A night of mixed emotions for David Moyes as he watched his much-changed Manchester United beat Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, exacting revenge for the recent Premier League defeat in the process. The win, against a pretty much full-strength Liverpool, gives Moyes a little breathing space amidst the welter of criticism in the aftermath of United’s 4-1 derby-day thrashing by Manchester City. But, last night’s display merely papered over the cracks of the most pressing problem the new United manager faces, namely the shortage of invention in midfield. It is a tribute to Ryan Giggs’s fitness, desire and quality that he is still playing at this level on the eve of his 40th birthday. I am afraid it is also a stark indication of United’s urgent need of reinforcement in that vital area. The 1-0 win was a much-needed morale-booster for Moyes and his players, and yet another example of United’s ongoing never-say-die spirit, but the display did not address the big issue of the team’s shortage of ideas in midfield. You could see why Moyes wanted to sign Cesc Fabregas, from Barcelona, in the summer.
The warning signs were there last season when golden oldies Giggs and now-retired Paul Scholes were figuring so frequently. Tom Cleverley is an England international but still has to fully convince that he can be a major influence at Old Trafford. Antonio Valencia does not look 100 per cent confident after coming back from serious injury, Kagawa is quality but possibly lightweight, Nani continues to excite and exasperate in equal measure – you could see Wayne Rooney waiting for the simple pass that did not come, then watching, perplexed, as Nani did something extraordinary – and Ashley Young does not seem to have made the transition from Premier League to Champions League quality. In short, Moyes needs someone to complement the excellent Michael Carrick, United’s most consistent player last season, who was rested against Liverpool. The deficiencies highlight the absence of ‘forgotten’ man Darren Fletcher, the often unsung hero in whom Sir Alex Ferguson placed so much faith. Fletcher has been struggling with a health problem for the past two or three years and his continued absence has been a big loss, for this excellent athlete and fierce competitor, a player who is decent on the ball and who scores goals, was en route to being top class. Moyes said this week he needs two players – and you can bet that, come the January transfer window, the targets will be midfielders.
A big plus for Moyes was the return to starting action of the excellent Jonny Evans at centre-back. He and Chris Smalling did a good job against one of the league’s most dangerous attacking duos, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, who was back after his 10-game suspension. Evans, still a young man but already an experienced player for United, is very quick and I can see him putting huge pressure on Rio Ferdinand to be first choice alongside Nemanja Vidic. Even Vidic may have reason to start looking over his shoulder if Smalling gets the opportunity to play regularly. Lack of first team action is, it seems to me, all that is holding him back. It will be interesting to see who plays at centre-back at home to West Brom on Saturday, and even more so, who figures in midfield.
I was delighted for the Liverpool fans that they got to see Suarez in action again, even if the controversial Uruguayan looked a little rusty. I did not agree with the FA when they hit Suarez with the 10-match ban after his bite on the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not condoning such behaviour, far from it, but I believe it was more of a social, rather than a football, offence and, as such, should have been met with a social punishment i.e. a lengthy period of community service, working with kids in Liverpool and setting a better example than he did on the pitch that day. Fans of my old club Everton may find it ironical that I speak out in sympthay for Liverpool supporters. However, my view is that the hard-working, hard-up folk who shell out for a season ticket should not have been deprived for so long of the sight of a player who can go on to rank alongside Liverpool’s legendary strikers, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. For me, the most serious offence on the pitch is the blatant, over-the-top, potential leg-breaking tackle. Ask any player which he’d prefer, a bite on the arm – and Suarez’s misdeed was more of a petulant gesture than a vicious act, he didn’t even break Ivanovic’s skin – or a smash from behind against his knee and he will opt for the former. What Suarez did was distasteful – no pun intended. It was a red card offence and that, in itself, brings an automatic three-match ban. Had he served that ban and been ordered to spend time with the people of Liverpool, hopefully showing the better side of his nature, then I think justice would have been better served.