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.