x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

David Moyes wins his way with Arsenal triumph

The embattled manager finally earned a signature win at the helm of Manchester United, employing a more pragmatic style that served him well at Everton, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United have clawed their way back to fifth on the Premier League table, with 20 points from 11 matches. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
Manchester United have clawed their way back to fifth on the Premier League table, with 20 points from 11 matches. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

As has been the case on numerous occasions over the years, the cameras panned to Sir Alex Ferguson on the final whistle. When Manchester United secure crucial wins, the default response is to see the reaction of the architect of so much of their success.

Except, of course, that this time Ferguson was found in the directors’ box. The 1-0 win over Arsenal was very much David Moyes’ victory. Not just because it was his first against title rivals – not to mention United’s first for 11 months since December’s season-defining triumph away at Manchester City – but because he did not borrow from his illustrious predecessor’s handbook.

Instead, this was a typical Moyes victory, reminiscent of some of his more notable wins at Everton. United allied industry with tactical discipline, defended doggedly and scored from a set-piece.

It wasn’t an exhibition of free-flowing football but there were performances of character – from Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, in particular – along with evidence of effort, organisation and planning.

Robin van Persie exploited United’s height advantage from a corner, just as Marouane Fellaini did when his Everton faced Ferguson’s team 15 months ago.

Rooney, restored to the fold and rehabilitated by Moyes, was the game’s outstanding player, just as he has been United’s finest performer this season. There were many who felt the Scot would have been better off cashing in on the unsettled striker in the summer; instead, he has been vindicated for his obdurate refusal to let Jose Mourinho buy Rooney.

Factor in a nine-match unbeaten run and a league table that shows United ahead of City and only one point behind Chelsea and there is a sense that a corner has been turned. The comeback win against Stoke City a week earlier, featuring a winner from substitute Javier Hernandez, felt like one of Ferguson’s acts of escapology.

Some were tempted to ask if it was his Mark Robins moment, referencing the forward’s 1990 goal against Nottingham Forest that has gone down in folklore as the strike that saved Ferguson’s job (even if it has since been suggested it was never under threat) and, more pertinently for Moyes, marked the moment his luck changed.

However, it is worth remembering that even the ill-fated regimes tend to contain a false dawn or two.

Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool beat Chelsea; Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Chelsea won away at City. Neither victory made those miscast managers the right man, just as United’s poor start and frustrating summer in the transfer market did not automatically make Moyes the wrong choice.

So while his reign so far has provided a conundrum to those looking for clues if he will flourish or flounder, the reality is that there is no conclusive proof either way yet. Rushing to sweeping judgements about Moyes is premature, not least because, during 11 years at Everton, he showed the wisdom of assessing his efforts over the long term.

If the first three months of this season have illustrated anything, it is that, despite Ferguson’s unrivalled ability to accumulate silverware, a major rebuilding job is required.

Moyes began the season placing his faith in the old firm of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at the back. Now the Englishman is confined to the midweek team, with Moyes plucking Vidic’s partners from the next generation.

The ongoing need to find a world-class midfielder and Fellaini’s awkward start to life at Old Trafford meant that Jones began alongside Michael Carrick against Arsenal; admirably as he performed, Moyes has admitted he sees the 21 year old as a central defender. He continues a mix-and-match approach with the wingers who have contributed too few goals and assists this season.

Hence the pragmatic formula of a solid side with potent strikers. There are worse gameplans and if Rooney and Van Persie can continue to deliver goals aplenty while camouflaging the lack of flair in the midfield and if their rivals keep on dropping points, United can hold out hope that they will be champions again.

Defeat to Arsenal would have put them 11 points adrift of the league leaders and effectively out of the title race before middle of November. A win may not alter anything in the final reckoning, but at least it relieves pressure and engenders a little optimism for now. And that, for Moyes, is progress.

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