How United could benefit from the long ball
David Moyes is withstanding significant criticism due to the listless performances of Manchester United under his management this season. The former Everton manager has continued to garner support from within; including Sir Alex Ferguson, meaning the United manager is likely to continue in charge of the reigning English champion for the foreseeable future.
Whispers to the contrary, however, are picking up. Indeed, changing manager now leaves little to lose regarding United’s hunt for trophies and the rapid appointment of a new man could allow early assessment of the squad ahead of the summer transfer window. After all, Moyes’ lack of time in the job has been offered as one excuse for United’s failure in the market last summer. A second Maroune Felliani-style farce cannot be tolerated given next season’s importance to United’s long-term future.
Reports that Moyes has lost the dressing room have emerged, while Robin van Persie’s open criticism of United’s tactics has added fuel to the fire. Realistically, the Scot will not suddenly grow into a manager that commands respect of some of the planet’s finest talents and a new man – Louis van Gaal is the latest suggestion – could at least fire up the playing staff, if only temporarily.
Andre Villas-Boas is another manager linked with Old Trafford, having been sacked at Tottenham Hotspur despite boasting the best winning percentage in the club’s Premier League history. The former Porto manager is famous for favouring a ‘score one more than the opposition’ approach and the Stretford End would probably embrace the style should an unlikely appointment take place.
Villas-Boas popularized the term “high block” and his fanatical obsession with a high defensive line cost the 36-year-old the Chelsea job in 2012. The “Football Manager” aficionado considers the second ball critical in attacking football and deploys a sometimes ludicrously high line to regain lost possession as quickly as possible.
The quintessential Villas-Boas side features dizzyingly fast transition from back to front, and his forwards are allowed freedom to express themselves. Should the first salvo fail to bear fruit, the ‘high block’ enables his midfielders to press and regain possession. As such, Villas-Boas’ teams take advantage of any opposition dragged out of shape by the first phase of play.
Moyes is another manager appreciative of opportunities provided by the second ball. However, unlike the Portuguese manager Moyes prefers his team to maintain its defensive shape and rely on crosses to initiate attacks.
Villas-Boas is not likely to replace the Scot, but Moyes has much to gain by recognizing the key element of the Portuguese manager’s philosophy – speed. United boasts one of most potent forward line-ups in Europe and goals could come aplenty should the Reds focus the play in more advanced areas.
However, John Terry’s struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ methods suggests that United defenders will not be able to maintain a high line either – at least not with the current ageing personnel. In addition, United’s engine room has been stuck in the first gear since 2007, and thus duplicating the former Tottenham manager’s template is simply not feasible.
Instead of successions of quick, short passes into the lone striker, United could adopt a more British approach to deliver the ball from back to front – the long ball! United has already become much more direct under Moyes, but there is an argument for taking the long ball game to another level.
By launching the ball long, quickly, United can retain defensive shape, cope with a static midfield, and rely less on full-backs carrying the ball forward, while involving van Persie, Mata and Wayne Rooney more in the final third. The holding midfield duo can free Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to run past markers in attacking areas, receiving the ball from van Persie, who has the first touch to control hopeful punts forward.
While there is little height in the final third, Rooney and his fellow forwards are “number 10s” at heart and could tiki-taka their way into the box from an advanced position. Midfielders sitting deep can work the second ball by pelting clearances back into the final third or utilizing advancing full-backs to create width.
In theory, a more direct game can solidify the defence, suit United’s forwards’ natural game, and quicken the tempo, while providing two ways to take advantage from clearances – via a plethora of ‘number 10s’ or full-backs on the run.
Moyes seems to be fully aware of the problems caused by a cautious transition and the former Everton manager has experimented with various tactical systems to utilize central areas of the pitch. Yet, United’s continuing woes have forced the Scot into bypassing midfield entirely to build up the tempo. One suspects Moyes would not hesitate skipping even the transitional build-up phase with points now needed desperately.
Indeed, the Scot has built his career as a pragmatist and his experience is needed at this crucial moment. Tottenham is being managed by a caretaker boss, while in the past two seasons Liverpool and Arsenal have failed to sustain early season form. United could yet fluke into the top four, but only with a plan. Sir Alex took considerable risks to force a favorable result when needed – it is now time for Moyes to emulate his predecessor.