Sir Alex Ferguson generally knows when to ditch a player in decline. He realized that Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince weren't worth the trouble anymore and shipped them off. He saw that David Beckham had become too interested in being a celebrity. Out the exit door he went. He understood that Ruud Van Nistelrooy was restricting a young Cristiano Ronaldo's development. "Hello, Madrid? Here's another one for you." The old master knew how to buy low and sell high. He may sold have this team high too.
This is not to suggest that Sir Alex retired at the end of the 2012/13 season because he believed that this current Manchester United squad had reached its peak, merely that, for all the positive noises, Ferguson must have had an inkling that something was wrong. More than an inkling, probably, for the critics had their knives out all season for a group that coasted to a Premier League title. United shuffle the back-four too much. They rely too heavily on Robin Van Persie. Their wingers don't score enough goals, and the defense concedes too many. Too many of their players are past their prime, or ten years from it. They don't have anyone who can boss the midfield, or a credible alternative to Patrice Evra, or a big enough fire on which to toss the dead wood littered throughout the squad. From where we sit today, it is apparent that these were not the same wistful laments for a "vintage United", but rather valid criticisms of a gritty, determined bunch whose knack for a late comeback elevated them above the other flawed contenders.
United didn't play well against Everton or Newcastle, and they lost. No matter how many times they hit the post, Manchester United cannot countenance two straight defeats at Old Trafford. Perhaps last year they would have found a late goal and earned a result. But one suspects that team would have coped no better with injuries to Carrick and Van Persie. Let's put the mini-crisis into perspective. How much blame does David Moyes deserve? Sure, the new manager's cross-heavy style isn't creating as many chances as he would like, and that's troubling. He will need more time, just as he will need a few windows to buy the players to fill the cracks his predecessor so expertly papered over. Moyes said Sunday "These same players won the Premier League last season, but I'm new." Discount a slow-starting Marouane Felliani and Adnan Januzaj and he's right. The fans are largely pleased with the team selection; they are less pleased with the failures of some of Ferguson's favorite youngsters--Cleverley, Anderson, Buttner, and even Welbeck--to kick on and perform for their new boss. Moyes needs more from the players he puts out on the pitch.
As defeatist as it sounds, the current setbacks are almost natural: Arsenal and Liverpool matured, Chelsea are "special" again, Manchester City bought well, and a host of smaller clubs have improved their squads and their game plans enough to threaten United, home or away. This group, evidently, aren't a title-winning team anymore. Moyes must try to build one starting in January, and in his image. Yes, United fans, this is what a transition is like.
Meanwhile, focus switches to the eminently achievable task of securing Champions League football for next year. With Aston Villa, West Ham, Hull and Norwich up next for the Red Devils, the top four may be closer than you think.