New man at the Old Trafford helm turns from pragmatist to dreamer against Bayer Leverkusen and feels at home
Football managers tend to fall into one of two camps: pragmatists or idealists. Subtly nuanced variations of both schools dictate that, sometimes, the boundaries become blurred but the distinction is real.
People change, though. David Moyes's first Champions League match in charge of Manchester United frequently concealed his essentially pragmatic heart, confirming that the Scot's strategic default setting is moving inexorably towards the sophisticated end of a spectrum containing a wide array of peers, from Sam Allardyce to José Mourinho. "Compromise cleverly" could be its collective motto and Allardyce the high priest, but Moyes distanced himself from the more fundamentalist wing a long time ago.
The opposite camp is a similarly broad church and those housed beneath its roof include Roberto Martínez, Michael Laudrup, Arsène Wenger, Brendan Rodgers and Paolo Di Canio. "Philosophy first" seem their watchwords and Moyes may never quite be in full agreement.
For the latter group team-sheets and formations are frequently stirring statements of intent or evidence of bold experimentation. Moyes did not go quite that far here but, assisted enormously by an apparently rejuvenated, reassuringly lean Wayne Rooney who scored his 199th and 200th United goals, he emphasised that he has evolved considerably since an early autumnal evening in Romania eight years ago. Fearing being out-passed, his then Everton side opted to rely on set pieces, high balls and a five-man midfield and were duly thrashed 5-1 by Dinamo Bucharest in the Uefa Cup.
For a manager seeking his side's first goal from open play since the Premier League season's opening day and, more importantly, desperate to beat a Bayer Leverkusen ensemble coached by an old foe from Merseyside days, it was important that Moyes showed off his attacking credentials as a suitable heir to Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes may never comfortably fit the "tactical anarchist" label which Vicente del Bosque, then in charge of Real Madrid, once labelled Ferguson but, at times last night, he gave it a pretty good shot.
It helps having stronger players than he had on Merseyside but, although ostensibly configured in 4-2-3-1 guise, Moyes's men were afforded the freedom to rotate positions and systems. Sometimes Rooney drifted deep but more usually he pushed up alongside Robin van Persie, and with Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa flying forward there were thrilling moments when it looked like United were playing 4-2-4. Perhaps their manager was simply emboldened by the sight of Sami Hyypia, once a thorn in Everton's flesh at Liverpool, occupying the adjacent dugout.
Initially camping high up the pitch in Bayer Leverkusen's half and flitting regularly between opposing lines, United deserved to take the lead through Rooney, from open play too, albeit following a passing move featuring a couple of arguable offsides. On this evidence Mourinho's failure to prise the England forward away from Old Trafford can only aid Moyes's development on the European stage, particularly as the latter has clearly succeeded in getting Rooney properly fit.
There are caveats: defensive weaknesses, the need to make the most of Marouane Fellaini's central midfield aggression and the lack of the sort of brilliant improvisation with which Cristiano Ronaldo once lit up this stadium; but at least Moyes is clearly endeavouring to retain United's attacking identity.
Before kick-off much had been made of the fact that his sole Champions League experience had been being knocked out in a qualifier by Villarreal in 2005. Oh and three appearances for Celtic in the old European Cup decades ago. Hyypia, by contrast, was part of the 2005 Liverpool team which triumphed in Istanbul. Bayer Leverkusen's Finnish coach could not stop smiling as he emerged, tall and blond as ever, from the tunnel. As half-time approached, though, Hyypia chewed gum with a sort of Ferguson-esque manic intensity.
By now it was apparent that Moyes's European experience had improved considerably since that awful night in Bucharest when he looked in physical pain as he took his seat on the front row of the plane back to Merseyside alongside Bill Kenwright, the chairman and his partner Jenny Seagrove. Indeed as Moyes did his best shop mannequin impression, sitting ramrod stiff and staring straight ahead, Seagrove must have thought she had found a rival for Martin Shaw, her co-star of the then hit television series Judge John Deed, in the brooding intensity stakes.
Alternately sitting alongside Steve Round, Steve McClaren's assistant as Middlesbrough swept to the 2006 Uefa Cup final, in the home dugout and hovering on the edge of the technical area, Moyes cut very different poses here. Admittedly he is never likely to look laid back – he doesn't have the eyes for it – but standing, arms folded, in a sensibly hooded, black padded anorak, United's manager looked at home.
There were setbacks when Leverkusen scored, but a 4-2 victory only encourages the idealistic streak Moyes manifested early in his managerial career at Preston to keep on subduing his inner pragmatist.