By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
MOYES MUST PROVE TO PLAYERS HE IS UP TO THE JOB
Even before Manchester United’s humbling afternoon at Stamford Bridge, David Moyes’ in-tray was overflowing.
On the back of a defeat to Chelsea that was far more calamitous than the 3-1 scoreline suggests, the manager’s to-do list is taking on seismic proportions.
Wherever he turns, Moyes is finding problems rather than solutions. In a transfer market where availability is at a premium, in a squad whose deficiencies are being laid bare every week and in an injury list that has robbed him of the two players best equipped to turn around United’s increasingly wretched season.
On the field, the tactics are functional, errors are widespread and the only imagination to be currently found in the team crowned Premier League champions last May is in the twinkling feet of 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj.
Off it, the long-running cold war between the club’s medical and sports science departments has not abated, Wayne Rooney is refusing to hold new contract talks, Robin van Persie took himself off to Holland to get fit, rather than trust in Moyes’ mammoth and highly-renumerated staff, and the new chief executive is every bit as beleaguered as the manager.
Every step forward, in results or performances, is almost immediately followed by two steps back. Sometimes, more.
The dunking at the Bridge was especially painful because United had come into the fixture on the back of collecting 15 league points from a possible 18, yet Chelsea had to barely get out of third gear to comprehensively defeat them.
Moyes had all his defenders available for selection, reinforced his midfield with Phil Jones and yet two of the home side’s three goals were a direct result of what the Scot said was “terrible” defending from set pieces.
United began with real purpose and intent, yet the game was over after 49 minutes and, by the time that Javier Hernandez poached a consolation goal, Jose Mourinho’s only interest was in shutting up shop and preserving his players for the battles ahead.
What a comedown for the comeback kings. Some of United’s great assets under Sir Alex Ferguson – their resilience, aura and never-say-die spirit – appear to have just ebbed away during the last six months.
Moyes’ prinicpal strength during his decade-long reign at Everton was coaxing the maximum from the players at his disposal. Players who regularly wore the blue shirt seemed to be at least 20 per cent more effective under the stern gaze of the gimlet-eyed Moyes than any other manager.
At United, the reverse seems to be the case. Almost the entire first-team squad has been diminished by the change at the helm. If we take the previously untested Januzaj out of the equation, and Moyes deserves credit for showing such faith in the precocious teenager, perhaps only the performances of Rooney and David De Gea have been unaffected by Sir Alex’s departure.
The biggest question mark for Moyes must be whether he can get the best out of this collection of United players. Are they willing to follow his orders? Do they believe in what he is saying? Is he adequately preparing and motivating them?
The evidence on Sunday was that the messages from Moyes and his staff are still not getting through. Why else would Rafael, such an accomplished performer under Sir Alex last season, go AWOL for Samuel Eto'o's second goal? Where was Jonny Evans as Gary Cahill rose unmarked from a corner to set up the third? It was Sunday league defending.
Players who would unblinkingly follow Sir Alex to a cliff-face without a harness are now searching for escape routes.
The immediate knock-on effect of bad results is disillusioned players. Eyes start to wonder. Agents get busy. The likes of Rooney and Robin van Persie, to name two, have a strong sense of self-worth and it is difficult to see them hanging around if United are playing in the Europa League next season.
There will be answers to be found in the transfer market, and, with a kitty of £150m available to spend over the next two windows and the capacity to offer £250,000-a-week salaries, Moyes can afford to shop for bespoke talent. He can also offload those players who, through the natural progression of time or various inadequacies, do not have what it takes to remain a United player.
With a six-year contract and the full backing of the club, Moyes has time to make his mark.
The board think he is good enough. Even the matchday fans have given him their almost unqualified support. His biggest problem now is to prove to the players he is up to the job.
CORTESE UNDONE BY HIS THIRST FOR POWER
The information tornado from the south coast that accompanied Nicola Cortese’s acrimonious exit from Southampton demonstrated one thing: the Italian is as proficient at self-publicity as he is at running a football club.
By the time his three-month notice had been officially served, Cortese was being credited not only with the Saints’ climb 58 places up the league pyramid and one of the soundest recruitment policies in the Premier League, but team results, the technical development of the entire first-team squad and the well-being of the players’ families.
As one former chief executive noted, Cortese has a “rare mix of business and footballing knowledge”. People in the game talk of a driven, fiercely ambitious and far-sighted operator.
But it is stretching credulity to subscribe Southampton’s upward mobility over the past four years solely to the former banker charged with running the club bought with the fortune of Markus Liebherr.
Yes, many of Cortese’s bold decisions proved to be masterstrokes. He was smart enough to appoint the right football men and give them the tools to get on with their jobs. Yet Southampton, and the Liebherr family, paid a handsome price for his acumen.
Two seasons ago, when Southampton were a mere Championship outfit, the club accounts show Cortese was paid £1.6 million-a-year.
Given the subsequent strides made in the top flight and what sources say were the substantial performance-related bonuses that the former chief executive turned executive chairman wrote into his own contract, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the Italian was comfortably the best-paid executive in Premier League history by the time he fell on his sword. Even the long-serving executives of the Champions League clubs max out at £2m-a-year.
A volatile and divisive figure, Cortese upset many figures in the game with his aggressive style of doing business. He was hardly universally popular with his own staff, either.
These things matter to owner and new chair Katharina Liebherr, who, not unreasonably, wanted to stem the losses incurred by Cortese’s ambition and reduce his powerbase.
In a boardroom power struggle of this kind, there is ultimately only one winner. Even Cortese, the executive with the Midas touch, was not immune to it.
His reputation is such that he will no doubt be photographed in a directors’ box fairly soon. There is talk that he has a job in Italy lined up but, wherever he goes, Cortese will never have the power he had at Southampton.