Caution marks a new United way
“We didn’t play for a draw, we played to win,” insisted Manchester United manager David Moyes as the Donass Arena emptied on Wednesday night. It’s the way he tells them, with not a flicker in the straightest face.
It was the second conference in succession that the Scot had drawn mirth from the gathered fourth estate. Little more than 24 hours previously Moyes had spoken of his time at Preston North End as if five years in charge of the Lancashire outfit was ample preparation for a difficult start Old Trafford.
Justification in the conceit came with a point claimed – the first Champions League draw any Premier League side has taken at the Donbass in the decade since Shaktar Donetsk dispatched Arsenal to emerge onto the European scene.
It was a point earned as Moyes’ side returned to the Scot’s coaching roots. Defensively, United’s back-to-basics approach, disciplined shape, and much improved performances were far superior to recent matches against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City. The Reds rarely looked under pressure even as a decent Shaktar outfit hogged possession in a tense second half.
But defending has only ever been one half of the game. The ying to a creative yang that is seemingly missing from United’s game under the new manager.
United stepped a point closer to the Champions League knock-out stages, but this was a side that managed just a single shot on target in eastern Ukraine, with just 42 per cent possession gained.
Moyes recounts a contradictory tale, but this was a United side content to wholly concede the impetus against Europe’s 15th-ranked team. And contrary to popular myth Shaktar has won just two home games in the past two years in this competition.
It was as if Moyes didn’t truly believe United could win. On Monday Moyes argued that United is “five or six players” short of winning the tournament. Wednesday served to underline the Scot’s point.
Still, time may prove the draw valuable in Group A, although the attitude said as much about United’s form and ambition in this year’s Champions League as the hosts’ quality.
“There’s a bit of disappointment that we didn’t see the game out,” the United manager said.
“But Shakhtar had a lot of pressure in the second half. I don’t think they really worried us but unfortunately in the end we gave away a goal. We had to be harder to play against than we have in recent games, and overall we were.”
United was certainly that.
Compact and disciplined, United rarely looked over-run in midfield – an area where Moyes’ side had suffered in successive Premier League defeats. Michael Carrick, sat at the base of United’s diamond, with Marouanne Fellaini and Tom Cleverley providing energy in midfield, to ensure United remained competitive throughout. It was an thoroughly conservative approach.
Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia remained vigilant on the wings, although the Ecuadorian failed to track his man as Shaktar equalised with 15 to go.
Fellaini, meanwhile, created an opportunist goal, spinning away from his marker to deliver a low cross that Welbeck stabbed home, although it was the Belgian’s sole contribution of note in a sloppy performance that lasted just over an hour.
Indeed, now a little over a month into his United career, the Belgian’s acquisition has created more questions than solutions provided. While the 25-year-old rarely tackles, and is far from a natural defender, he has contributed little in the attacking third either.
More concerning still, the midfielder’s lack of pace is such that Reds recalling the marauding forward, who caused United’s back four so much trouble at Goodison Park last season, might have caused to reconsider the memory.
The approach also left Robin van Persie desperately isolated – a lone striker too often half a pitch away from his colleagues. Little wonder United was reduced to feeding off semi chances and set-pieces.
Still, there were positives, not least a far more commanding performance from captain Nemanja Vidić than has been delivered of late. Vidić has suffered three serious knee injuries in recent seasons, blunting the Serbian’s pace, and forcing United’s back-four to defend ever deeper – a factor that for once suited Moyes’ tactics in Donetsk.
“We were hard to beat in all positions, not just at the back, but in midfield and wide, and that’s the way we have to play,” said the 31-year-old.
“We have to accept it has not been a great start. We have not been getting the performances we would have liked and we also have to be realistic enough to accept we have made some mistakes.
“Sometimes the results don’t come. Sometimes the performances don’t come. The most important thing is to defend right. If we defend well, I think we have a really good chance to win trophies.”
It is a sentiment with which his manager will concur. Moyes in a microcosm; a defender’s perspective on coaching, from a man who preached shape first in a decade at Everton. Function over form and substance often in lieu of style.
Expect not a return to United’s swashbuckling displays of the late 1990s, nor the panche of the 2008 trophy winning side. But then Moyes does not possess the same wealth of creative talent as Sir Alex Ferguson, nor hold a bank of credit that would enable the 50-year-old to take greater risks in his first European season.
This United side may have to come out of its shell if the Reds are to progress to the tournament’s latter stages, but for now supporters can expect a more pragmatic style than ever. This is an observation underlined by Moyes’ 90th minute substitution: defender Phil Jones for goalscorer Welbeck.
Yet, pragmatism and United remain uneasy bedfellows. While Sir Alex evolved United’s style to match the most circumspect on the continent it is one thing to park the bus at Camp Nou, as United successfully achieved in 2008, quite another to match the feat at Shaktar.