Victory over Arsenal is Moyes’ opportunity and threat

November 12, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 12 comments
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Attrition. It was, at times, little more subtle than trench warfare; Manchester United’s ambition bent, it seemed, on the utter destruction of the visitor’s rhythm. The strategy worked, of course, negating the visitors’ superior technique to a series of personal physical duels and tactical battles at set pieces.

Indeed, United’s performance against Arsenal on Sunday was every bit an orchestrated David Moyes’ game plan; one borrowed, template and all, from so many Everton matches against superior opponents over the past decade.

In that Moyes will take much satisfaction. After all, the Scot has received plenty of criticism over the past four months, not least on these pages, where the manager’s conservative tactical approach, and seeming distrust of technical players, has frustrated. Now, with victory over the Premier League leaders to his name, Moyes can approach the coming months with renewed confidence and genuine belief.

Indeed, United’s win against the Gunners brings Moyes extra satisfaction, not least because of the considerable groundswell of media opinion that seemingly had Arsenal already crowed Premier League champions, and United destined to drop out of the Champions League places altogether.

Meanwhile, in the stands United supporters sang themselves hoarse, generating an atmosphere rarely matched in recent seasons. One inspired both by United’s predicament this season and the opponents. This was not, as some prominent Arsenal fans have blithely put it, ‘United’s cup final’, but it was certainly the biggest and most pivotal match of Moyes’ short reign in Manchester.

“We could have been 11 points behind, so now we’re in a good position. It was a big win, a real six-pointer,” admitted match-winner Robin van Persie.

“We are right in the mix, which is what we wanted. We knew what the other teams had done before us, and realised that it was a must-win game. It is different because of the way Arsenal play. They have a really specific way of playing, which I know of course, so you have to play a slightly different game to beat them. We did really well to close everyone down. It makes a big difference.”

Yet, there is also an unnerving sense of collective giddiness in a desperately needed victory. While the result fell United’s way, the performance was focused on work ethic, structure and spirit, and not the kind of attacking flair many Old Trafford regulars crave. Or, to put it another way: only a stepping stone to the level of performance expected.

The data provides some insight. On Sunday the Reds secured just 40 per cent possession in making 393 passes against Arsenal – around two hundred short of the same fixture last season. Meanwhile, Moyes’ side completed a criminally low 74 per cent of passes, driven in part by the deliberate predilection for simply gifting possession to the opposition in the latter stages. Little wonder the side created just chances in total, with two shots on target, including van Persie’s goal.

By the end, with Marouanne Fellaini on for the match winning Dutchman, United resorted to simply punting the ball long in the manner of a comatose pub side, still reeling after the night before the morning after. The 59 long-balls launched skyward represented 15 per cent of United’s total – coincidentally around the same amount played by ‘long-ball’ side Stoke City against Swansea City at the weekend.

To put some of the data in context, 12 months ago against the same opposition Sir Alex Ferguson’s side made 572 passes, at 86 per cent success rate, securing 48 per cent possession in the process. The result: Ferguson’s side created 14 chances, with six shots on target.

And while agricultural tactics might have been a specific plan for the Gunners’ visit – a highly successful one at that – much of the aforementioned antipathy to passing has become a pattern this season.

Still, Moyes was understandably jubilant in the aftermath. It was, after all, the biggest win during the manager’s short time in Manchester – potentially a campaign changing result at that. One which could proffer the Scot greater freedom to find his team.

“It’s another step in the right direction for us,” said the 50-year-old.

“We have got a lot of big steps to take here. It is going to take a while for me to get it all the way I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it puts out any statement. Everybody for years has known how good Manchester United have been. My job and the team’s job is to make sure that we do that again. We know that we are going to get a few bloody noses along the way.”

In fact momentum coming out of the Arsenal result should serve the Reds well in the months to come. True, United’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur in early December may prove disruptive, but as a general rule there are few terrors this side of the New Year. It is an opportunity for United to close the five-point gap to leaders Arsenal, before a January run that includes fixtures against Chelsea, Swansea City and Spurs again.

In that there should be little doubt about the impetus Sunday’s victory brings. Despite performances rarely sparkling this term United will surely be in contact with whomever is leading the Premier League by the turn of the year.

“We knew we had to win today at all costs,” said striker Wayne Rooney.

“It was the toughest we have been to play against and to break down. We defended really well and, thankfully, Robin got the goal for us. We could not afford to lose today. We knew a victory would put us right back in there and in a great position.

“It has given us a massive lift going into the international games. We’ll all go off to play for our countries and then come back as we’ve got a big push then until the New Year. That’s our aim.”

But in winning – “a marker” as defender Chris Smalling put it – there is also a risk. That the manner of victory, ground out through a defense-first approach, becomes the new normal.

After all, United’s propensity to throw away possession, to create fewer chances in past seasons, and to score less goals is significant and real. At the same stage last season the Reds had scored eight more goals and secured nine additional points, in winning nine of 11 fixtures.

And while the points total required to secure Premier League victory in May is likely to be less than the 89 United obtained in the past two campaigns, Moyes’ side is on course to top just 70. It is the genuine risk associated with a strategy that has often sought to contain first and attack second.


anonpayn - November 12, 2013 Reply

It would be interesting to see the stats from the corresponding fixtures. How have we performed in terma of possession, shots on goal, goals scored etc compared to the same fixtures last season?

Ed - November 13, 2013 Reply

Corresponding 11 fixtures, or against the same opponents as we’ve played this season? Either way it can be done, just not right now..!

Jamie Matthews - November 13, 2013 Reply

great pic #mufc

realist - November 13, 2013 Reply

in moyes i trust

Dayus D red - November 13, 2013 Reply

Ed stats can be misleading. At a point in the first 45mins united had 67% possession to Arsenal 33%. Most of Arsenal possession came in the last 15mins of the game when we were protecting our lead and still manage to create 2good chances that could’ve made it 3.0. I have seen SAF adopted the same approach many times during his reign. You talked about long ball and shots on target. Arsenal according to a report i read had more long balls on that day than they had in all the matches they had played this year and were restricted to only two 20yards shots in 90mins. In all, United created the better chances (three in all) to Arsenal nil. It may not have been the best match we’ve ever played, but apart from 8.2 defeat, United vs Arsenal has always been tight in recent yrs. Considering this Gunner’s team is the strongest in recent yrs, it is a good result in all ramification and kudos to Moyes and the lads.

Ed - November 13, 2013 Reply

Stats can be misleading if you misrepresent them – which you’re doing in quoting a stat from the first five minutes. By the way if you look at possession stats from United’s first 5 minutes against Barcelona in 2011 you’d get the same impression. And just so we’re being accurate about this – Arsenal played more long balls against Crystal Palace.

But my point was this. United are champions and we set out to defend against a team that finished 16 points behind us last season. More generally, United are playing a different way this season. It’s about defensive structure, rather than attacking creativity. And that’s playing out in the data – less possession, lower successful passes, more long balls (as a percentage and gross), fewer chances created, fewer goals scored, fewer points gained. I’m not sure how any of that is good.

I guess my general point is this. This was Moyes’ biggest win. What did that win tell him? That his approach is working when goals scored, wins achieved, and points gained tells us it is not. That’s a concern.

Red N Rated ® - November 13, 2013 Reply

Some very valid points to the actual happenings in the match unlike the general consensus reverberating around the media 😉

Dayus D red - November 13, 2013 Reply

Ed the way we are playing now is not significantly different from the way we have been playing for the last few seasons even under SAF. It will be interesting if you can let us know the stats for both teams. The stats i qouted wasn’t for 5mins, infact Wenger admitted they weren’t in that game in the first 30mins. My point is this. We dominated the first half while Arsenal the second. A matcth of two halfs if you will. This Arsenal weren’t the one we led with 16pts last yr. This is an Arsenal team that just beat last yr CL runner’s up B. Dotmund away and Liverpool at home. We did what we had to do to beat them and that should be good enough. I think its time we remove our tinted glassess and come to the reality that we don’t have players and a team that is capable of playng entertaining and attacking football on a consistent basis. The last time we did was 2009.

Julian - November 13, 2013 Reply

Point taken but to be fair Jones having to move back into defence after Vidic went off rather handed the initiative to Arsenal in the second half and they seemed to take full advantage of it. In the first half I thought United were positive and had exactly the right strategy. In the last few years we have complained about United’s at times porous defence and how we could be dominated in midfield – particularly against the better sides. We cant now blame Moyes for trying to rectify this problem.

Drevalen - November 13, 2013 Reply

Can United’s approach truly be seen as defensive. It’s not like we sat back and absorbed pressure for the full 90 minutes. We did what works and that is create a midfield scrap that disrupts Arsenal and plays into our favour with stronger midfielders winning any 50/50 balls. The reality is that Arsenal couldn’t get their game going in those conditions and were out of the game but for two Sagna crosses, while United created three good chances from the few times the ball actually ended up in either teams defensive third. United were the better team on the day.
This game also shows to prove just exactly where Arsenal’s weaknesses lay. They may be pretty to watch and look technically good but in reality they cannot cope when the ball is deliberately put into pinball mode and most times don’t retain possession when the ball is loose. I doubt United would falter the same way Arsenal did if they were put in the same situation.

David_Andrew - November 14, 2013 Reply


You’re right in that it was a very Moyes approach but don’t forget that this was also a very Ferguson approach as well. From the game at OT where Arsenal won the league SAF seemingly was always focused on defend deep, break up their play and counter-attack for the win when against Arsenal.

As much as the team isn’t playing the way we would like (players as much as structure I feel) I don’t think we should become lost in the idea that any defensive play is Moyes and any attacking performances are SAF’s style. The last few seasons have really seen a general drop off in quality for our performances which was overlooked by the successes.

Ed - November 14, 2013 Reply

David – I agree. It’s definitely not black/white, Ferguson good/Moyes bad. I guess my opinion is that Moyes has taken the team a certain direction. But yes in Europe in particular Ferguson’s approach was increasingly cautious as he got older. And against Arsenal he found a formula to beat them. Press in midfield, sit deep, break… and it works.

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