LONDON: Manchester United were always in for a testing season. A new manager, a new chief executive and a late start to the summer transfer race which left the squad weakened by comparison with strengthening Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
The dropping of occasional points were expected as David Moyes learned about his players at first hand, rather than from his usual view as a regular, spectating visitor to Old Trafford while he was boss at Everton.
What was not expected was that, so comparatively early in the season, the champions handed over by Sir Alex Ferguson would be slipping into midtable, a significant double-figures distance from the leaders.
Still, his position is not in danger. United’s board has made it clear that he will have his own money to spend in January and next summer so he can build the squad he wants.
Moyes insisted his side were still in the title race after Saturday’s 1:0 home defeat by Newcastle but the evidence of two home defeats in four days and the first rumbles of discontent from the dressing room revealed a chasm opening words and facts.
After Yohan Cabaye’s goal gave Newcastle a first victory at Old Trafford since 1972, Moyes said: “I stand firm that we’ll be very close to the title race and I hope we’re in and around it at the end of the season.” When asked why he was so confident, Moyes replied: “The players – because I am working with the champions.”
But one of those champions has already broken cover.
Veteran central defender Rio Ferdinand went public with criticism of the manager’s preference for naming his team line-up much later than Ferguson.
Ferdinand said: “The old manager used to give you a kind of a little bit of an idea if you’d be playing and stuff. When you know you’re playing, the intensity goes up a little bit more on match day and that’s what you need to try and make sure you’re doing, even if you don’t know you’ll be playing, to try and get to that intensity you’d be at when you know you’re playing.
“It’s hard to do that mentally because you spend a lot of nervous energy thinking, ‘Am I playing or am I not playing?’, and you’re just going round in circles in your head and turning into a madman.”
Moyes shrugged off Ferdinand’s remarks but presumably they will re-enter his thinking later in the season when his mind turns to refreshing his playing squad. But it was significant: there is no likelihood that Ferdinand would have talked out of turn in this fashion under Ferguson.
The midweek defeat by Everton, extra painful because it was his old club of course, had prompted Moyes to make seven changes for Newcastle. One was enforced by the suspension of Wayne Rooney but that was compensated by the return of Robin Van Persie after missing four games through injury.
United, however, struggled to break down the Magpies. Patrice Evra headed against the post before Cabaye converted Moussa Sissoko’s cross. Defeat meant United had dropped 13 points out of 24 in front of their own fans this season and suffered back-to-back league defeats at Old Trafford for the first time since the end of the 2001-02 season.
On that occasion the title was already lost and United finished third. At the present rate they will do well to match even that finish.