Few who saw Manchester United’s performance against Olympiakos in the Champions League last week would have argued that it was anything other than their worst performance for quite some time. And considering some of their showings this season, that is saying something.
From the starting XI, only Nemanja Vidic and David de Gea played anywhere near their potential, while substitutes Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa got stuck in but could not alter the outcome.
United manager David Moyes had previously spoken about his hopes of winning the trophy, but now it will take an almighty effort just to reach the quarter-finals, with his side currently 2-0 down going into the second-leg.
Moyes said the performance surprised him, and those who had seen United’s win at Crystal Palace a few days previously may have agreed.
But there was a big difference between the side who played at Selhurst Park and the side who were embarrassed in Greece. In fact, there were three differences.
While United’s goals against Palace came from Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, their performance was inspired by the trio of Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini.
The former Everton player may have received plenty of criticism following his £27.5million move from Goodison Park, but against Tony Pulis’s side, he impressed. While United’s club-record signing Mata pulled the strings and Januzaj was a constant threat in his first start since early January.
Mata was cup-tied for the Olympiakos match, while Januzaj was not included and Fellaini spent the 90 minutes on the bench, leaving Moyes to rely on a side made up entirely of players he inherited.
And there it is in a nut-shell: United’s three best players against Palace had not played under Moyes’ predecessor. Januzaj had been at the club under Ferguson, but it was Moyes who threw him in at the deep end, while Mata and Fellaini have only recently arrived.
It has been said that there will be considerable changes at Old Trafford this summer, and in truth there needs to be. The midfield needs an overhaul and the defence will look markedly different come August with Nemanja Vidic on his way and Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand tipped to follow.
But the silver-lining for Moyes is in the performance of those players who are, in essence, his players, along with Wayne Rooney (who Moyes knows well from their time on Merseyside) and the outstanding De Gea.
Once he has a whole team of such players, then we can judge him, but not before.
image: © Jenny Leigh