Approach with caution: Moyes’ defensive demeanour

December 7, 2013 Tags: , Reads 13 comments
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One of the themes of David Moyes reign at Manchester United is the criticism levelled at the new manager for his cautious predilection. Many fans have always believed that the Scot’s conservatism was bound to resurface at Old Trafford since this was one of the defining characteristics of his Everton reign.

To say Moyes has been exclusively defensive in his approach is unfair, especially in the wake of winning a European away game by an unprecedented margin of five goals. Yet, six months in, United supporters remain worried about the tactical outlook of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor.

Moyes has, at least, paid lip service to his obligation to honour United’s rich heritage of attacking football. It is a point he was keen to emphasise as early as the relatively dull 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford, and reiterated after the pulsating victory over Bayern Leverkusen 10 days ago. “It’s what I’ve been hoping to get more often,” claimed the Scot.

United fans were collectively ushered back into reality after last Sunday’s curiously erratic 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur. Defeat at home to Everton in midweek simply confirmed that Moyes’ hope and reality are poles apart.

It took a week for the memories of Moyes, purveyor of attacking football, to dissipate, leaving fans once again with a brand of football that errs towards safety first. This is, after all, a former centre half who spent £27 million on a battering ram only to employ him as a defensive midfielder.

It is important not to get carried away with characterising Moyes as purely a defensive tactician. Old Trafford has not yet seen two banks of four sat deep on the edge of United’s own box; even in the goalless draw with Chelsea the Reds looked more assertive than the visitors, with Mourinho strangely content to take a point.

Yet, the fact remains that as an attacking force the Reds have been far from potent this season, winning only three games by a margin of three or more since the start of the campaign, including the 4-0 defeat of an utterly toothless Norwich City in the Capital One Cup.

One problem is Moyes’ tendency to fall back on cautious tactics in the important moments of games. The most tangible example came in United’s 1-1 draw with Southampton at home, and Wayne Rooney’s substitution for Chris Smalling two minutes prior to Adam Lallana’s 89th minute equaliser.

The irony in this instance is that Southampton equalised from a corner, which might suggest Moyes made the right change by bringing on a central defender, but that football is a game that loves to confound.

In the end this change served only to highlight the manager’s favour for caution over attacking intent. Had the change been made five minutes earlier, with Rooney swapped for one of the more offensive unused substitutes – Javier Hernández, Shinki Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha were all available on the bench – it might have been United securing the 89th minute corner , pushing to increase a slender lead rather than protect it.

Moyes’ penchant for caution plays out in the lack of tactical variation and fluidity this season. The United manager is bound by his fondness for a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation that only ever evolves when it morphs into a more conventional 4-4-2. In reality any variation depends entirely on Rooney’s positioning.

In this observation there is real surprise in United’s performance in Leverkusen, with Shinji Kagawa tantalisingly elusive between the lines, Ryan Giggs creative and positive in his use of the ball and Rooney, positionally capricious. The Scouser was at once a goal-scoring threat and incisive in creating chances, as evidenced by his four assists.

This attacking vigour was possible in the seemingly rigid confines of Moyes’ 4-4-1 formation, although one of the reasons the Reds prospered in the BayArena was because the team played in an attacking style that was tremendously fluid. United’s players interchanged positions and passed the ball with imagination. The Reds’ build-up was no longer predictable and the home side struggled to gain any kind of foothold in the game.

This is why United’s performances in the Premier League this week have been so disheartening. Kagawa, given a berth in the number 10 role against Spurs and Everton, was subdued in both matches, while Valencia was erratic in north London.

Most worrying of all though is Tom Cleverley’s form, Giggs’ replacement in the starting XI at Spurs. The 24-year-old has not been able to build the promise of youth, with any hope that he is United’s next big midfield star dissipating quickly. The England midfielder’s passing lacks penetration, with the player set on shifting the ball sideways rather than looking to create any meaningful attacks.

Cleverley’s defensive susceptibility is a real problem too – he was nowhere when Jordan Mutch split United’s defence with, an albeit wonderful, through ball for Cardiff’s first goal a fortnight ago. At White Hart Lane Cleverley could not get close enough to Sandro to stop the Brazilian launching a swerving shot into the top corner.

Away from individuals, perhaps United’s problem is not in the choice of formation, but in its application. Giggs cannot play every match, or even be expected to reach the standard of performance he displayed against Leverkusen on a regular basis, and without Carrick United look devoid of ideas in a flat-footed central midfield.

This is one area where Moyes can break loose of his inherent defensive sensibility. Kagawa could, for example, drop into central midfield alongside Jones, giving United greater creative impetus at the cost of some measure of defensive stability. Alternatively, Moyes could mold his attacking players into a more interchangeable unit that is a match for the dynamic trio of Cristano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in 2008.

After all, Moyes has the talent at his disposal in Rooney, Kagawa, Nani, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj. It would certainly please many fans to see the manager abandon a degree of caution in his tactical approach.

The Scot’s use of substitutions is can be more positive too. Draws might have become victories in United’s games against Southampton, Cardiff and the away fixture with Real Sociedad if the manager’s changes had shown more attacking intent.

Don’t mistake the desire to see more attacking football as nostalgia either. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t end every game with four strikers on the pitch and a return to the gung-ho tactics of the late 1990s is unrealistic.

But some of the old United attacking exuberance would be a more than adequate antidote. Even if it is to at least allay the fear that Moyes actually prefers Chris Smalling at right-back to Rafael.


Jack - December 7, 2013 Reply

The Kagawa to CM point is one worth exploring, I think. Modric adapted to it at Spurs.

Jippers - December 7, 2013 Reply

a good read; no wonder we are struggling when Moyes is playing his “preferred 4-4-1” formation though 😉

Nicole O'Gorman - December 7, 2013 Reply

“: #unitedrant” very proud of @TomCottell

RedScot - December 7, 2013 Reply

Hi Ed good article my man.
I would just like to convey Old Trafford is no longer a feared fortress, teams are not intimidated at playing at what was once a raging cauldron of noise-passion and fight to the death, both on the field and in the arena.
Moyes to me is a good solid manager, as his history at Everton displays, but he lacks passion agression even in his after match talks, he is too calm – cool, with some of the lacklustre displays we have witnessed, he does not fire up the anger at the results we have achieved particularly at the ‘ Theatre of Dreams’. He seems to believe it’s okay to accept a draw at home in the league. As we sit 12 points of the Gunners, United lost once last season in the league I believe at OT.
I’m not knocking the manager-no way he is on a long-long journey a 6 year transition as he endevours to stamp is authority on the football club, after replacing the nigh on impossiblle challenge of 26.5 years iconic service. Yet the Scot does have to look up that East Stand ( Sir Alex Ferguson) from the dugout- intimidating – what. I ‘m chuffed Moyes has stopped referencing to the F word in his media talks, it’s your leadership we need Mr Moyes, be bold be brave, you are the custodian.
We can all take veiled swipes at Moyes in whatever way, Rio Ferdinand with team selection, gobbing off ( although I bet that’s out of context). In below all of this of course is the finances with our caretakers at the helm of the good-ship United as they happily rake in the shekels with Ed Woodward gathering in numerous investors to the United – brand. Sickening but that’s the state of play at numerous football clubs, as the Glazers appear to pull of the most amazing heist in football finance, without investing a nickel of their own. Leveraging what. The Yanks could possibly walk away with in excess of £ 2 billion and United fans are watching the team starved of a World class midfielder, which Sir Alex Ferguson in my opinion failed to address with Hargreaves a Bayer Munich crock playing no more that 40 games for United, Anderson failing repeatedly to step up, after a £20 m signing from Porto.
I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more sad-useless Brazilian, possibly when Stevie Wonder shaves his wife’s minge.But back to the point of the article, we are not in a great place but through to the last 16 of the money rich Champions League, which is brilliant, although to win the group is critical, we have seen Arsenal come second before and draw Barcelona; that went well then!

If Davie Moyes is to be the a real United manager in the realms of Sir Matt and Sir Alex he must proffer the United youngsters an opportunity to blossom at the club, players who must be wondering what the F have I done to be treated like this, Championship player of the season at Crystal Palace ( whom Fergie courted) securing promotion for the Eagles. Nick Powell a long term target by Mike Phelan and Sir Alex at the Railwaymen winning promotion for Crewe – loaned, to Wigan and on fire there. Why are they not performing at United? Fear steady old hands. A legacy of Sir Alex and the comfort zone, not dissimilar to losing Paul Pogba to Juventus or Ravel Morrison to West Ham, both now shining along with Zeki Fryers in north London with Spurs.

But at the end of the day, we are fed on a daily basis of these imaginary signings Manchester United will be making in these 31 tortuous days in January, nonesense – bluff – transfer talk to create site hits.
What we have though is Sir Alex Ferguson asking of us United fans and it’s hard not to defy him, ” Your job is to get behind your new manager”. Although you sometimes think you are swimming against a very strong tide of the social media sites, Twitter, Facebook: etc.
Self Publicists more interested in their own agenda than supporting our great club, through thick and thin!
I this season will be happy to achieve a Champions League spot as we look up Arsenal gloating, but I’m my minds eye remember the Tortoise and the Hare and check Manchester United’s last 10 games of the league campaign, all very winnable as hopefully Mr Moyes gets to grips what it means to be the boss of United and not throw in the fucking towel, in any match – contest.

Dayus D red - December 7, 2013 Reply

When he replaced smalling with Rooney against southhampton we drew. When he replaced Rafa with Januzaj against Everton we lost. You see, its not that straight forward. The team is just not good enough. We were all told by the great man to ” stand by our new manager”. But i doubt he will still be saying the samething if we failed to qualify for the CL.

momo - December 7, 2013 Reply

Moyes is destined to fail,first united have such an average squad save for RVP,Rooney,promise of Januzaj and dedicated Evra,secondly Moyes seems to think so much about not losing as shown by his tactical cautiousness,lack of identity in United’s play and lack of motivation skills,thirdly voices of discontent in the squad starting to surface Rio going mad,RvP transfer request.This recipe for disaster,

Amnon Zohar - December 7, 2013 Reply

We are skirting the issue. Dave Moyes and Manchester United are of opposing “cultures”. United is not going to change Moyes but Moyes seems determined to change United and to put his mediocre stamp on it. Before it’s too late and it probably is already a replacement manager must be searched out. There is no United without attacking football and before we become Moyes’ Everton we must make a change, All the talk about “He needs time” “transition” etc. is rubbish. Just look at Everton under Martinez. Guardiola didn’t need time, Benitez didn’t need time. Mourinho didn’t need time, Pellegrini didn’t need time, Pochetto didn’t need time. Stop being nice it is not going to work. Cultures don’t change they deteriorate..

momo - December 7, 2013 Reply

You could see from day one it wasn’t going work and what you are saying is spot on.On the brighter side he is doing more harm to glazers than United,but as a fan you care so much about how your team performs on the pitch.

Sushant - December 7, 2013 Reply

Yup Kagawa in CM should be tried….with Wazza n RvP upfront..

Bill - December 7, 2013 Reply

Moyes has until this time next year and if there’s no improvement he will go.

Bill - December 7, 2013 Reply

If he does go watch out for a Phil Neville/Giggs caretaker combo! Making Mike Phelan look like the new Klopp!

Akshay - December 7, 2013 Reply

You guys are brilliant. #Mufc #mufcfamily

Frample Tromwibbla - December 7, 2013 Reply

I’m fed up of seeing that fucking depressing expression on his face! Great reaction, btw, outplayed by Nufc! #MoyesOut

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