Jury still out as David Moyes gets through Manchester United's nervy Chelsea encounter
High above the goal behind the Stretford End a banner proclaiming “The Chosen One”, a neat elevation of David Moyes in the vernacular of Jose Mourinho.
If nothing else it got straight to the point. In his first assignment as Manchester United manager at Old Trafford, Moyes was confronted by the man who many thought ideally suited to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. The two are the same age, 50, but have little else in common beyond their obsession with the game. Indeed, Moyes is in the odd position of being deserving yet unproven.
If last night was about making a statement, Moyes made a fair opening with the inclusion of Wayne Rooney in his starting line-up. Mourinho has enjoyed the destabilising propaganda campaign aimed at charming Rooney. He might not get his man but it creates the impression that he is in control of the playground, setting the agenda, forcing Moyes to react. He gave his response with the team sheet. The crowd loved that, and gave Rooney the old salutations. The Chelsea fans responded cheekily, shouting his name and singing, “We’ll see you next week”.
In the rousing welcome, and in the tribute to the late United goalkeeper, Jack Crompton, recruited by Sir Matt Busby to the coaching staff after the Munich disaster in 1958, Rooney was given a reminder of the traditions of this club and what it means to be a part of it. The manager told him he was wanted, the fans did the same, the rest is up to him.
Mourinho is a master of the dark arts, of course. He ambled into the night with his hands in his pockets as if walking the dog. He broke his stroll to embrace Ryan Giggs, as if they occupied the same exalted earth. All part of a game intended to demonstrate his special status. In the preamble he clothed condescension in compliments. Moyes is in his “best moment” as a coach, he said, which can be interpreted as a pat on the back for reaching his present station or a patronising hello to the big time.
Moyes has to wear all of this with a smile on his face. The only answer is to win. Mourinho is hardly in a bad place as the manager of Chelsea, but you suspect a part of him would have loved to be sitting where the Scot was last night, heightening still further his desire to get the better of his rival on a stage that might have been his.
If Rooney’s selection surprised, the absence of a recognised centre-forward in the Chelsea line-up also raised eyebrows. Was this another flourish of the master tactician or the workings of a coach too clever by half? The first 20 minutes told us little as both teams struggled to escape the circumstances of the night, the first time in almost 27 years that Ferguson’s gum-chewing countenance was not in evidence.
Moyes’ programme notes were full of shock and awe. Deference to the institution is OK as long as it does not get in the way of the job. Moyes was brought to lead. Respect for Ferguson, wide-eyed wonder at the numbers that are drawn to the United flame at home and abroad might provide harmless, PR sound bites, but that will not feed the frenzy if the stuff on the pitch does not keep pace with expectation. And in the first half it didn’t, despite the effort expended.
In his introductory comments Moyes returned to a well-worked theme, making much of his 1 July start date, of loyally seeing out his Everton contract before taking up his duties at Old Trafford. This is polite fan-speak. He would need time to get to know his new charges, to assess his squad before deciding how and where to reinforce, he said. Yeah, right David. As manager of Everton he would have known more about United’s players than Ferguson. How else would you stop them, as he did in the first game of last season?
Moyes was all owlish engagement on the touchline, kicking every ball, urging his team on. The selection of Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia told of a preference for industry over art. Both tracked back tirelessly but neither delivered the telling ball that would open up a compact and organised Chelsea team in the opening half.
United found some rhythm at the start of the second, Danny Welbeck twice engineering openings that deserved better reward. There was no discernible diminution in output from Rooney, who covered the ground with customary energy, defending like a dervish and knitting together the best of United’s early second-half raids.
Like a first date, this was probably a match best got out of the way. There were plenty of awkward moments, clumsy fumblings and unfamiliar reference points. Moyes on the touchline will take some getting used to for players and fans. Almost three decades of Ferguson’s combustible charm form some shadow from which to escape.
What Moyes needed was the visit of Stoke or Norwich, a low-key entry into life at Old Trafford with a greater chance of a calming victory. What he got was an encounter with arguably the greatest headline generator in the history of management. He survived the immersion and has a full six days before the next one, away at Anfield, a place where in a decade as manager of Everton he never tasted victory.