Resurgent United seek performances alongside results

Danny Welbeck

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”
Julius Caesar

As Paul Rideout arced his back to nod home the 1995 FA Cup Final winning goal it was the apex of Joe Royale’s managerial career. Everton broke so quickly, Anders Limpar and Matt Jackson combining to find Graham Stuart lurking around Manchester United’s penalty spot. The forward’s shot canoned off Peter Schmeichel’s crossbar to leave Rideout with the simplest headed finish. The spoils to Everton’s Dogs of War; and United’s hopes ruined for another season. It was the Toffees’ last major trophy.

What Royale’s dogs lacked in talent they alleviated in work ethic. David Watson, Barry Horne, Joe Parkinson and John Ebbrell, who missed the cup final, created a platform for Limpar, Rideout, Stuart and others in the three years from 1994 that proved to be some of Everton’s most successful in the ’90s.

In the years that followed David Moyes imitated Royale’s side in all but name; a competitive approach that so often focused on function over style. For Parkinson read Thomas Gravesen, Watson replaced by Phil Jagielka, Horne transitioned to Leon Osman.

When Moyes secure the Manchester United job this past summer it took only a small leap in logic to assume that the Scot might carry out a similar policy at Old Trafford. After all, while Sir Alex Ferguson left a squad replete with attacking talent it is a group not underpinned by a midfield base of similar quality. It was a stage set for Moyes’ ethic that preaches hard work and structure over fluidity.

Indeed, the first half of United’s campaign has been characterised by performances that have too often been laboured bordering on ugly, with the percentage game at the fore. Slick performances against Swansea City, West Ham United and Bayer Leverkusen have proven to be an exception, so rarely has United come anything close to the rich history of attacking, creative football that supporters have feasted on over the decades.

Still, Royale’s side was defensively sound above all, conceding just 44 times in 38 eight games in the 1996-97 campaign – 11 more than champions United. It was a trait that also characterised Moyes’ time at Goodison Park, with the former Scotland international always viewing the game through a defender’s eyes. For much of this campaign United has been anything but defensively solid; the 22 goals conceded by the Reds in the Premier League more than any of the top four.

Little surprise, then, if Moyes should seek to build from a defensive foundation in the second half of the season, with the turnaround in United’s recent results based as much on a watertight back-four as attacking performances. Four clean sheets have come in the past six games, Hull City proving an exception on Boxing Day.

“We needed the clean sheet and I thought we defended well,” said Moyes following United’s 1-0 victory at Norwich City on Saturday.

“Up until the game at Hull we had been defending really well, we had only conceded one goal in the league game against West Ham. Then we went to Hull and gave two away in 10 minutes.

“But if you look at us over the last month or so, we have actually been quite solid defensively and it was good to see them do it again. I thought they defended brilliantly well in the first half and they got some great blocks in when it looked as though we were in trouble, so they did really well.”

United’s performance at Norwich boasted none of the attacking verve many supporters seek. Often incoherent in midfield, with an attacking formation that broke down a key moments, United relied on an outstanding defensive performance to secure three points against the Canaries.

It is a solidity that has laid the foundations for genuine momentum in recent weeks. Six victories on the spin leaves United in confident mood ahead of the fixture with Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day. Eight points may now separate the Reds from the Premier League leaders, but it is a gap that at least feels relatively insignificant given the troubles that have afflicted Moyes’ side at times this season.

“We have gathered momentum, but the most important thing is to look towards the next game because you can’t get carried away,” said Danny Welbeck who scored United’s winner in East Anglia.

“The two wins are behind us and we just want to keep winning in the coming games. I think during the course of the season, you come across games which aren’t pretty, but you have to get a result. Getting the victory without putting in our best performance is a good sign for us.”

There is an inherent challenge here. United’s is a history built not only on the success of the past quarter century, but an approach to the game that is admired. The Busby Babes inspired a generation with a fresh approach to the game; ’99′s treble winners were underpinned by a carefree attacking policy unmatched on the continent.

Impetus is key, inspiration remains the goal. Indeed, so much of the season’s narrative will be wrapped in an assessment of the new manager. Moyes wasn’t everybody’s choice for the United post – a context that forms an operose challenge at which the Scot may never fully succeed.

Certainly, Moyes could have helped himself at times. The omnishambles of a summer, Moyes’ oft-negative tactics, United’s functional football, and tendency towards foot-in-mouth public relations has been at least partly of Moyes’ making.

Yet, in recent results there are growing signs that United’s players are finally fighting for Moyes’ cause, if not performing at their peak. This United side is a long way from matching the attacking verve of the continent’s best, let alone the neighbours in east Manchester, but its undoubtedly resurgent.

The key challenge for the campaign’s second half  is thus whether Moyes is able to get the best out of his creative players. In Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and even the perpetually frustrating Nani, Moyes boasts attacking talent in abundance. It is finally time to unleash more than the dogs.

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  1. Joe Royle this autocorrect or whatever you use in the US has let you down. Moyes would have got that right!

  2. Nice article, analysis a cut above the usual stuff out there. In fairness to Moyes and United, the first few months have been a baptism of fire and pragmatism may have to come first until we’re properly entrenched in the top 4.

    Moyes has a 6 year contract, I envisage a steady improvement from year to year. However, he will eventually have to play the United Way in order to carry on the club’s traditions (along with the development of youth), and this is something that can only be gauged over the next 2 seasons or so.

    Was just watching the 02-03 season review the other day, despite being up against it at the start and upto the middle of the season, we played some ferocious, beautiful, direct attacking football.

  3. Violent Banana says:

    Our record against the sides in the top 10:

    P9 W2 D3 L4.

    Tougher games are coming… lets hope our recent upturn isn’t simply down to the quality of opponents we were facing…

  4. Results will do just fine for now.

  5. Denton Davey says:

    Violent Banana @ 10:13: “lets hope our recent upturn isn’t simply down to the quality of opponents we were facing…”

    Winning the match against Spurs on NewYear’sDay is a must. Two weeks later it’s CSKALondon @ StamfordBridge where TheLads have been either lousy or unlucky or MartinFuckingAtkinson has been refereeing in his own inimitable way.

    Your point concerning the quality of UTD’s opposition in the past few matches is very much to the point – while the clear sheets have been good, the quality of the attacking play has been under-whelming.

    What’s desperately needed is encapsulated in Vishal’s comment about TheLads in 2003 – “ferocious, beautiful, direct attacking football”.

    For all the moaning about the woes in midfield, this year’s version just isn’t scoring enough AND the wingers are contributing the square root of sweet-fuck-all. If that changes then even a mediocre midfield won’t be an anchor.

    FWIW, the first step towards making that change has to be a move away from the winger-based 4-4-2, towards some kind of 4-3-3 in which TheWayneBoy is deployed as a rover, between two midfielders and three attackers. One hopes that AgentMoyes can figure out which players work best together and stick with a settled first-team so that the team can build on the momentum afforded by the last four wins.

  6. Hi Ed,

    It is refreshing to see United develop some momentum in recent times.

    Couple of weeks ago, United had found themselves in a position where breaking into the top 4 was a massive challenge.

    But now, United have clawed back their way and are in contention for the title now.

    David’s style of football, may not be pretty but he’s getting the results and credit to him.

    Long may it continue !

    Best Regards,

  7. I must say I’m torn between the comparison between our performances this season and last (don’t see much difference there, it’s not as if last year we performed well in too many matches or indeed played some fluent attacking football), and between my hope (albeit unfounded) that Moyes will aim to direct his United side to something different of what we’ve seen in recent years under Fergie, something that resembles some of Everton’s football under him (my classic example is always that 2-2 draw with Newcastle at the start of last season).
    So I’m wondering whether Moyes is just concentrating on steadying the ship at the moment or whether this is all we can expect.
    Because if it is the latter, than definitely that is not good enough.

  8. Denton Davey says:

    Jonathan @ 8:51: “I’m wondering whether Moyes is just concentrating on steadying the ship at the moment or whether this is all we can expect.”

    I’m something of an optimist so I’d like to believe that AgentMoyes has had to do a lot of “learning” which has, in large part, been about getting to know the players in this squad. He’s adopted a fairly cautious approach in giving most guys game-time chances to either grab them or else show that they just aren’t good enough In that sense, he’s not been “helped” by some inevitable injuries (especially to core players like Vidic/RVP/MC16) and a few matches in which territorial dominance has not been translated into goals.

    In regard to your corollary point – “that is not good enough” – I’m in agreement. Far too much of the play has lacked energy: what Vishal called “ferocious, beautiful, direct attacking football”. I said before that as long as UTD are wedded to the outmoded 4-4-2 – with radically-underperforming wingers – what we have seen is what we’re going to get.

    Now that MC16 and RVP and TheWayneBoy and MrJones are close to being fit enough to play together, it’s going to be really interesting to see how the front six get set up. I’d like to see something like a 4-2-1-2-1, although, of course, “formations” don’t translate into how the game is played.

    For me, TheLads have performed best when there have been two “sitting midfielders” and a “rover” playing between-the-lines. Giggs was masterful in this free-role against Leverkusen but, mostly, it’s been TheWayneBoy who has had his most dominant performances being given the license to roam.

    Playing a “midfield” of Carrick/Jones/Rooney will provide a powerful platform for a fluid, interchanging trio of attackers – in my view, AdnanJ/RVP/DannyTheLad have the most to offer even if this means marginalizing BOTH Chicharito AND KagawaBunga.

    As matters now stand, TheLads have taken just 34/57 points; to win the EPL they’ll probably have to take almost 50/57 points remaining. It’s a big-ask but not completely impossible. Doing that would be one gigantic “FUCK YOU” to all those who have prematurely written their obituary. And wouldn’t we all just love that ?

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