Moyes bereft as hapless United crumble to bitter foe
The theatre of dreams is fast becoming nightmarish for the Old Trafford boss
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez: Thorn in Manchester United’s side scored the third and decisive goal. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
‘Twenty times, 20 times Man United. Twenty times, 20 times I say . . .” And so on around the Old Trafford stands for 20 minutes, as Liverpool’s players toyed with already-beaten opponents. This was the sound of Manchester United turning into Ireland.
Like that 15-minute chorus of the Fields of Athenry as Spain ran Ireland ragged in Gdansk, the singing was a statement of powerless pride. The United fans sang for themselves because there was nothing left on the field to sing about. And they knew that collective defiance, however rueful, beats sitting there in silence.
On Friday, Moyes had suggested Liverpool would come to Old Trafford as favourites, a tone-deaf observation that told you he still hasn’t figured out what a Manchester United manager is meant to sound like.
Moyes looked so miserable yesterday that you suspect the sack would come almost as a relief. Has a manager’s suffering ever been so horribly apparent? He shut his eyes and sagged as he turned away from the sight of Suarez celebrating the third goal, looking as though he had been punctured. The camera cut to Alex Ferguson in the director’s box. Ferguson regarded the proceedings below with a baleful, unblinking stare.
Fight ‘to the end’
Moyes did the post-match interview with a face as grey as his suit. Geoff Shreeves asked if the United manager thought his players had “turned up”. “Yeah I do,” replied Moyes
, glancing over his shoulder. “Aye, I think they . . . they tried to . . . to do it.” The dutiful defence of the players had about as much authority as his insistence that United would fight “to the end” for Champions League qualification.
The only authority Moyes still commands is the right to pick the team. But even that power seems to have been surrendered in favour of a policy of appeasing the big names.
Last week, Robin van Persie was indisciplined and ineffective at West Bromwich Albion. United thought they had got lucky when referee Jon Moss spared van Persie a second yellow card for a lunge on Steven Reid. With hindsight, it might have been better if van Persie had been sent off and suspended.
Moyes quickly substituted the Dutch international, who slouched off in a sulk. Danny Welbeck came on and United’s attack began to flow. Rooney scored within two minutes, then set Welbeck up for a goal.
Moyes had seen how poorly van Persie had played. He had seen that his other forwards linked better with Welbeck. And when he reviewed past United-Liverpool matches, he would have seen that Martin Skrtel has struggled to contain Welbeck’s running.
He had everything he needed to make a decision that was at once bold and obvious, and replace van Persie with Welbeck. Everything, that is, except the courage to make the call.
By half-time it was plain United were being outplayed. Something had to change. Moyes changed nothing. Within a minute of the restart, United had conceded a second penalty. Still Moyes changed nothing, until the 76th minute, when he replaced Fellaini and Januzaj with Welbeck and Cleverley. Within a minute of the substitutions, Vidic had been sent off.
That’s a record of Moyes’ bad luck, but it’s also a record of inertia and paralysis. United’s lack of ideas went all the way to the top. That’s why, in the end, there was nothing for their fans to do but sing to themselves.
The Irish sporting parallels weren’t limited to the Man United keening. The task facing Liverpool
was reminiscent of what awaited the Irish rugby team at the Stade de France. People had been talking them up all week. Now they had to prove they could handle the pressure of being favourites and convert expectation into reality.
Once again Brendan Rodgers shuffled his attacking options, this time benching Coutinho and using Sterling behind a roving front two.
Liverpool showed composure and cohesion from the beginning. They hunted the ball in United’s half and pinned the home side back. Suarez has sometimes appeared flustered in these matches, but he was clinical, supported by the control and cunning of Sturridge and the tireless movement of Henderson and Allen.
As for Liverpool’s captain, whose nerveless execution of the first two penalties set his team up for victory, the Irish sporting parallel is plain. Gerrard was more likely to have been watching Fabian Delph sabotaging Chelsea’s title charge than Ireland winning the Six Nations. But if he did see O’Driscoll win the big one again at the very last, he probably thought, like millions of others: “Who gets to go out like that?”
Maybe Gerrard himself. In the first half, the United fans sang a favourite of recent years: “Have you ever seen Gerrard win the league?” Nine more wins and Gerrard will retire that chant for good.