The editor’s column returns. James Dutton discusses whether David Moyes is learning as a manager, Jose Mourinho’s sale of Juan Mata and Liverpool’s continuing transfer problems…
The semi finals of the League Cup have been the setting for the confirmation of a number of narratives in recent years.
In 2010 Manchester United proved to be a bridge too far, too soon for Roberto Mancini’s upstarts. In 2011 Birmingham City and West Ham United played out an interminable struggle, a dogfight that reflected their relegation credentials. A year later Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool proved their mettle as that season’s cup specialists by seeing off champions-elect Manchester City over two legs.
In years gone by a 9-0 aggregate result between Manchester City and West Ham United would have plumbed the depths of fantasy, but few have batted an eyelid given the obvious gulf in class between the top and bottom of the Premier League in 2013-14.
That one-sided massacre contrasted greatly with the other semi; a titanic struggle between Sunderland and Manchester United, who appeared to be going to great lengths to avoid humiliation against City at Wembley, even at one point struggling to comprehend the point of penalties.
The penalties are some of the worst you will ever see. The false stereotype that penalties are a lottery was allowed to perpetuate before the shoot-out even began – just look at this collection from Italy’s clash with Spain at the 2013 Confederations Cup. If penalties are comparable to any game of luck or chance then it is poker, where fortune favours the brave.
On Wednesday fortune did favour the brave, Gus Poyet’s Sunderland, the only side who seemed willing to win the tie before and during extra time. Only when Phil Bardsley’s speculative effort trickled into David de Gea’s net via his gloves did Manchester United have a go at winning the game, and they were duly rewarded with Javier Hernandez’s goal.
Never mind the injuries, never mind the systems, and never mind the questionable inheritance bequeathed him – this was Manchester United at their most Moyesian yet; this was undeniably Moyes, the purest Moyesian performances to end all Moyesian performances. They had enough to beat Sunderland over 90 minutes, let alone 180. They were in the driving seat with 45 to go, they let it slip. Or more precisely, Moyes did.
He’s been here before. As a guest on the Illustrated Game podcast in September I said that the most instructive way of speculating on David Moyes’ aptitude for the job at Old Trafford was by revisiting his defining junctures at Everton.
His pitiful record away from home against the perceived “Big Four” is no secret. Some people have said it was unfair to judge Moyes on this, but to not win once in 45 games over a 12-year period points to a mental block as much as the technical deficiency of his teams.
There are other factors away from the league; just the odd sporadic cup run with a team that more often than not finished in the top half of the Premier League, and a single appearance in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup.
Penalties brought about Everton’s fall in that 2008 clash with Fiorentina, after overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg. A momentous comeback was within their grasp after Mikel Arteta brought the scores level with over 20 minutes of normal time remaining. Everton peppered the Italian goal, but were unable to apply the coup de grace.
The Champions League qualifier against Villarreal in 2005 remains etched in Evertonian folklore; Pierluigi Collina still receives blame for disallowing a Duncan Ferguson goal that would have brought extra-time, but it would have been so undeserved given how one-sided the contest had been.
In his sole cup final appearance, the 2009 FA Cup, Moyes’ side took a first minute lead, but were unable to wrest the initiative from Chelsea having gone 2-1 down with 20 minutes to play.
It shouldn’t have been his only cup final appearance as Everton manager. The first semi final of the 2012 FA Cup was an all-Merseyside affair, during which Everton dominated Liverpool for the opening 45 minutes, and deservedly led thanks to a goal from Nikica Jelavic.
But with the neighbours in disarray, devoid of imagination and at their mercy, Everton backed off. Moyes’ side dropped deep and allowed Liverpool to dictate proceedings. A defensive howler from Sylvain Distin gifted Luis Suarez an equaliser, before Andy Carroll settled the game as extra time loomed.
That passive second half performance was a mirror image of the one that Moyes instructed his Manchester United side to fulfill against Sunderland this week. The fella who called 999 to speak to Alex Ferguson about the wretched performance may have abused the system, but he is indicative of a fan base scratching their eyes out and wondering what the hell happened to the cavalier days of Ferguson.
The signing of Juan Mata from Chelsea has the potential to transform a season like few others, but Moyes must overcome his own demons to deliver the potential his arrival can ignite. Many say that Moyes will eventually work it out, but that assumption defies 12 years of evidence that suggests he still struggles when the need to be brave is at its greatest.
Guillem Balague has described Juan Mata’s move to Manchester United as the culmination of one of Jose Mourinho’s most Machiavellian and daring schemes yet. Whatever the conspiracies behind the timing of the Spaniard’s switch to the north west, there’s little doubting Mourinho’s calculations.
The initial ostracization of Mata over the summer, and then the beginning of the season, was met with outrage and indignation that transcended club loyalties. Chelsea fans could not believe their two-time player of the year was not playing, opposing admirers could not believe Mourinho was snubbing one of the league’s most gifted talents.
Chelsea’s attacking line was repeatedly shuffled around in the autumn, there was little consistency in selection or results, aside from Mata receiving the least playing time and contributing the least to overall performances. Now, with Mourinho having settled on an attacking four of Eto’o, Hazard, Oscar and Willian that is fulfilling his ambitions and delivering consistent results, the manager is acting from a position of strength.
Now we wait to see whether Mourinho has another string to the masterplan as we enter the last week of the transfer window.
As Mohammad Salah jetted into Stamford Bridge, twitter became awash with Liverpool fans berating everything and everyone. It’s become a customary sight during the transfer window; Liverpool beaten to a primary transfer target by a rival club and twitter aflame. Salah joins the now vaunted club of talent snatched away under Liverpool’s noses; Gylfi Siggurdson, Clint Dempsey, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Willian.
Liverpool’s twitter following have a low reputation – rightly or wrongly – but some of it is a natural reaction to what they perceive to be the infuriating tactics of Liverpool’s transfer committee, who have shown time and again a remarkable inability to conclude a deal.
Negotiating tactics that have centered around extracting the best possible value from a target – or as a cynic would see it, “lowballing” – have dragged deals on for weeks and ultimately backfired. At times it has worked – Phillipe Coutinho for £8m – but more often that not, it hasn’t, and these hard-nosed tactics will do little for the club’s reputation ahead of future negotiations.
With a week to go until the transfer window expires, Liverpool appear no closer to adding personnel that can transform their chronic defensive woes, or their lack of numbers in midfield. It goes deeper than missing out on Salah, a player who would have helped shoulder the responsibility of goals that have been heaped on Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge this season.
On field, the club have done all they can to be in the mix for Champions League places and a tilt at the title, but they are being badly let down by off-field issues once again. Sticking to a player’s value is an admirable tactic in this day of inflated transfer fees, but the real value comes in flexibility and not missing out on Champions League football and the windfall it brings for the sake of a couple of million.
There’s no value in jeopardizing the progress that has been made this season, or the future of their star player.