Imagine for a moment a Manchester United side without Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney. In the kind of thought experiment common in pubs throughout the land consider, if you will, whether United could actually be better off without two of the finest strikers in Europe? Odd as the premise may seem, there is growing evidence that some of United’s more exciting performances in recent times have come when David Moyes’ hand has been forced into change by injuries.
None more so than at St. James’ Park on Saturday where the Reds hammered Newcastle United with a brand of dynamic, flexible, attacking football rarely seen under the new management. Neither Rooney, nor van Persie were available and, perhaps more pertinent still, United spent much of game without a traditional winger in sight.
This was a performance far flung indeed from the risible avalanche of crosses delivered against Fulham at Old Trafford in January, where United lobbed in more than 80 to such little effect that Cottagers defender Dan Burn compared it to Conference level football. Such has been the pattern for most of the campaign.
Indeed, at the heart of United’s performance at St. James’ was £37 million January acquisition Juan Mata, the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj. Each man has a legitimate claim, and talent, to be United’s ‘number 10′; each seemingly lies behind Rooney in the pecking order for the role. Yet, in the north east the trio worked in tandem from the 18th minute on to devastating effect as United ran out comfortable winners.
While Januzaj’s form has waned a touch in the new year, Kagawa and Mata are growing as a pair with each passing game. The Spaniard was deployed through the centre against Newcastle, and Japanese nominally off the left, although in reality the formation for the final two thirds defied any real systemic label. Januzaj’s introduction created a flexible triumvirate that has little obvious resemblance to Moyes’ typical formation – one that history suggests the Scot is loathe to deploy.
Mata has become the perfect complement to Kagawa in the past month rather than, as popular perception might have it, the former Borussia Dortmund player’s replacement. “Its a pleasure to play with Shinji Kagawa, we connect very well,” said Mata of the growing partnership. In Januzaj the pair has a teammate very much cut from the same cloth.
And the Spaniard has certainly benefitted from the more central role proffered after van Persie’s latest injury. “I don’t see myself as a proper winger,” Mata told ESPN last month. “I love to play between the lines as a number 10, come inside, that is where I feel comfortable. I love to play in possession.”
He certainly did that at Newcastle, contributing 62 passes to United’s total of 531. Kagawa touched the ball 72 times, while the vital Darren Fletcher contributed 76 passes in the holding role. And while United remained direct – launching more than 15 per cent of balls long – the team played more passes in the attacking third than is often the case. In other words Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj are prepared to be more intricate in the build up than is typical when Ashley Young, Antonio Valenica or Nani are involved.
Kagawa, meanwhile, is still operating from the left, but as in the match at West Ham United last month, the Japanese is more likely to drift inside in Mata’s presence, seemingly stripped of – or simply ignoring – Moyes’ instructions to cover his full-back. It certainly aids the playmaker’s efficacy when United deploys two holding midfielders, with Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini starting against Alan Pardew’s side and covering as the visitors’ attack broke down.
“I played behind the main striker at Dortmund,” Kagawa told United Review last December. “I should be flexible enough to play in a number of roles, so I am a more attractive player to the team .” More pertinent still, Kagawa declared his desire to “play in the hole,” on signing in June 2012. “I feel like that’s where I play my best football.” Few will disagree.
But key also to United’s more dynamic approach at St. James’ was Javier Hernández’ presence. The Mexican is always on the move, whereas van Persie has become increasingly static this season as injuries and frustration bite. Rooney, meanwhile, has a tendency to slow United’s play down with long-range right-to-left passes into the space that Moyes venerates.
Hernández has been more frequently out of United’s first team than in it this season, but his ability to stretch the opposition and run in behind the back four proffered Mata, Kagawa and then Januzaj options for the final pass - and, with some irony, far greater space in which to run. A similar observation could be made of Danny Welbeck, who is less explosive than Chicharito, but offers defenders a moving target. Life without Rooney or van Persie might strip United of goals, but a more flexible attacking approach is certainly the upside.
Yet, there is also a school of thought that says Moyes is unlikely to start any of United’s more creative players against Bayern Munich next Wednesday. Mata will be ineligible, Januzaj will surely drop to the bench, while Kagawa’s presence is far from guaranteed. After all in the home leg Moyes preferred the physical defensive presence of Fellaini together with Ryan Giggs’ experience in midfield.
Moreover, while the best offensive approach against Bayern is often to squeeze play, winning the ball back in higher areas of the pitch and then breaking quickly, Moyes tends to take a more traditional view of the defensive art. United dropped so deep against the Germans last week that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić simply defended their own 18-yard-line. ‘Parking the bus’ may be an effective defensive tactic, but United needs to win or score at least twice in Munich.
Still, it would be strange indeed for the Scot to deviate from his typical pattern, and Moyes’ analysis of United’s away form this season hints at the Reds’ likely approach in the coming Champions League fixture. United will not be taking the game to Bayern in the Allianz Arena.
“Maybe there’s a big expectation at Old Trafford to go and be a bit gung-ho and play in a real attacking style,” suggested the Scot on Saturday. “We’ve lost a few games by narrow margins – 1-0 (to) Newcastle United, Everton. We’ve lost a few games like that, whereas maybe away from home there’s not as much expectancy to go and be like that.”
Yet, the Reds’ victory at Newcastle was the first time this season that Moyes’ side had actually beaten an opponent in the Premier League’s top nine away from home. Defeat at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, came alongside draws with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in north London. Fixtures with Everton at Goodison Park and Southampton at St. Mary’s will test United in the weeks to come.
In contradiction to the Scot’s analysis, Moyes’ tendency to approach difficult away fixtures with a defensive mindset may well contribute to United conceding impetus and possession to the opposition. In similar fashion the injured Rooney is likely to return in Germany, where Welbeck will be asked to reprise his role on the left, and Valencia is favourite to offer defensive cover from the right.
As such, while it was a pleasure witnessing Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj in tandem on Saturday, it is an approach unlikely to be repeated next week.
Data attribution: Opta/ESPN