Writing The Month at the start of the year – 2013, in case you forgot – was easy. The column started in January, not August of 2012, and that meant last season’s uncertainty period was pretty much skipped over. In years previous, that uncertainty period would have ended a lot later, but things were looking so good for Manchester United by the time the first column appeared (seven points clear at the top) that there was never any need to be panicky. Granted, it’s not hard to keep up that appearance when you’re reviewing a whole month of football rather than a single, frustrating game of it.
What also added to the relative comfort of those times was that United had Sir Alex Ferguson overseeing things. Sure, things don’t always go for Ferguson, even, as we know, accompanied with the luxury of a points lead, but there was a feeling then, no matter how not-that-impressive United had looked, that they were going to coast to a 2oth title. The opposition was not only meek, but did not have Robin van Persie in their team. This time, of course, it’s different. United’s nearest rivals still don’t have Van Persie, but have sought to close the gap – and make new ones – with statement signings of their own. All this, and Ferguson has retired. This is the uncertainty period, baby.
As these words are written, David Moyes still hasn’t signed a player. He’s definitely trying to, but, right at this moment, it almost feels futile to draw any conclusions until those players arrive. Not that you could get much from two games anyway, but it would definitely be easier to say “Manchester United can win the title!” with confidence with players like (like! such as!) Herrera and Fellaini already bedded in. As it stands, who knows where United are going? And what they will look like?
Thankfully (because there is money at stake), there are things to talk about. United’s transfer policy, for one, has so far been sorta-kinda-very embarrassing. But, hey, the club can easily make up for that. It’s just that August had its promise in this area but nothing of note has happened yet, and it’s preferable for all concerned to be ready when everyone else is ready. This isn’t supposed to sound spoiled because, well, it isn’t how a spoiled fan sounds. Moyes and Ed Woodward probably feel a little embarrassed on some levels. To buy players ready for the start of the season is to buy Christmas presents before the 25th. Well, more important than that. Now it feels like we’ve got a Malcolm in the Middle plotline on our hands, with Woodward (or Moyes) playing Hal, who slips out of the house early with time running out and takes a drive in search of anything resembling a gift. It is worth noting that things usually come good by the end of the episode, and, however late, the gift is what was wanted and needed all along.
Where actual football is concerned, United have been impressive enough. As said, it’s unknown what this means for the rest of the season, or even what it means for ‘now’, because ‘now’ is ever-changing. In isolation, things looked quite good. United lacked a bit of ambition against Chelsea at Old Trafford – even with three forwards – but, in turn, they helped make the visitors look much the same. (It should also be said that Chelsea’s lack of a striker did not mean they came out to defend, necessarily: Jose Mourinho talked about his side’s “mobility” before the game that made sense when you consider the two 30+s United had at the back.) Anyway, Moyes has not made any missteps as yet; the 4-1 win over Swansea proved how devastating they can be when they use their attacking options and acts counter to where they perhaps failed against Chelsea. What does that mean? Probably nothing, except United are a capable side and who knows what else. That’s important. The United that play Liverpool on the first day of September will almost certainly be different to the United that play Crystal Palace on the 14th. We’ll only know how things look in the long run when we’re absolutely sure that’s how United want to look in the long run. If they don’t sign any players, then maybe there’s no need to isolate anything. But, for everyone’s sanity, let’s not look at it like that.
While there aren’t any new signings to speak of, while Moyes channels his inner Fergie and complains about the fixture list and then claims the Community Shield was just another achievement for his predecessor, all of this does feel distinctively new. Moyes is trying to move United in a different direction, even with much the same personnel. The Reds did not play a proper left-sided player in any of their three games in August. Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney might have chased balls in that area, but no player has played on that side the way Wilfried Zaha or Antonio Valencia have on the right. Indeed, the Scottish FA’s Director of Football Development Jim Fleeting said back in May that Moyes noticed how “everything was going through the middle area of the park.” Shinji Kagawa is yet to make to an appearance but when fully fit, it might be the sort of position he’d have to take up. Or not. Moyes might do away with it as he tries to figure out what’s best for his team.
Many things have happened in August, but a lot of that is expected to be forgotten by the end of September. What was it that Rooney fella was doing, again?