When David Moyes was appointed Manchester United manager last summer he was seen as the safe choice to grind out results in the Premier League; perhaps earning the club time to woo a more fashionable manager in the future. Yet, very few supporters expected to find United in such a lowly position heading into the final months of the season. The short-term fix of Juan Mata’s transfer has thus far failed to lift the Reds and the current English champion faces competing in the Europa League next season – if Moyes side even qualifies for Europe’s second tier.
The 81 crosses attempted by United against Fulham encapsulates the manager’s approach this season – a midfield two that remains deep, while United’s full-backs carry the ball to the final third. The nominal right-winger, on this occasion Mata, drifts and provide an option outside the box as the front two, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, try to connect with largely hopeful crosses. Instead of conducting the play, the World Cup and European Championship winner is reduced to mopping up clearances.
Still, Moyes’ strategy is set up around Rooney, van Persie and Mata. This bears resemblance to Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2007/08 side, with the Champions League winning team providing a platform for Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo to combine and tear apart teams on their own.
But deficiencies in defence and midfield have hampered United’s progress. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand remain at the club though much of the trio’s pace has been weathered by too many seasons at the sharp end. The decision to let Gerard Pique go and keep Jonny Evans is becoming increasingly hard to justify, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have failed to establish themselves in the first team.
Evra’s lack of defensive nous in particular dictates cover from the left-wing and has significantly hampered United. In deploying Evra, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck have often been asked to cover on the left. Welbeck has much potential and boasts more tools in the box, but Evra’s penchant for attacking places Young, who is more effective hugging the byline than the academy graduate, ahead in the left-wing berth. It is debatable whether Evra deserves such special treatment, but there is no standout candidate to displace the Frenchman.
Meanwhile, United continues to struggle in midfield. Six years ago Paul Scholes in his deep-lying prime partnered Michael Carrick in Moscow. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is now accompanied by Tom Cleverley. Box-to-box midfielders are in vogue, while more technically inclined teams often include a central midfielder with pace and a bag of tricks. United, by stark contrast, remains far too static in the engine room.
On the right flank Rafael da Silva is a stereotypical Brazilian full-back and the textbook approach to accommodate two attacking full-backs is to deploy two holding midfielders. Rafael is far more defensively solid than his counterpart on the left, although Jones or Smalling have played at right-back as often as the former Fluminense defender in any case.
In forward areas, unlike the attacking trident in Moscow, there is little pace and power, with the onus falling on the full-backs and central midfielders to deliver the ball to the final third. With United weak in central areas, Moyes’ side has resorted to a direct approach, although the first choice number 10, Rooney, has never been the one to hold up the ball.
Moyes should have deployed a central midfielder capable of supporting his forwards, although a deep defensive line forced by United’s ageing central defenders has complicated the tactical framework.
The Scot experimented using Carrick in a more attacking role during pre-season and the chase for Thiago Alacantara, Cesc Fabregas and Ander Herrera indicates that the former Everton manager is well aware of a need for thrust from his engine room. Despite evidence suggesting otherwise, Maroune Felliani has long claimed his best position is in a deep midfield role, yet the Belgian has not yet broken into the first team while Cleverley has largely failed to contribute offensively.
These problems at full-back, the centre of defence and particularly central midfield have contributed to United’s downfall – and with just 12 games to salvage the season radical solutions must now be considered.
Rooney is the only player capable of providing this much needed thrust from deep even if the Englishman considers number 10 role his natural position. When chasing a goal or two Moyes has often deployed the former Everton striker as a box-to-box midfielder. And the political nightmare that could follow Rooney’s long-standing deployment in midfield should now be risked with European football at stake.
Another potential solution to elicit more dynamism from Rooney and van Persie is to use Mata in more central areas. While Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj have often been fouled into submission, Mata can handle the Premier league’s physicality and is adept at playing through balls to the front two.
Moyes could switch to a 4-2-3-1 system, with a narrow attacking midfield three. Rooney, Kagawa, Mata, Januzaj and Welbeck can combine and introduce a measure of unpredictability that United desperately needs. The suspicion, however, is that Moyes is uncomfortable with flair players. Developing chemistry between Rooney, van Persie and Mata is daunting enough for the Scot without adding another player into the mix.
Mata’s acquisition was in part opportunistic, but immediate deployment of the Spaniard suggests that Moyes had a plan for the former Chelsea player of the year. Repeated aimless crossing into the box with Mata waiting for second balls might not live up to United fans’ expectation, but the strategy has shown potential with the Spaniard assisting van Persie three times in four appearances.
Yet, living off clearances and wayward crosses are far too unpredictable for Mata to work with unless Moyes chooses to deploy an old-fashioned target man that could provide a genuine aerial threat and open space for more technically gifted teammates to exploit.
Whatever the change, there is a strong rationale to move Rooney into a new deeper role. The Scouser might not be happy, but it is a move that would ameliorate United’s midfield problems in the short-term. One that holds the key to United’s post-Ferguson fortunes.
Rooney has been indulged by Moyes, perhaps deservedly so given that the Scouser has been the most creative United player this season. Upsetting any player is unwise, but participation in the Champions League should be prioritised.
The Liverpool-born forward has created 2.1 chances per Premier League game this season, but his creativity will not be missed in the final third following Mata’s acquisition. United’s most expensive signing has made 3.25 key passes per appearance and already boasts the best dribbling success rate in the team despite essentially being plan B to Rooney’s lead.
Next season holds much promise, but it is still 11 points away.