Manchester United’s record-breaking 5-0 win against Bayer Leverkusen last Wednesday marked the 20th game under David Moyes, and despite a shaky start to the campaign, the Reds are now on a decent run, with Moyes’ side unbeaten in 12 matches. With 20 down United has played enough games for Moyes’ tactical vision to emerge – there are significant departures from his Everton set-up.
The most conspicuous change in Moyes’ approach at Old Trafford is his use of United’s defenders. The Scot’s strict ‘two bands of four’ system was abandoned after the Reds’ 4-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad, although Moyes has persisted with a 4-4-1-1 system, or thereabouts, in the following weeks.
United’s perceived defensive vulnerability at full-back, particularly Patrice Evra, led Moyes to instruct his defenders to tuck in during the early weeks of the season. Defending the box a priority. The effect was to force United’s wingers onto the back foot and allow opponents to put the Reds under pressure. United’s 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield is a case in point.
In the weeks that followed the approach has changed, and United can now boast a more familiar set-up – one winger assisting the defence, the player on the opposite flank presenting a passing option.
However, in general Moyes has instructed his players to perform a functional role. Centre-backs and central midfielders hold their ground, with full-backs and wingers pushing forward in a well-drilled fashion.
But Moyes has adapted. At first, the former Everton manager tried to replicate an Everton favourite by instructing his wingers to cut in and full-backs push forward to provide width. Yet, Ashley Young and Nani failed to establish themselves in the first team and Antonio Valencia is not suited for the role.
Meanwhile, the diminishing athleticism of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand dictated that the side defended deep leaving Moyes’ wide men without the time or space to transform United’s two banks of four into a more flexible 4-2-3-1. The result: the Reds were often too slow to initiate attacks.
While Moyes gained notoriety for a direct approach at his former club, the Scot has become more cultured at Old Trafford over time. In general, United has played a careful possession game to establish a high line before playing aggressively to unsettle the opposition.
At Everton, Moyes preferred attacking full-backs who were also solid defensively, leaving favourites such as Steven Pienaar free to cut in knowing that the player overlapping him will do so while protecting the integrity of his team’s defensive shape. The system allowed Moyes to field a functional player like Maroune Fellaini in the hole to make late runs into the box.
Moyes faced a different challenge at Old Trafford, where the Scot could not afford to instruct his wingers to cut in without exposing Evra and his counterpart on the right. The knock-on effect was felt through the team. With little support, Wayne Rooney at 10 was forced to roam into the channels to overload the flank. Meanwhile, United’s central midfielders were forced to sit deep, while Robin van Persie was left isolated.
The Scousers role is particularly interesting. Despite another summer transfer saga, Rooney quickly established himself in the first team, with the vast space between the his strike partner and central midfield, widened by two wingers hugging the touchline, there for the former Everton man to navigate.
Yet, the recalcitrant striker has never been particularly good at holding up the ball, nor has he ever been a trequartista truly linking the midfield with attack.
It was a strange decision, then, in the opening weeks to shun Shinji Kagawa. Even in Rooney’s absence, seemingly more dependable players like Danny Welbeck were preferred to the sublime Kagawa at number 10. The Japanese does not present an aerial presence and Moyes’ preference for brawn perhaps makes sense given the United wingers’ inability to penetrate central areas.
Still, it is Rooney’s inability to maintain possession that has opened the door for the Japanese. The lack of a spare man in the middle restricted options for United’s holding midfield two. By contrast, Adnan Januzaj or Kagawa deployed on the left, with each keen to cut inside, presents a passing option that enables United to push up.
There are consequences though. Evra’s surges towards the byline masks the lack of width, but with Kagawa or Januzaj on the left United is undoubtedly more vulnerable in defence. The set up can also drain the Reds of tempo, with United too often playing in front of the opposition, struggling to break sides down.
United’s victory in Leverkusen may be a turning point, with Kagawa starting in his preferred central role for the first time since Moyes’ arrival at Old Trafford. The former Dortmund player had an excellent game as well. United’s wide men stretched the German side, affording Kagawa ample space in which to operate. Crucially, the playmaker’s quick feet injected pace into United’s attacks.
Rooney’s indiscipline also contributed greatly. The Liverpool-born striker does not possess the pace of yore, but he remains a far more mobile player than van Persie. Rooney’s constant running unsettled Leverkusen’s defenders and the team exploited the panic by putting five in the net.
This tactical indiscipline is often masked by the term “passion.” Yet, on the pitch, composure is often of far greater value than any zeal for running. As a forward on the shoulder of last defender, however, Rooney’s workrate is a major asset.
It leaves Moyes with plenty of questions. While van Persie is far better technically, the Dutch does not have the forcefulness that makes Rooney so effective up-front. Indeed, in the current set up Moyes will probably benefit more from using Rooney as the leading striker than van Persie.
Not that dislodging the two-time Premier League top scorer is anything but a larger political nightmare than the Rooney saga. Yet, with Kagawa now in the mix and Welbeck lurking, Moyes has much to think about. The good news is that the new United manager has continued to grow into the role.