RVP under pressure as Liverpool looms

March 10, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments
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One of the most telling insights into David Moyes’ thinking came when the Scot told a reporter that he excluded Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion to “keep Rio and Vida for games coming up.” Managers should never to be judged by press activity alone, but the former Everton manager’s choices this season suggest that he views a deep-lying defense as a tactical requirement rather than a stop-gap measure to protect ageing legs.

The game against West Brom saw United win convincingly. Yet, United held a deep line despite youthful Phil Jones and Chris Smalling starting at the centre of defence, against one of the Premier League’s worst sides.

There were some knock-on consequences nuances too, such as how deep Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini dropped in the defensive phase, effectively becoming auxiliary centre backs as Jones and Smalling split wide at every opportunity. The move allowed Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to close down their opponents at will, but United’s defence was still repeatedly pulled around by West Brom forwards.

With the engine room pinned in its own penalty box, Moyes’ side persisted with the much criticised direct approach for much of the game on Saturday. The incumbent United manager, however, use three distinct methods of transition and was rewarded with three goals.

On the left Evra consistently tried to hit the ball long to release Adnan Januzaj into attacking areas. While the youngster failed to fire on his return to the side the right flank proved to be more fruitful.


Meanwhile, David de Gea abandoned his more natural short passing game to directly engage the right flank, with Fellaini motoring forward to support Rafael.


Rafael to Fellaini was the most frequent passing combination of the match. The Brazilian frequently brought the ball forward and the Belgian midfielder overloaded the flank, holding up the ball and gaining time for Rafael to advance. Juan Mata’s usual natural movement towards the centre vacated the space for United’s full-back to fill.

But it was movement from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that won the game for United. Rooney dragged defenders out of position from his starting role at ‘number nine’, while contrary to expectation van Persie began a little deeper, arriving late into the box during an hour on the pitch.

The strike partners took turns making runs behind the midlanders’ defense and often made contact with the ball unmarked. Time and again United’s forwards received long balls on the run and took full advantage of the disarray in the home side’s back four.

Yet, with Carrick and Fellaini sitting deep, Mata and van Persie were too often isolated through middle. It is a strategy unlikely to inspire either player given the complete isolation forced on them.

Evra and Januzaj also had a quiet game, with the Frenchman frequently misplacing passes to the winger ahead. Fellaini’s brawny presence, together with Mata’s creativity, leaves the  right flank as United’s most likely route to goal against Liverpool next weekend, although the former Everton midfielder’s form has been far too patchy to place much faith in him.

But while United’s upcoming game against Liverpool must be won to sustain any chance at qualifying for the Champions League next season, the Merseysiders’ rear-guard will be nowhere near as porous as West Brom’s.

If only to stifle the space Liverpool’s number 10 can exploit, United’s midfielders must be more disciplined in their positioning next week. With the engine room operating in defensive mode rather attacking the opposition box, Evra, van Persie and Mata will be in a better position to offer the variety required to breach the Scousers’ defence.

While long ball approach is not known for its accuracy, United must spend more time in the final third, if only to relieve the likely pressure on the back four.

In attack van Persie’s frustration was obvious at the Hawthorns, with the Dutchman making a series of rash tackles that could have led to a dismissal. Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball limits his usefulness in certain areas, but the Liverpool-born forward’s diligence in dragging the opposition defence out of position cannot be replicated by van Persie. As such, it would surprise few if the former Arsenal man began next week’s fixture on the bench.

Indeed, Welbeck’s physical presence is arguably required more than van Persie’s finesse. The academy graduate’s defensive nous will surely appeal to Moyes too.

Meanwhile, on the flanks it is likely that Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young – or both – will return against Liverpool this Sunday. After all, the under-fire United manager has long been accused of distrusting flair players. The Ecuadorian has often been used by the Scot as an out ball on the right flank – another target for De Gea to hit. It might just be very welcome given the current set up.

Deploying Valencia will also free Fellaini from supporting the right flank, enabling the 6’4″ midfielder to use his brute force in more central areas. The Belgian has not enjoyed a strong season, but he allows more mobile players some freedom.

Mata, for example, could be used in his preferred position at ‘number 10’ next Sunday. The Spaniard is a proven goal scorer and his experience playing with Eden Hazard could be put to good use closer to Januzaj on the left. In fact, much could be gained by dropping van Persie – after all, it’s the approach not United’s finishing that is causing more problems right now.

Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League is not a foregone conclusion, though realistically unlikely. Still, the time for experimentation is long gone and van Persie’s ego cannot be prioritised over desperately needed victories. In any case, the Dutch striker can be deployed in Europe where the general lack of tempo suits his natural game more.

And aesthetically pleasing football can wait six months too – a manager used to working with technically gifted footballers could have replaced Moyes by then anyway.


James - March 10, 2014 Reply

I think playing Mata behind Rooney is a good option to test out. Rooney’s been occupying good positions our central midfielders should be breaking into causing our attacking players to drop deep to link up with him. Although it’s probably too late in the season to be testing out different options when every match is now a must win.

Mark Baldwin - March 11, 2014 Reply

whilst interesting..plain & simple hard graft & tempo is required on Sunday or we’ll Take a beating ! #simplegame #mufc

Subterranean Steve - March 11, 2014 Reply

If Moyes goes at the end of the season then putting up with the likes of Young and Valencia added to Moyes’ old school tactics might just be bearable.

If he remains next season then we can look forward to more of his narrow-minded, negative dross. Of the ‘flair’ players, RVP and Kagawa will be gone, Mata’s ‘square peg’ will be squeezed into ‘a round hole’ and Januzaj will be pigeon-holed as a left winger, “cos he’s good at crossing”. That will leave Rooney ruling the roost.

Mongoletsi - March 12, 2014 Reply

Hernandez will go too. Zaha will be sold and we’ll be left with Macheda as our #3 striker so some half decent mercenaries will come for the money.

Mannix - March 11, 2014 Reply

He was in our hearts for 8 yrs,he was our captain,he was our top striker and as well as top scorer,we endured his long term injuries every season… In him we had a hope to bring back our past glory but he failed us and more painful he betrayed us after put up with him for long eight seasons with more time nursing injuries borrowed from his country,he refused to pay us back when his contract almost ends he insisted of going and chose our worst enemy as his destination now what? Yes he won 1 silverware but he is not happy,he wants to return home but we Arsenal have accepted and moves on,if he didn’t bring us any silverware when he was here and moreover a leader and chose to look for a greener pastures to our archrival,what will he do now if we forgive and forget and take him back ,what will he do that he didn’t do when we put all our faith in him. RVP is an ingret we don’t need.

Julian - March 11, 2014 Reply

“Worst enemy”? I thought that was Spurs or do you have several worst enemies?!

Danny - March 11, 2014 Reply

“….a manager used to working with technically gifted footballers could have replaced Moyes by then anyway”

LOL good luck with that.

Dayus D red - March 11, 2014 Reply

Am struggling to make sense out this article. If i remember correctly, Moyes said he wants to see what Jones and Smalling can offer between now and end of the season while Rio and Vidic will still have a part to play. That is a clear statement to me. In as much as i will conceed that Jones and smalling will face stiffer oppositions in future, i think they applied themselve well in that match. I think that game was higher a line we ever played this season. I remember Smalling running back almost 30yrd to make a block on Anichebe. You attributed our playing deep to Moyes’s cautious approach but failed to understand that our midfielders in Carrick and Felliani are not bless with pace and it will be suicidal to play a high line. The job of a right sided midfielder is to cover the space left by Rafa which Felliani did to near perfection yet you saw it as a flaw and talked of Mata being issolated. How can Mata who was suppose to be the one carrying the ball like Silva does for city be issolated up front? Never heard of a midfielder being issolated. The fact is we need to tweak a little the way we are set up upfront. We need Rooney and Januzaj to play from the wings while Mata plays behind RVP. Mata isn’t a winger. He said so himself. Moyes wants him to do what Silva does for City, apparentlty he can’t because of lack of pace.

Jay Shon - March 11, 2014 Reply

Indeed, Carrick and Fellaini are not that fast. Two however dropped extremely deep i.e. as auxiliary centerbacks when in defensive phase.

I am aruging that attacking could be better if the midfielders stay in defensive midfield rather than the box.

Fellaini didn’t really cover Rafael in the game. Rather, the Belgian stormed forward and tried to make the most of long balls.

Carrick stayed deep to protect the back so Fellaini and Mata in more advanced areas of the pitch got isolated with only Rafael in space.

By the way, you can play a high line with a slow engine room. You can even play a high line with a slow engine room and defense – although infinitely hader than the former.

Matt - March 12, 2014 Reply

This writer is delusional. Chelsea and City have a higher no of long balls per no of passes than us. The obvious difference was Fellaini. Rooney and Mata love to drop deep and always have. Its so obvious if you ever watched Mata at Chelsea but its clear this writer did not. Since they drop deep it gave Fellaini a bit of freedom in the attacking half with Carrick laying deep and tactically this was great because he covered for fullbacks when they were attacking. He used a typical 4-2-3-1. In the beginning West Brom used dirty pressing to stop us from playing which meant more long balls than normal but once we scored they tried to attack us which opened more space for our attacking trio to work in. RVP was not running at the defenders as he should since he is a striker he wanted to be more involved and that resulted in there being no one to release passes to in the final third. Danny Welbeck did that and in just 30 minutes 3 through ball were release one was intercepted, one Danny skied and the last resulted in a goal. The only thing this writer got right is the defence but I will be a waiting for a defender like Evans who is a ball playing defender to see if Moyes still persists with a high line. So far when even Evans has played the line has been high and he was the Pivot but when defenders like Jones and Smalling have played Moyes has used a deeper line and same goes for slow pairing of Rio and Vidic inspite of Rio being a ball player defender. Ofcourse this comment doesn’t mean anything this writer will still be delusional and make up stuff.

Ed - March 13, 2014 Reply

Just for the sake of accuracy United’s long ball percentage is 12.38%, City 9.82% and Chelsea 12.88%. Delusional facts I suppose.

LeKing7 - March 11, 2014 Reply

Nice to see an objective analysis that is not getting carried away with the game against West Brom, a team that had’t won a game in 17 prior to playing us.
The tactics were still shit and we got opened up on a number of occasions having to make last ditch tackles and blocks. The quality of the players and those players ability to play the game as they see it in front of them was what won us the game.
The usual overloading of the wide areas and long balls with isolated forward players. Carrick almost playing as 3rd centre back when we were playing out the back forming a straight line between him and the 2 CB’s and in the process eliminating a number of forward passing options, hence the necessity to play it long or wide.
Pretty similar tactics to when Moyes plays a 442/4411 just that Mata and Januzaj are naturally inclined to cut inside and look to link up play by playing quick short passes and 1 2’s – this is the way they play instinctively and i really feel that Moyes is going to hamper the technical and tactical development of Januzaj by instructing him to sit on the touchline (heat maps confirm this) get to the byline and whip in crosses. That is simply not playing to his strengths and it is clearly evident that Moyes uses him in this way with Januzaj only really drifting into the middle when he is starved of the ball on the wing and when as mentioned above his instincts kick in.
Unlike Valencia and Young, Mata and Januzaj have the ability to play their way out of tight high-pressure situations as they posses the technique, skill and problem solving tactical intelligence that players like Young, Valencia and Cleverley will never even have half of, as their footballing brains are heavily left-brain (rational, logical, objective) focused. The unholy trinity if Young Valencia Cleverley are loved by Moyes because they are like robots literally carrying out his every instruction and hardly ever, if ever, play the game intuitively and based on the situation they find themselves in. Same can be said of Carrick, although he plays better when given ridiculous amounts of time and space.
Based on comments from previous Everton players and what I have been seeing on the pitch I’m of the opinion that Moyes is over micro-managing our players – instructing players exactly what pass to make or exactly where to be and what to do in certain rehearsed situations and in certain zones of the field, rather than encouraging tactical flexibility, game intelligence and creativity. Moyes method has been proven to work with industrious players with limited technical ability but so far based on the evidence of the last 8 months his method is not working on players who are technically and tactically superior (anticipation, flexibility, ability to play out of tight situations, picking the right pass, recognizing patterns).
Moyes seems unable to design training sessions that engage both hemispheres of the brain (super learning method is to engage both left and right side of brains) and encourage technical, dynamic, intelligent flexible play that allows players to think for themselves based on whatever situation they find themselves in in a match. Football is a highly cognitive and perceptive game based on recognizing patterns and anticipating how play is likely to pan out. I feel that Moyes’ way is to simplify the game as much as possible with an over emphasis on rigidity and what he perceives as structure. Structure includes the formation when attacking, when defending, the defense to attack transition, and the attack to defense transition. Most of the time with Moyes the formation throughout all these phases is a simple 442, 4411, becoming a 451 and sometimes even a 4 6 formation when defending. I am of the opinion that modern defending is more about positioning and cutting off angles than it is about being strong, powerful and actually making the tackle. Of course having a balance of the two would be ideal, but it pains me to see Valencia and Young played for their defensive qualities. Their positioning and ability to read the game is so poor that it does not matter that are fast and strong or just fast (young). How many games have we lost and looked bereft of attacking creativity when the clev, young and tony start. Intelligent footballers, regardless of position, read the game better and in the right system can be very effective at cutting off angles and forcing teams to play into zones they don’t want to play into, but you do.
Overall, the West Brom game was much better than what we have seen for most of this season, but thats all it is, just better than we have become accustomed to this season.

Dayus D red - March 12, 2014 Reply

@Jay Shon. I think u need to watch that match again. Or better still, read Phil Jones interview after the match where he praised the effort of Felliaini in braking up play in front of the back four. I still maintain that there is no logic in you saying a midfielder was isolated when infact he should be the one providing the balls. In one breath you said Felliani and Carrick played as auxillary center backs, in another you accused Felliani of bumping forward thereby allowing himself and Mata being isolated. The WBA game may not been great, but on the day the defence and the midfield held their own. Yes i know its just WBA, but we’ve performed woefully against swansea, olympiacos, just to mention a few. By the way the last time i checked Chelsea, liverpool Arsenal all drew at the same venue.

Tommy - March 12, 2014 Reply

I would play the same mid/for that finished the game against WBA, I have mentioned plenty of times this season that RVPs attitude has been appaling this year, so he simply does not deserve to play

Mongoletsi - March 13, 2014 Reply

Kagawa Mata Janujaz
Carrick Fellaini/Fletcher
+ 4 defenders


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