A fourth home defeat in six games and an exit at the first hurdle from the greatest cup competition British football has to offer. Last Sunday’s FA Cup third round defeat to Swansea was hardly the handiest result for Manchester United’s under-fire manager David Moyes. In time, though, he may well come to be hugely thankful for it.
United haven’t won Britain’s most famous cup competition since they sauntered to an easy 3-0 victory against Millwall almost a decade ago. Nor will they be winning it this season but with fewer cup responsibilities comes eased fixture congestion. For Moyes, the defeat could yet prove a crucial moment in rescuing his season.
United, it must be admitted, have a weak squad and as many other clubs with shallow squads are ultimately forced to accept, they cannot hope to compete with equal success in all competitions at the same time. This is a side in transition. If United are to secure European football next season and remain an attractive proposition for prospective players, their focus for the rest of 2013/14 must be on an improved league position.
To do this, Moyes must try to do what he does best. Whilst his teams at Everton were occasionally accused of being unadventurous, they undeniably had certain key strengths. Central amongst these were a tireless work rate, a tactical solidity and their construction of defensive units which were amongst the meanest in the league. Previously taken as a given, they are qualities that Old Trafford crowds are beginning to yearn for this season.
Moyes has barely had a moment to draw breath so far this term with a barrage of League Cup and Champions League fixtures that have meant United have typically had to play a game every three or four days. This, of course, hardly sets United apart from the country’s other leading clubs but for a new manager and whole new set of staff growing accustomed to a new level of football, a lack of time spent actually spent training his team will have done nothing to help his cause.
But with a maximum of only three games left in the League Cup and the resumption of the Champions League still a way off, Moyes is slowly being afforded some breathing space. Now, their FA Cup exit will afford his side even more time to work through their problems away from the public eye in the private, calm and intricately ordered sanctuary of the training pitch.
From now on, each league match can be approached with the upmost preparation with the squad drilled so they are rested, focused and hungry for each new challenge. In addition, fewer games will mean fewer injures and a reduced need for injury-prone players to be rushed back into action before they are ready.
You only need look to Anfield for confirmation of this idea. Without European football and having suffering an early exit exited the League Cup (losing to United in the third round), Brendan Rodgers has had time to really put in the hours developing his team on the training field. As a result, Liverpool have gone from strength to strength.
United are one of the greatest football clubs in the world and going out of any trophy in its earliest stages should never be something to be pleased about but fans should remember that this is no ordinary season in the club’s history. With the FA Cup over for another year, a less frantic second half of the season, with plenty of time for the players to work on their problems behind closed doors, could be just what this transitional side are in need of.