David Moyes told us in September that he is “learning every week”, and some of that, now with October gone, has shown. Though, yes, the month could have been a lot more favourable to United, Moyes can reflect on a job done better.
Of course, a job done ‘better’ is different to one done ‘well’ – it would have been a bit of a disaster had September reflected more positively on last year’s champions. But wait! As you ask, it has been done sorta/kinda well, and Moyes can certainly take credit for that. United, tired of losing (three times), saw out the month unbeaten.
October was still a little unsettling, so much so that even an international break felt, for at least a minute, like a nice distraction. It might, in fairness, be a little unfair to focus on Moyes come to think of it. When United don’t play well, it’s tempting to look at certain players who have not quite succeeded in replicating their form from the previous campaign. That’s clearly a concern – and, if not for a young man who had no involvement in that title-winning season, it would have come under a lot more scrutiny. No hyperbole – October would have been a lot worse for United if not for Adnan Januzaj, hero and Hero.
That’s where Moyes deserves a lot of credit. Picking Januzaj might have seemed obvious to all those with a keyboard, but it takes a certain kind of manager to say, “yeah, away game, I’m under pressure, why shouldn’t I start the 18-year-old?” Sure, Moyes not wanting to rush Wilfried Zaha doesn’t exactly help separate him from others, but that it’s easy to overlook, because: Januzaj! He’s alright.
People like watching young players do well. It shouldn’t matter yet that the player might turn into a winger that makes everyone groan – because, as long as the possibility exists that they won’t, then, go on, be excited. (Though in that wonderful display against Sunderland, Januzaj went down pretty easily – he dived! – so that’s official: he’s the Next Ashley Young.) In a failed bid to curb new enthusiasm, Ed Woodward made sure Januzaj signed a new contract.
Januzaj is proof that experimenting works, so Moyes has looked to see what else he could do. Shinji Kagawa played 180 minutes in a space of a few days, and United prevailed in both. Kagawa was very good in one, Real Sociedad, where he even enjoyed a cameo off the striker, and not-very good in the other, against Stoke City. All of this is going to mean that people will argue more on whether he could play on the left. The answer: eh, probably. Kagawa trades good and bad games unlike any other player in the side, and so Shinji’s law dictates that if you play him in 38 games, he’ll make an adequate contribution in 19 of them. Kagawa, let’s not forget, plays on the left for Japan and scored a hat-trick there against Norwich City – before, of course, looking totally lost in the following game away to Real Madrid.
Where substitutes have been concerned in the ‘experimenting’ side of things, mixed results have been achieved. The most baffling trio of replacements coincided with United surrendering a lead at home to Southampton, where, for example, Chris Smalling replaced Wayne Rooney. Others, like Zaha, Kagawa and Hernandez, didn’t even get a look in.
Southampton were pretty impressive, and had come into the game boasting the league’s best defence. Ryan Giggs is a useful player to have, but he simply wasn’t the right man in pursuit of that second goal. But it’s Giggs! The Welshman started against Sociedad – where Moyes got it right – and put in a good shift. (Quick pause: again, perhaps it’s too harsh to focus solely on the Scot. Those United rely so heavily on, like Michael Carrick, Rooney and Robin van Persie, were well below standard against Southampton. United, in truth, didn’t make much of a case for the two points they spurned that afternoon.)
Though it’s preferable to not have a football match hinge on substitutions, the Stoke City game saw a remarkable improvement in that aspect. On came Januzaj, always influential, then Valencia, at right back, and Hernandez, who swung the game. Fine, at least two of those were logical but they were well-received for two reasons: first, that Moyes is a lot quicker to turn to his bench than his predecessor was in his final years, and that this went really far, with the hope that all-out attack would care for a thinning defence. It worked.
Then came the Capital One Cup, the football manager’s testing ground, to wrap up the month. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s inclusion would have surprised many at the start of the season, the centre of defence now where United have played around with the most. Phil Jones was allowed, by Moyes, to play in midfield and allowed, by Norwich, to play well alongside Tom Cleverley, who badly needs a turnaround in form having been in a rut since the start of the year. Moyes’ most popular experiment in that game came in the form of Januzaj – again – who started the game where he might well do in a future that sounds better for every delicate touch he makes, just behind the striker. Though Hernandez scored two out of four, the youngster was easily the game’s best player. Zaha’s promising first half, meanwhile, might see yet more change on the flanks.
The experimenting doesn’t have to stop. In what is both exciting and frightening at the same time, assistant Steve Round claimed Hernandez, Van Persie and Rooney can indeed play together, the Mexican completely deserving of any minutes that may come him way.
It’s been a month where, though with some obvious mistakes, some of Moyes’ shrewdness has shone through: people have been quick to praise the manager on his approach in Europe, where he’s come off as a veteran of the competition, and his use of Januzaj. If there’s one thing to improve on in November – further to taking chances and preserving leads – it is to play Rafael da Silva at right-back all the time. Failing that, the manager could just keep playing Januzaj.