The ease of Manchester United's victory over Wigan yesterday will have come as a relief to David Moyes, after a pre-season that had done little to dispel the mood of foreboding around the beginning of the post-Ferguson era.
It was one of those awkward matches where there was little for United to gain and potentially a lot to lose. Happily for Moyes, Robin van Persie looks ready to start the season in the same goalscoring form in which he finished the last.
Van Persie's display was reassuring since the only trouble Moyes has had from within the club has come from the man he appeared to appoint van Persie's understudy, Wayne Rooney. Rooney did not play yesterday but again the post-match press conference centred on the Rooney question.
Moyes insisted he had not fallen out with Rooney and accused journalists of spreading “untruths” about their relationship. His irritation centred on reports that Rooney had trained with the reserves after a bust-up with Moyes, whereas Moyes said he had done so at his own request. But that has not been the only recent sign of friction between the two.
It’s a fact that last week Rooney posted a Facebook message thanking Roy Hodgson for “showing faith” in him by picking him for England. This was widely interpreted as a dig at Moyes, who had not used him in recent friendlies, apparently because of injury. Perhaps Moyes was objecting to the meaning being read into this message, but if it was not Rooney’s intention to make a such a point it seemed an odd thing for him to say, since he has been an automatic pick for England for the last 10 years.
Before that, someone "close to" Rooney put out a line that one of the reasons why the player wants to leave Manchester United is that he feels Alex Ferguson will continue to influence what happens at the club. The ostensible purpose of that message was to justify Rooney's desire to leave on the dubious basis that he believes Ferguson's beef with him means he won't be treated fairly. The inescapable implicit subtext was that Moyes is merely a puppet, the Medvedev to Ferguson's Putin.
There has been no public reaction from Moyes to a line that seemed specifically designed to insult and undermine him, but you suspect that had he managed to sign Thiago Alcantara or Cesc Fabregas, Rooney might already have been sold.
Missing out on those players has led to fears among some United supporters that the new manager lacks the pulling power Alex Ferguson had. That is to forget how often Ferguson himself missed out on high-profile signings. Alan Shearer joined Blackburn and then Newcastle, Marcelo Salas joined Lazio, Ronaldinho joined Barcelona, Harry Kewell joined Liverpool, Arjen Robben joined Chelsea, Mesut Özil joined Real Madrid, Samir Nasri joined Manchester City, and last summer Lucas Moura joined PSG.
United's quiet summer of player trading has been in keeping with a Premier League transfer market that has been generally becalmed. Only five clubs have brought in more players than they have released: West Ham, Swansea, and the three promoted clubs, Cardiff, Hull and Crystal Palace. Arsenal, supposedly flush from new commercial deals, have so far signed only one player while releasing almost two teams' worth.
The lack of activity is curious because the new television deal that has now come into effect is worth about €35 million extra per season per club. The traditional response of English clubs to a guaranteed increase in income has been to spend it before it has even landed in their bank account. Now, the tendency appears to be debt service, austerity, retrenchment.
Reluctance to spend
Moyes doesn't share the general reluctance to spend. The problem is that unlike his two rivals for the title, Chelsea and Manchester City, he has not yet managed to add any new first-team players. This as much as anything must now dictate his Rooney policy.
His insistence that Rooney will not be sold echoed John Henry’s remarks a few days earlier about Luis Suarez. Like the Liverpool owner, the United manager has raised the stakes by putting his own credibility on the line. Rooney cannot now leave for Chelsea without Moyes being made to look foolish.
At this stage it would be better to keep him for another season, even if that would mean losing him cheaply next summer when his contract enters its final year. With the World Cup imminent, Rooney can’t afford to slack off.
Moyes must now hope he can persuade Everton to sell him Marouane Fellaini and possibly Leighton Baines. Fellaini, already hugely impressive in six games out of ten with Everton, has the potential to be a huge presence for United at the base of midfield. He should benefit from the multiplier effect of being surrounded by better players.
Some have suggested that Baines, at 28, is too short-term a signing to be worth the €17.5m Everton are likely to demand for him. However Baines should have at least four years left at the top, and you can get a lot done in four years. Eric Cantona’s entire career at Manchester United lasted only a little longer than that. And as far as Moyes is concerned, four years is an eternity. If Baines could help keep Moyes in the job until next summer, he would already have justified most of the cost of getting him.