Excuses starting to run thin for David Moyes at Manchester United

Gap between manager's rhetoric and team's on-field performance grows ever starker

David Moyes of Manchester United shows his dissapointment as his side lose at Stoke City on Saturday. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
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Beauty, famously, is in the eye of beholder. So, it would appear, is a high level of performance on a football field. David Moyes thought Manchester United played well at Stoke on Saturday.

Very few others did. This was not playing well. Not by United’s standards. Nor, for that matter, by Everton’s, and not just Roberto Martinez’s re-branded, more stylish side. Moyes’s coherent, committed Everton had a habit of drawing at Stoke. His disjointed, demoralised United deservedly lost.

His was an odd appraisal and one that leaves United with a worrying gap, and not just the seven-point distance that separates them from Liverpool, in fourth place. The bigger issue is the credibility gap developing around Moyes.

His problems are mushrooming. They began in the transfer market last summer, expanded to the pitch in an awkward autumn and winter of discontent. Now they extend to the press-conference rooms Sir Alex Ferguson rarely visited.

Moyes insisted he was pleased with the performances in the January losses to Tottenham and Chelsea. Strangest of all, he insisted United played well in September’s wretched defeat at Anfield. He was fooling few, unlike his garlanded predecessor.

Unreasonable rhetoric became one of the tools of Ferguson’s trade. It is a moot point if his outbursts were diversionary tactics that deflected from the real issues or simply bad-tempered rants, but winning 13 league titles and two Uefa Champions Leagues meant millions believed his every utterance, no matter how intemperate.

Moyes’s record offers him no such advantage. He is replacing the irreplaceable, a task rendered all the harder by not being Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese, like Ferguson, has the ability to dictate the narrative, even – or perhaps especially – in defeat. Moyes has neither Mourinho’s rapier wit nor his mischievous streak. The Chelsea manager can be a convincing conspiracy theorist, voicing outlandish ideas with the certainty of a zealot. He has the stature that such comments garner support among the diehards.

Moyes is different. Upright and direct, his character was a reason to appoint him while others boasted superior track records. If Everton were a gritty northern drama where Moyes’s downbeat realism seemed suitable, United represents a blockbuster, complete with the improbable endings Ferguson scripted. Moyes’s preference for reducing expectations plays less well on the big screen.

Honesty had long been one of his great merits. Ferguson and Mourinho-esque attempts to rewrite history were rarely his approach at Everton. So if his honest assessment is that United played well at Stoke – or against Liverpool, or in other setbacks – he is gravely mistaken and it should be a major cause for concern.

In their lamentable defence of their title, United have played well, but only on a handful of occasions: the opening-day victory at Swansea, during the October comeback against Stoke, in the three-goal salvo at Fulham and, eight days later, on the November afternoon when they defeated Arsenal.

There is a case to be made for the win at West Ham and for periods of the draw against Tottenham. Even if they are included, that amounts to only six fine performances. At most, they have played well in a quarter of their league games.

The common denominator is that none are recent, either. During the past two months, the problem is not just that United are not progressing, but that they are regressing. Many a Moyes team has improved over the course of a season. This one seems to get worse.

A greater exposure to his management and methods has, if anything, made United look less and less like a champion team. The sole boost to his standing was the recruitment of Juan Mata, and the mediocre display at Stoke meant the feel-good factor generated by a £37 million (Dh224m) signing lasted one week. It was an expensive form of therapy.

Instead, the sense now is that Moyes is not sure where best to use Mata when Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are available. A coup has led to confusion.

Each was upstaged on Saturday when Charlie Adam scored a wonderful winner, contributing to Moyes’s claim United were unfortunate, although, if Van Persie scores a world-class decider next week, presumably he will not argue victory was lucky. While Adam’s other goal was deflected and Moyes lost the services of two injured centre-backs, the Scot ought to reconsider his statement that this is the worst run of luck he has had.

Granted, United ought to have had a penalty against Tottenham, but Moyes seems to have forgotten United could have ended both legs of their League Cup semi-final against Sunderland with 10 men and that Rooney should have been sent off in the opening minutes at Cardiff.

He has suffered from injuries but has a squad with too many injury-prone players, so it ought not to be much of a surprise. If he looks outside Old Trafford, he will see that Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton are depleted more by injuries now and are coping rather better.

But, then, Moyes was a man who used to eschew excuses. After forging a reputation based on honesty, he ought to recognise that United, seventh in the league after suffering eight defeats, are precisely where they deserve to be. If he cannot acknowledge that, it will only further the image of a manager struggling with the realities of life at Old Trafford.