In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall a phenomenon bubbled up in Eastern Europe called “ostalgie”, or nostalgia for the old east. Seized with ostalgie, citizens of the new world found themselves tiring of the glories of capitalism, with its treacly soft drinks, unfettered access to soft-rock music and a natureless ecstasy of identical consumer products; and yearning instead for the old certainties of communism, the gulag and mass-produced cardboard trousers. As recently as last year a majority of Romanians said they missed the murderous despot Nicolae Ceausescu. Presumably, again, because you knew where you stood and the statues were nice.
It goes to show you can miss anything if you really want to. With exceptions of course. For example there are to date no documented examples of what social scientists might call “Moyestalgia”, which is defined as nostalgia for the events and personnel of David Moyes’s time in charge of Manchester United over 10 grippingly doomed months between July 2013 and April 2014.
I think I know why this is. I think it’s because it was a terrible time when nothing good happened. But for the neutral there is still something grippingly cinematic about the basic category-mistake of Moyes at United, a man not so much out of his depth as tossed and tumbled head over heels in a vast tide of industrial-scale confusion. Squint and you can still just about see his pale, frazzled ghost wandering about on the touchline, still looking like a doomed wedding cake figurine in his sad blue suit, shouting at shadows, pointing at things that never happened, feeling the ground beneath his shiny little shoes shift and fall away.
At the end of which there is a still a chance to take a different memory from this. On the face of it José Mourinho’s current title contenders have almost nothing in common with the brown-paper-and-string stylings of the Moyes succession. From De Gea to Lukaku, through Bailly-Jones-Pogba-Matic and the controlled creativity of Rashford-Martial this second-season team has a classic Mourinho spine in place, those powerful interlocking units that have marked his most successful moments.
Almost nothing, but not quite. In the last few weeks it has been fascinating to see a couple of Moyesian hangovers integrated into the machine. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata were the only players signed under Moyes. Even at the time they seemed oddly mismatched, evidence in their silhouettes alone of a certain confusion. On the one hand an awkward, angular midfield wardrobe. On the other a technician whose entire career has been a triumph of vision and skill over his own slight physique.
In the years since both players have been a little bruised and marginalized. Mata and Fellaini are both 29 now and in the last year of their contracts. No other player has come to United for that much money and stayed for this long without winning a league title (even Juan Sebastián Verón got one of those). For all the good moments, they are still on some level, a part of the unforgiven.
Except there is a chance now for an alternative ending. Neither looks like a first-choice starter with everyone fit. But both have become functioning parts in a team that has drawn drooling reviews for its power, its unity of purpose, the sheer relief of no longer looking like an odd-job of high-priced parts. This is in its own way an act of genuine team building, the ability to integrate a pair of wobbly wheels and weld them to the main frame.
Even then Mata and Fellaini stand out. And not only for that air of shared survivor-dom but for something agreeably timeless and touching, a little soul, a few scars. If Fellaini can recover his fitness in time they may even appear against Crystal Palace on Saturday, yoked together on the touchline like an odd-couple man-child double act in a Steinbeck novella. Watching the pair of them answer questions in front of the post-match cameras you half expect to hear things like: “I’m sorry mister my brother he gone strangled your rabbit he don’t mean no harm he just kinda clumsy whoah put the gun down mister.”
Perhaps just me, but something does seem to be working here. The last time Manchester United lost a game that Fellaini started was the 4-0 to Chelsea in October 2016. Of his last 45 first-team appearances only three have ended in defeat. One was as an 89th-minute sub in the EFL Cup semi-final second leg. Another was the FA Cup game at Chelsea where Ander Herrera was sent off. The last was against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup in August, when United actually “won” during Fellaini’s 35 minutes on the pitch.
Still, though, Fellaini divides opinion. Some see a blunt, stodgy, elbow-flailing obstacle. Others see only his bad points. But he is a high-class team player when the system works for him. This season he has seemed to do a little less to good effect, having fewer shots, fewer fouls, fewer headers, holding his position and still able to reel out his most outstanding quality, that astonishing Velcro chest control, a footballer with a chest like a hand, able to rise like a huge, angular sea and simply clutch the ball out of the sky with a wriggle of the shoulders.
Mata is obviously a different type, all bandy-legged fine-point craft. His time at Old Trafford has been a bit easier, maybe because he looks like a United player, maybe because he is such an endearing, likeable figure, and maybe because he’s changed a bit. The idea Mata doesn’t track back should always be judged against the fact hustling and harrying for 90 minutes is so much harder for a player of his size and stamina. But this season he has clearly taken the Mourinho pill. These are early days, of course. We are still grinding through the high gears. If a United title challenge does come Mata-Marouane will add another shade to the pursuit, plus perhaps a deeper emotional tone. It is easy to dismiss footballers’ finer feelings, to see only pampered traveling contractors. But these are still creatures of ambition and anxiety. Both Mata and Fellaini may end up with more appearances for United than any other club by the end of this season, the current febrile four-year spell the dominant segment of their careers. Whatever happens this could, in its own way, end up a redemption story. Perhaps even – the pallor, the panic, the ghosts – a minor sporting exorcism.