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Jack: A huge win for Moyes and United's big club status

Kristian Jack
3/19/2014 6:36:57 PM
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It hit me this week.

There it was staring at me in the form of a magazine advert for posters.

Placed together as portraits were drawings of four high-profile football managers but one made me do a double take.

It wasn't long ago that the face of David Moyes, placed next to Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger, would not have made me think twice.

I have always hoped he would succeed, back to the days when I covered him as a manager of Preston North End.

Yet, heading into Wednesday's crucial game against Olympiakos, it was easy to look at him differently after what has taken place under his watch at Manchester United this season.

I am not a United fan but when I visited Old Trafford for their clash with Chelsea in August I was pleased that he had been given a chance.

"The Chosen One" sign hung proudly in the famous Stretford End and the United fans sung songs with his name in them and mocked the manager in the opposing dugout.

"You wanted the job...you wanted the job...Jose Mourinho...you wanted the job!"

Seven months on and the joke has turned on them. Oh how they must wish for Mourinho to be in charge of Manchester United today.

The same amount of home league wins as Crystal Palace. Fewer home league goals than Stoke, Swansea and West Ham. More than twice as many league losses than Chelsea.

"This has been a difficult season," admitted Moyes in his programme notes for Wednesday's home match against Olympiakos in the second leg of their last 16 encounter in the crown jewel of club football, the Champions League.

The official matchday programme had a message for fans before they even opened it saying, on the front cover, 'the Reds are determined to give everything'.

Inside the desperation reached new heights with a message from Moyes telling the fans to "make time wasting noticeable to the officials."

It all felt a little forced. Defensive, in fact. From a team full of stars who have underperformed this season, the one message they wanted to make sure they got across was that they would give it everything.

Manchester United expect more than effort but on a day when it felt like their manager's job was seriously on the line, this was the message they were given.

It was a night when more than a manager's job seemed in jeopardy. A club who this season have badly lost their identity, were in danger of losing their place amongst the sport's elite.

On Wednesday night they claimed back a little bit of both. Before Robin van Persie scored a terrific hat-trick, United were in danger of falling from the balcony hosting the greatest clubs in the world and hanging on by their finger nails.

Their position, outside the room, is not exclusively David Moyes' fault but an elimination on Wednesday would have certainly played a massive part in the eventual sacking of the manager, whether that would have been this week or in the summer.

The truth is United don't think they should be on the balcony, instead they think they should be inside hosting the party, but a home win against Olympiakos won't get them back in.

What it does give them is two more games to show if they can once again be back where they belong as well as a victory that this club badly needed, not just for Moyes, but for themselves.

To understand United's demise at the elite level it is important to look at their performances in the true big games. No United team should be judged on past victories over any team out of the top 7 of the Premier League.

For the purpose of this study, I looked at all of Manchester United's matches in the last six seasons against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham and their games in Europe, whether it be in the Champions League, Europa League or the European Super Cup.

Over the last three seasons (2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14) United have now played 66 of these 'big game' matches. They have won 28, drew 15 and lost 23 for a very disappointing win percentage of 42 per cent. They have been knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage and the last 16 in the last two seasons.

In the three seasons prior to this stretch (2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11), United played 70 'big game' matches. They won 45, drew 18 and lost 17 for a very impressive win percentage of 64 per cent. During this time they went to the Champions League final TWICE and lost in the quarter-finals on away goals to a team called Bayern Munich.

The alarm bells should have been sounded during Sir Alex Ferguson's penultimate year in charge when United were well and truly outplayed at Old Trafford in Europe by Benfica, Basel, Ajax and Atletico Bilbao. Likely, this was when Ferguson knew his time to retire was coming soon. He no longer belonged in the room at the top table with the sport's best clubs.

A collapse in April in two more 'big game' matches, 4-4 at home to Everton and 1-0 at Manchester City, gave away the title and Ferguson returned for one more year but the 'big game' cracks continued to show. The four previous seasons United had lost 24 'big game' matches combined – an average of 6 losses per season. Despite cruising to the Premier League title last season, United lost nine 'big game' matches in 2012/13.

Yes, they were Premier League champions but against the best sides they looked desperately short of genuine world class players.

Alarmingly, in the last 14 months, heading into Wednesday's match, they had played 27 of these matches and won just seven of them.

This is where the intense pressure fell on Moyes. This season, before Wednesday, in 18 of these games, his United team have scored more than one goal in a game only three times.

No wins in four games against Chelsea and Tottenham. One goal, from a set piece, in two matches against Arsenal. A loss at home to Everton and away at Manchester City and, above everything else, two losses to rivals Liverpool who absolutely demolished United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

All of these results, and specifically the performances, stayed with Moyes like bruises on the face of a prize fighter and with every new failure in a 'big game' his loyal supporters started to doubt him more.

Moyes wasn't just on the ropes on Wednesday night. He was on the floor facing a count to 10.

That's what makes the victory over Olympiakos so enormous. It is arguably the biggest victory in the career of Moyes. A victory that proves to himself, his bosses and his players that he can take charge of a significant victory in a 'big game'.

A loss would have capped off a nightmare season for United and the only way the club could have hung on to that balcony will have been to fire Moyes and blame him for their season.

Players care about three things. Money, trophies, and playing at the highest level. It is essential that Manchester United are always able to offer that.

If they had been knocked out on Wednesday they will have only had money in their hands to offer players who will have been worried to play for Moyes.

Yes, the 3-0 victory saved Moyes but it also saved United who have been treading water in big games for far too long.

It is clear star players need to come in to improve their record in those games but, perhaps, a star manager does not.

Wednesday's win is only one game but for Moyes it can help change perceptions that, perhaps, he belongs amongst the game's best managers without anyone looking at him twice.



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