is declining at an alarming rate.

This game summarised the plight of Manchester United compared to their rivals better than any. United were the highest odds they'd been for any Premier League game ever. I don't think a single fan was optimistic that this United side could end Mourinho's fantastic unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge today. Even a draw would have felt like a huge win.

All smiles, but there's definitely some bitterness there

United hired David Moyes in the summer, choosing what they perceived to be long-term stability over the instant success Mourinho would have brought. It's a decision, Ferguson's decision, that is looking poorer and poorer every week as Moyes continues to struggle to keep United even in the top 6 while Mourinho's Chelsea are clicking into gear as they march towards a title challenge. It's been said for a while now that this team is a quality striker away from being absolutely top drawer. On Sunday Samuel Eto'o gave them a glimpse of what is possible. While I don't think he's the man to lead the line long-term, his hat-trick proved the difference this time around.

Jose would have read the United line-up an hour before kick-off and been forgiven for laughing away to himself in the office. It was without doubt the weakest United side he'd have ever faced. The hopes of this magnificent football institution rested on the shoulders of an 18 year-old Kosovan with 15 first-team games under his belt. The sad truth is that it was probably the strongest side Moyes had at his disposal. Rooney and van Persie are still not ready to return. Aside from them the midfield and defence would probably be first choice, which is worrying for fans.

Strangely, United started the better of the two sides and created a few chances in the opening fifteen minutes. Had they scored here, the game would have been a different affair and they might have gotten something out of it. But once Samuel Eto'o's deflected strike lobbed David de Gea to put Chelsea 1-0 up, the writing was on the wall and, as has too often proved the case this season, we saw no signs of a United comeback. Extraordinarily poor defending from set pieces gave Chelsea their 2nd and 3rd goals either side of half time and this United side, despite having played quite well, were finished.

Eto'o hit a surprising hat-trick

Two years ago in this very fixture, United went 3-0 down early in the second half and came back to secure a 3-3 draw and a valuable point. That was Ferguson's United, characterised by their fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude. The United team that day contained several of today's players: Valencia, Young, Evans, Welbeck all started that day in February 2012. Under Ferguson these players had a unique belief. They were Manchester United. They simply would not lose. This is not evident under Moyes, a manager who's spent too long at smaller clubs punching above their weight to carry any real aura of intimidation about him.

The game got worse for United in the final minutes when they totally lost their discipline, something that Ferguson simply wouldn't allow. Vidic was sent off for a reckless tackle on Eden Hazard, a tackle myself and Jose Mourino both described as an 'orange card'. A tackle somewhere between a red and a yellow. Rafael's two footed lunge on Gary Cahill a minute later was a clear straight red and a worrying sign that United players no longer have any fear of answering to the manager in the dressing room after the game.

Plenty of inches of this blog last week were devoted to praising the somewhat erratic David Luiz in Chelsea's holding midfield role. He has clearly read last week's piece and let the praise go to his head as he gave a rather suspect performance this week. Perhaps the presence of Nemanja Matic on the sidelines had something to do with it but I expect to see the Serbian slot into that holding role and make it his own over the coming weeks. Mourinho saw and issue and wasn't afraid to spend big to rectify it.

Moyes has plenty of issues but doesn't seem to be spending at all this transfer window. The faith some of the United fans are showing in him is admirable no doubt but no other club would sit idly by while a manager destroys a dynasty and say 'we'll give him a year'. Football has changed. You don't get time to lose first before you win. Results are needed now. So what if he doesn't have the players. That's his own fault. He had the whole summer to buy players. Rebuilding should have begun instantly. A year of decline and clearout is not acceptable in the current climate. Even still, he has the same squad that walked this league last year. 7th place isn't good enough. 4th place won't even be good enough. Moyes, not a top level manager, is not good enough for United.

League One title with Preston in 2000, Moyes only trophy

I liken the situation to when Liverpool appointed Roy Hodgson in 2010, a tenure that is often forgotten. Within a few months it became clear that Hodgson was simply not a top level manager and they parted ways. Nobody asked for him to be given a year to make his mark on the team. At a big club you need instant success to survive. He had done well at Fulham and after Liverpool he went to West Brom and did wonderfully there. Not everyone is cut out for the top rung. Moyes took Preston from the third tier to the brink of the Premier League. He took Everton from the relegation zone to the fringes of the top four.  That's his level. When United dispense with him, he'll take over at somewhere like  West Ham and bring them from the foot of the table to a solid mid-table berth. That's what he's good at. He's never going to be a success at a club like United.

As for Mourinho, his comments last March when his Madrid side eliminated United from Europe suggested he had designs on managing at Old Trafford some day. The away support on Sunday wasted no time in reminding him of this implication. His comments after the game on Sunday suggest nothing has changed. While ordinarily he would stick the knife in, he relented and sympathised with the club in it's current predicament. Whether or not this was just out of respect to his old friend Ferguson remains to be seen. I don't think he'll ever manage at United, but he's exactly what they need right now. Someone with a big enough personality to fill the chasm left last summer. A visionary. A leader.

United need 24 more points this season to avoid finishing as the worst defending champions in Premier League history. Blackburn in 1995/96 finished 7th with 61 points.

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