Tag David Moyes

Tag David Moyes

The science of scapegoating

January 30, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments
featured image

Tom Cleverley has felt the full force of Reds’ frustration, as Manchester United fans clamber to scapegoat someone, or even seek to earmark a trip of scapegoats, including Ashley Young. Fans aplenty are literally endeavouring to master the science, perhaps even aspiring to an MSc(apegoat.) And yes, I’m labeling scapegoating as a science as opposed to an art purely so that it fits my pun.

Apropos our beloved Reds, I ordinarily adhere to that classic United mantra of looking “on the bright side of life.” I’m generally not one for scapegoating a single individual, but I am intermittently culpable. When I catch myself being excessively critical towards one man, I tend to reign myself in.

But, whilst I invariably attempt to arrive at a bright verdict, I do have eyes that see things, and then subsequently communicate with my brain via untold billions of synapses and nerve-endings, relaying information and leaving my mind to process this into quasi-coherent thoughts.

As a consequence, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that Ashley Young, whilst sporadically showcasing a moderate improvement, quite simply isn’t good enough. Yes, he has moments – minutes – when he looks slightly better. Credit where it’s due, he contributed significantly versus Cardiff City in one of his rare impressive performances, but Young couldn’t be any bloody worse. He originally struck me as an underwhelming signing, and less than a handful of ensuing games have persuaded me otherwise.

I don’t really apportion too much blame on Ashley for this. Young looked handy in the Midlands, but it’s a different ball game playing for Aston Villa. Some, like Dwight Yorke, make the upward transition seamlessly; others don’t, and I think Ashley has struggled with the enormity of playing for United at times.

Tom Cleverley, as someone recently dubbed him, is a “continuity” player. He’s there on the field, he makes up the numbers. He’s neither good nor bad, he’s nondescript, and he’s fond of playing it simple. Cleverley can retain possession, but he offers little of tangible value. I’d rather have a 70 per cent match-fit Darren Fletcher than a 110 per cent in-form – whatever that means – Cleverley.

But I do disagree with Reds tweeting that they dislike everything about him. Come on, his hair isn’t that bad. Someone countered this assertion by affirming that modeling his style on Alex Büttner is arguably his biggest sin. These naysayers were being overly-harsh; surely it was Tom who pioneered that ‘do?’ The fact this was even being discussed on Twitter says it all.

It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that Cleverley could prove most of us wrong. Instances abound of players turning it around on the field, thereby subverting the fans’ negative perceptions.

Extreme examples exist. Darren Fletcher went from allegations of nepotism – Darren as Sir Alex Ferguson’s lovechild – and Fergie picking his son as the solitary viable explanation for his inclusion, à la Sunday footy – to being the man whose absence cost United the ’09 Champions League. That, amigos, epitomizes a turnaround.

But admittedly it can be difficult for even the most red-lensed of fans to discern what Cleverley actually does on a football field. My sympathy does rest with him though; he’s barely been rested during a period of restlessness amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Cleverley has been been propelled into the regular first-team line-up, when perhaps his substantive caliber doesn’t warrant the berth.

I spotted a stat recently that the midfielder started eight games in 23 days towards the back end of last year. For even the finest and fittest of players, in a winning set-up, this would prove a challenge. A dearth of confidence compounds the situation, and a vicious circle is engendered.

Cleverley can undoubtedly be a useful squad player, though I fear that pointing out any redeeming features about Tom are essentially superfluous. People have made up their minds, and he’ll most likely continue to be scapegoated. Heck, it’s probably even Cleverley’s fault United lost at Chelsea.

I would have loved the patent coupling of adverb and past participle within the headline “Cleverley Done” to have carried overridingly positive connotations. Alas, I fear it’ll be the widespread headline when he’s ousted from the club; an inauspicious double entendre.

Whilst Cleverley may be the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) scapeGOAT, and Young is both literally and metaphorically often the fall guy for United’s woes, there are other perennial whipping boys at Old Trafford.

Patrice Evra seldom eludes vilification. I love Evra’s passion for a great club. But when not completely neglecting the art of defending, he has more concentration lapses than an ADHD goldfish, invariably guilty of conceding at least one gilt-edge chance per game.

It doesn’t particularly help that Evra’s deputy left-back hasn’t ingratiated himself at Old Trafford. Perhaps because it’s all too easy to mistake Büttner for Cleverley from a distance in the stands. Alex’ cross for United’s FA cup goal versus Swansea City was world class, which leads me to think that he could make a handy left-winger if he develops into a more competent all-round footballer.

Meanwhile, Antonio ‘Toni’ Valencia has returned to some semblance of his former one-dimensional self. His time at the club can be encapsulated seasonally: effective one-trick pony, injured, ineffective no-trick Toni. In-between one-trick pony and no-trick Toni, a sort of hybrid half-a-trick unicorn perhaps? Valencia certainly has a phobia of being on the inside of things; there’s probably a word for that.

But one thing I spotted on his Twitter account that endeared him to me was his defiant message in the face of United’s recent travails: “In my vocabulary there is no word surrender.” How can you not love Toni when he’s quasi-quoting the Rocky IV anthem?

United bought Marouanne Fellaini to knock down a few headers onto the more talented, more vertically challenged players buzzing around his knees, but the only thing the Belgian has been knocking down so far is the price of his wigs outside Old Trafford. Yet, to be utilized in his best position, he’s proven so underwhelming that I’d even shaved my novelty Afro within a fortnight to produce the Ashley Young ‘do.

Despite the fact that his first forward pass versus Sunderland in second leg of cup was his penalty, Fletch’s form since returning, all things considered, is nothing short of phenomenal. There was a time, circa ’06, when seeing the midfield partnership of Fletch and Michael Carrick on the team sheet would great dishearten me. More recently, it’s flippin’ delighted me.

Most of the players I cite above are relatively established players at the club. I’m not one to formulate a hasty opinion. Nor am I one of those Reds who loves my criticisms to be vindicated. Bugger that, I’d much rather be proven wrong, and consume a portion of self-served humble pie.

This was instantiated with everyone’s darling Mancunian Danny Welbeck. I’ve been willing him to silence my aspersions, and I equally reveled in him doing so. I hold my hands up – there was a marked improvement when Welbeck was consistently deployed in his natural attacking berth. I had questioned his finishing ability, an attribute I believe to depend more upon nature than nurture.

But footy fans are frequently culpable of short memories, and most were disregarding Welbeck’s prolificness at Sunderland prior to injury curtailing his flow. All his recent finishes have proven instinctive, Andy Cole-esque in the fashion he thrives on a snapshot chance as opposed to having time to dwell on a finish. The penalty versus Sunderland is a case in point.

And as with Danny, I’d even love for Young to go on to become a world-beater. But as I said, I’m not a person prone to delusion.

It’d be remiss of me to pontificate on the discourse of United scapegoats without alluding to the primary subject of criticism – fall man(ager) numero uno – Señor David Moyes. How I’d love to hear some of David’s private conversations with his missus – nothing sexual you filthy animals – just to learn his innermost thoughts during these testing times.

The poor fella. When he’s not being publicly backed by Robbie Savage, his every solitary word and gesture is being painstakingly psychoanalysed. Moyes’ tone and rhetoric intimates that he may still carry a modicum of the Everton mindset, but surely this is to be expected following a decade at the club.

I, of course, hope he progressively inherits the frame of mind of a big club manager, but in its own way it’s admirable that he isn’t giving it the ‘Barry McGuigan’ on the back of someone else’s success. Then he’d be lambasted for a false sense of self-importance – a he “can’t do right for doing wrong” sort of scenario. I haven’t dug up any old footage to buttress my hypothesis, but I’m sure it took Sir Alex some years and success before he developed some of his gall and gumption as an interviewee.

Anyway, I’ll leave the Moyes debate for a separate forthcoming article.

Having enumerated a catalogue of alleged culprits who’ve bore the brunt of Reds’ blues, I’m going to conclude on a decidedly positive note. It is at moments like these that I like to recall the beautiful words of Maya Angelou: “God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us – in the dreariest and most dreaded moments – can see a possibility of hope.” And oh, how rainbows abound.

The tantalizing prospect of world class quartet – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata – playing the beautiful game in harmony. Adnan is a resplendent multi-coloured semi-circle of sheer joy; Rooney’s renewed vigour has been another rainbow; Rafael da Silva’s continued progress; Phil Jones’ Robbo-esque midfield presence; Fletch’s return to health. They’re all great big bloody marvelous rainbows.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter – @JonathanShrager

United’s dirty dozen

January 23, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments
featured image

The transfer business, it seems, holds as much intrigue as the game itself. Why else should columns of speculation fill the nation’s print media, rolling news file vacuous report after unsubstantiated rumour, and the blogsphere work itself into a new frenzy almost hourly. None more so than at times of great drama – and Manchester United’s £37 million bid for Juan Mata on Wednesday was just that.

There could be many more over the coming months, with perhaps a dozen changes in United’s squad between now and the start of next season. Given both the paucity of talent available to manager David Moyes, and the predilection among few of his squad to perform for the new man, change is indeed required.

United’s bid for the Chelsea midfielder is both a business transaction – should it conclude successfully – and a human story. After all, while Mata was named Chelsea’s Player of the Season in two full campaigns with the club, he has been largely ostracised in José Mournho’s high-tempo system. In a World Cup year Mata has fallen from Chelsea’s star turn, to a man likely to miss out on Spain’s squad for Brazil in the summer.

For Chelsea Mata is an expendable asset; for United, a desperately required injection of high-class into a limited squad, albeit in a role where manage David Moyes is already replete with options. Mata’s favoured role at ’10’ behind a principle striker is the one taken by Wayne Rooney this season, preferred by Shinji Kagawa, and likely to be Adnan Januzaj’s best.

Neither, given Kagawa’s experience at Old Trafford this season, is there significant confidence that Moyes truly knows how to get the best out of an impish creative talent of Mata’s ilk. Still, that analysis is churlish given the quality of player under negotiation.

The Spaniard’s likely capture is, depending on one’s outlook, born of United’s desperation, or the catalyst that will fire the Reds into next season’s Champions League. Europe is a goal that looks most unlikely without fresh impetus, and surely worth every penny of the substantial premium United will pay should the Champions League beckon next year.

But Mata’s capture is only one piece in a more complex puzzle of transfer activity that Moyes must undertake if he is to transform a squad that is patently not performing for the manager. Or perhaps good enough to do so. And if the club’s directors, as seems increasingly likely, trust the Scot to spend freely in the market the Moyes certainly needs to.

It is not just that this squad lacks the requisite quality to succeed both domestically and in the continent’s premier tournament, but that so many familiar faces are likely to leave the club in the coming months.

Indeed, there is likely to be substantial turnover in personnel – more than has ever been typical under Sir Alex Ferguson. After all, the average tenure of a United squad member is the second highest in Europe, behind only Barcelona, at more than five yeas.

Still, in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Federico Macheda and Fabio da Silva United face five contracts that come to a conclusion in the summer. None of the quintet has yet been offered a new deal, let alone accepted one. It seems almost certain that each will depart for a new destination come June.

Meanwhile, another clutch of players will be discarded by Moyes in the summer, or may well agitate for a fresh challenge having sat on United’s bench for much of the season. Anderson will be sold following a six-month loan spell at Fiorentina, while Alexander Büttner and Nani, despite the Portuguese winger’s new contract, will be sold if suitable bids come forth.

Then there’s a trio of perennial bench-dwellers for whom Old Trafford may no longer hold a fulfilling future: Kagawa, Anders Lindegaard and Javier Hernández.

Wilfried Zaha must perform on-loan over the next five months to retain his United status next season, while Wayne Rooney is certain to push for a move once again. It will take a significant change in strategy for United to countenance the Scouser’s sale.

But it is the big departures that fascinate the most. After a fine campaign in 2012/13, Ferdinand is approaching the final few weeks of his time as a United player. After more than a decade at Old Trafford, the Londoner can look back on the finest period of an outstanding career. The only decision that the former Leeds United defender must now take is whether to carry on elsewhere, possibly in the United States, or retire at the very top.

Vidić is a different scenario, with the 32-year-old still in demand across Europe. While the Serbian has long been below his peak, prudent continuity may dictate the club offers the giant a new deal. Yet, the noises from the Serbian’s camp strongly suggest a new dawn in the player’s career. After eight years in Manchester, the defender is likely to move to the continent.

Then there is Evra, who has enjoyed more than 350 games for the club, but in whom Moyes has such little faith that the Scot has made no secret of a strong desire to acquire a replacement.

In the stead of multiple departures Moyes will look for at least half-a-dozen new faces over the course of the next two transfer windows, starting with Mata.

Multiple changes are rarely ideal, nor the established United strategy over the past 25 years. Careful squad management had been a philosophy until the winter of Ferguson’s reign. Yet, for Moyes it is also an opportunity to shape a squad in his mould, perhaps to grow as a manager too. If ever the phrase ‘back him, or sack him’ was ever truly relevant this is it.

Moyes is certainly being backed in Mata’s acquisition, even if the Spaniard is an expense that might logically be better invested elsewhere. The 25-year-old will cost the club more than £66 million in fees and wages over the next four years – a transfer that once again exposes United’s lack of strategic planning in the market.

Still, Mata’s talent in not in doubt. The former Spanish under-21 international has grown from young high-quality attacking midfielder at Valencia, to world-class playmaker at Chelsea. He is the ’20/20′ player United has lacked this season – a man who can score 20 and create 20 in a single season.

In that there is a significant boost – perhaps the catalyst that will change the narrative of Moyes’ time at Old Trafford. After another horrendous result in Wednesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final, it is the very least Moyes needs.

On cognitive dissonance, and David Moyes

January 10, 2014 Tags: Opinion 18 comments
featured image

“Every single one of us will stand by David Moyes,” sang Manchester United’s outstanding away support at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night. It was a rare moment of levity in an otherwise dark night for the Scot. Another United defeat to go alongside those against Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City already this month; another potential route to silverware hanging on the precipice. Few thought Moyes’ transition into Sir Alex Ferguson’s job would be easy. But this difficult, and this traumatic, that United should cave with so little conviction to the Premier League’s worst side?

But if the story of the night was United’s abject performance against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup, then the real narrative surrounds Moyes and his ongoing position with the club. A little over six months into the job and the former Everton manager looks weaker, less in charge by the day. Whisper it, do it quietly, but at almost any other major club the depths to which the side has fallen in such a brief period might have seen Moyes on the scrapheap of managerial failures. Sacked, defenestrated, and forgotten already.

That Moyes retains his job, and should do bar further catastrophic results until at least summer 2015, says much about the United hierarchy’s attempt to produce an environment of stability, albeit one in which Moyes was allowed to create significant volatility in the back-room.

Yet, there will be a role for United’s fan-base in Moyes’ eventual fate, or at least some control over the atmosphere in which the Scot works. If Tuesday is any evidence then Moyes can sleep easy, for now at least. More than 3,000 United fans out-sung five times the number in the home contingent during United’s the semi-final first leg – and did so proudly.

‘Twas ever so, with the nervousness that envelopes Old Trafford in recent times dissipating on the road, where United boasts a decent record this season – and where some of the Reds’ more attractive performances have come. Indeed, moral support for Moyes has rarely been in doubt despite many supporters’ uneasy feelings on the 50-year-old’s appointment last July.

And in that there is an essential truth in Moyes’ time at Old Trafford. While United supporters want every success for the club, and by default the new manager, many lack a deep belief that the Scot will eventually deliver it. Classic cognitive dissonance; an urge to support Moyes in everything he does at United, a deeper understanding that he may not have earned it. Or as the nobel prize winning author William Faulker might put it, the mind is happy at that which the conscience refuses to assimilate.

Rant’s straw poll, conducted on social media this week, brought an overwhelmingly positive response from fans asked if they continued to “support” Moyes in the United job. By contrast, the rejoinder was luke-warm when fans were polled on whether they believe Moyes is the “right man” to bring long-term success at Old Trafford. Unscientific of course, but then neither is the terrace truly holistic evidence either.

Much of the doubt in Moyes dates back to his appointment. Here is a man without a trophy secured in more than a decade as a top-flight manager, anointed to a job at one of the world’s leading clubs, seemingly ahead of better candidates. Two-time Champions League winner José Mourinho was available, while 16-times trophy winner Pep Guardiola moved on, and the ever popular Jurgen Klopp continues to win friends. Moyes may out-perform them all in time, but his CV lacks for the comparison.

Then, of course, there is Moyes’ performance in the job, which has brought little but critique – from the obliteration of United’s tried-and-trusted back-room, to an over-emphasis on a functional style that has won few admirers at Old Trafford or beyond. That says little for United’s results, which have brought five defeats at Old Trafford in all competitions and eight over-all. Whatever else is said of the Scot this season, the downturn in United’s results has been stark.

Moreover, the destruction in the club’s tradition of attacking, fluid football, although already well on route under Sir Alex Ferguson, has accelerated with Moyes’ appointment to the job. The Scot’s simplification of United’s tactics, which are now predicated almost solely on over-loading the flanks, and delivering the ball from wide areas, has been rapid and complete. It is little wonder that United’s new man has obsessively pursued Leighton Baines, the Premier League’s leading crosser by some distance last season.

Yet, the Reds’ approach has also been increasingly predictable, both to supporters now hungry for more than the turgid fare served up this season, and more pointedly to the opposition. Run Antonia Valencia into the channel and United’s principle attacking strategy is laregely neutered.

Still, support is a complex, if ephemeral concept. Whatever Moyes’ ample mistakes this season; however dumbstruck the manager now appears in the juggernaut’s headlights; whatever his qualities, or lack thereof, as a manager, he will enjoy ‘support’. It is a faith that plays out in myriad forms – from voices on the terraces, to railing against the dying light in social media.

And yet there is that straw poll again, the more than two thirds of United supporters who are yet to be convinced that Moyes will bring long-term success to the club, as Sir Alex managed so conspicuously over more than two decades in charge. It is a hint at what may have become an underlying truth; an increasing number of United fans strongly suspect that Ferguson chose the wrong man last summer.

It is a paradox played out in microcosm too, where United fans will cheer on the Reds to the fullest in the second leg against Sunderland in a little under two week’s time, but face the very real prospect of a chastening experience against in-form Manchester City at Wembley.

Yet, there is another, more essential truth. Moyes’ success or failure is the club’s achievement or decline; the fans’ joy or a moratorium on a quarter century of almost unqualified gloating. Whatever the secret doubts held about the new manager’s qualities, and in whatever form they are articulated, nobody wishes them true. It is a process of rationalisation if ever there was.

Moyes refuses to budge but United may have to spend big

January 6, 2014 Tags: Opinion 39 comments
featured image

Seventh in the Premier League and out of the FA Cup at the third round; 2014 hasn’t begun well for David Moyes. Then again, the second half of 2013 wasn’t so great either. Blame it on bad luck, blame it on officialdom, blame it on that most hollow excuse: a period of transition. Whatever happens, don’t blame it on David Moyes, or the changes that the former Everton manager has brought to Manchester United over these past six months.

At least that is the collective, moderate, wisdom – one that demands Moyes is given time. Time to rebuild a squad devoid of world-class quality. Time to impose his own philosophy. Time to prove that despite a lack of trophies over more than a decade as a manager Moyes is a manager of United-calibre. Time to become the man anointed Sir Alex Ferguson’s success.

Moyes follows United’s most successful manager, a man who had become dictator perpetuo during 26 years in charge. From the grass-roots to the boardroom, Ferguson seemingly controlled all in an environment that has proven difficult for his successor to navigate. Meanwhile, Moyes has been manager for less than two percent of Ferguson’s reign and, significantly, the 50-year-old was proffered with just a single summer acquisition of note in Marouanne Fellaini.

It is a period during which a prescient Ferguson demanded supporters “get behind” the new manager, albeit in a soliloquy delivered last May that contained little of real substance.

Yet, United’s fall since the summer has been a drama so deep that it is hard not to be shocked despite Ferguson’s appeal. Four Premier League defeats at Old Trafford have left the Reds without guarantee of a place in the Champions League next season, let alone any realistic chance of retaining the title. The abject manner in which United exited the FA Cup at home to Swansea City on Sunday only serves to enhance a growing negative impression of Moyes’ regime.

It may be a period of transition, but the most significant changes since Moyes was appointed last summer have been of the Scot’s own making. There has been a transition in coaching, playing style and managerial approach – none of which have borne any fruit and may well have been destructive to United’s cause. As the Guardian’s Daniel Harris once put it, the only changes since the summer have been Moyes’ coaches, Moyes’ player, and David Moyes.

Changes in coaching were replete this summer, with vast experience and proven quality leaving for a greater unknown. Rene Meulenstein, Mike Phelan and Eric Steele made way for Steve Round, Phil Neville, Jimmy Lumsden and Chris Woods in a purge that has not yet proven successful. Meulenstein is now manager at Fulham, via a brief spell with Anzi Makalaka in the Russian Premier League. Steele joined Derby County in the autumn and Phelan remains unemployed.

There has, meanwhile, been significant transition in United’s tactical approach and playing style, with Ferguson’s patient, if indefatigably dull, approach to football over the past three seasons devolving to a far more basic system that emphasises crossing, in an entirely predictable formation.

While true that United’s football has lacked real quality for some time, it is a misnomer of grand proportions to suggest that a new approach hasn’t been introduced this season. Indeed, the data suggests that United’s hit-and-hope style is born not of poor form, or transition, but a deliberate strategy.

Then there is the change in managerial style, with Moyes at once obsequious, defensive, and conservative. If it is a deliberate attempt to baffle both the media and opposition it is yet to bear any positive response. Yet, formations and personnel have become predictable, playing favourites selected, and creative players too often eschewed in favour of the functional. Long gone is Ferguson the gambler, to be replaced by Moyes the reticent.

Moyes is accountable for much of the above, but his role in strengthening a squad palpably in need to refreshment is seemingly limited only to rejecting those targets previously identified, or in Wilfried Zaha’s case, already acquired. It is a reputation for diligence hard earned at Everton, and seemingly playing out in full at Old Trafford.

Moyes’ now infamous Finch Farm wall of 1,000 transfer targets and research-heavy approach to the market, which was once such an asset at Everton, now appears anachronistic to a United squad desperate for immediate new blood. The doomsday scenario in which the Reds drop out of the Champions League is real, with the club potentially spinning into a negative vortex where it is increasingly difficult to attract leading talent. After all, with just 34 points from 20 games United is currently off-the-pace normally set to make the Premier League’s top four.

Still, it appears increasingly unlikely that United will do significant business until the summer, with Moyes claiming both an urgency to bring new players to the club this winter, and a contradictory belief that it is impossible to do so in the January window.

Despite United’s predicament, Moyes is not yet willing to abandon his cautious approach to the market. At least not this winter.

“It won’t change how we go about things. January is not an easy month to purchase in,” said Moyes after United’s latest defeat.

“Most of the business will be more towards the summertime, rather than January. We’ll keep looking but if one of the targets comes around, or one of the targets that we’re looking at changes in January, then great.

“There is no point in me hyping it up because the players we would like to bring in are probably not available in January, not because we don’t want to do it. I said I would try but probably would be doubtful in January, because of the window.”

It is a belief that surely underplays the gravity of United’s situation, with the side five points adrift of Liverpool in fourth place and reliant on either a strong second half to the campaign, or failure on multiple competing fronts.

With United bereft in central midfield, gun-shy up front, and error-prone at the back, there is no guarantee the side’s form will improve over the next five months. Hope, after all, 1qis no strategy.

True, United’s primary targets may be cup-tied in Europe, although there is little claim to parity with Europe’s finest – Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – in any case. And premium players may command an excessive fee in the mid-season window. Yet, it is no stretch to argue that short-term pain of squad disruption or financial impropriety is outweighed by the consequences of Premier League failure.

That is an equation that Moyes and Ed Woodward must solve this winter.

Resurgent United seek performances alongside results

December 29, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 8 comments
featured image

“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.

Stuck in middle

December 21, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 7 comments
featured image

New manager, mid-table in December, is Manchester United stuck in the middle of nowhere six months into David Moyes’ reign? Arguably the biggest change in the club’s history was never going to be a smooth transition. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement left many predicting a fall from grace, but it is the gravity of this fall that was much debated by the football community. Hated or adored; for many opposing fans this was the change that they had been waiting for far too long.

United’s less than convincing start under Moyes has given much credence to the claims that the current side is average, driven to glory in recent years only by the sheer brilliance of the former manager. Indeed, winning the title this season, even with Sir Alex still in charge, was always going to be a tough ask.

It is a cliché but it is harder to retain a title than to win one. After monumental change, a solid top four finish, with indications of ‘Moyes’ United’ taking shape should have always been the realistic target. Even from here, finishing outside the Champions League places, while a blow, would not a fatal one. The club has weathered many disappointments in the past.

This is certainly no time to panic. There is weight to the argument that the new man has not enjoyed the best of luck to date. Key injuries and ill-timed international breaks have all played their part in what has been a stop-start and inconsistent beginning to the campaign. The loss of Michael Carrick, the club’s standout midfielder, and injury to Robin van Persie have certainly been disruptive.

Lower on the radar, but equally as important, has been Rafael da Silva’s absence. The tenacious Brazilian provides a natural option at right back, whose attacking threat adds a great balance to a side currently struggling in wide areas. It is an assertion strengthened by the recent display at Aston Villa, in which the full-back’s runs not only provided threat of their own, but also aided Antonio Valencia’s best performance for some time.

Nevertheless, luck is never a welcome excuse, and whilst these issues detract from the often sensationalist claims of Moyes’ doubters, they should not cloud the main issue that the former Everton man inherited in July: the side is struggling for an identity.

Ferguson’s staunch insistence on deploying a 4-4-2 system was only tempered in his later years by a reluctant acceptance that in some of the bigger games, particularly away from home in Europe, more control was needed in the midfield. Wayne Rooney was often the victim, sacrificed to a wide role – a key indication that even in years of great success United’s midfield was short of the standard required at the very top of the game.

In fact the club’s history is built on width, a philosophy inherent from the youth academy through to the first team. It is an identity that has brought great success as well, with an open style and a mantra of attack – an ideology suited to a 4-4-2, players collecting chalk for fun, creating space for a plethora of attacking talent.

Yet modern football, so reliant on midfield dominance and controlled possession, has necessitated that United adapt. Towards the end of Ferguson’s tenure the Scot often used a 4-4-1-1 system, with the withdrawn striker helping out in midfield.

Ultimately, the pedantic differences in systems are moot and it is certainly not in the forward areas that United are currently struggling. In Rooney, van Persie, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, David Moyes is not devoid of strike power.

There is far more merit to the argument that the centre of the field is where United needs strengthening most. More fundamentally, however, there is no coherent direction to United’s the shape – and there hasn’t been for some time.

United’s success has often been built world class players in the wide areas; Ryan Giggs, George Best, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to name a few. But Valencia’s ‘Player of the Year’ season aside, Ronaldo’s departure has left United devoid of any world class talent in wide areas for the first time in decades.

It’s a problem perhaps recognised by Ferguson as his tenure came to an end. The diamond formation adopted at Newcastle in 2012 was described by the great man as “revolutionary” in light of the club’s history. It was a tacit admission that control in the middle is paramount in the modern game, and that United lacked top quality across the midfield as a whole.

Yet, this was a problem the former boss neglected to address before handing over the reins, leaving the club with problems not of Moyes’ making. Six months into the new manager’s time, the club needs to begin the transition to the Moyes era in earnest. It is a time for decisions and for Moyes’ to build a picture of the coherent direction he wants.

Moyes has inherited a squad without the players suited to a more expansive system and, Carrick aside, a distinct lack of quality in the centre of midfield. Perhaps more curious, though, are the options available in the wide areas. Ashley Young and Valencia are arguably the only two old fashioned wingers at the club. Nani can also play wide, but often drifts in search of the ball and remains frustratingly inconsistent.

Other options, such as Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj, are better described as a modern inside forwards, more comfortable in central areas and ultimately striving for chances in the ‘number 10’ role.

Diversity is good, but United’s options in the wide areas are fundamentally suited to different systems; Young and Valencia in a 4-4-2, others in more fluid and increasingly fashionable 4-2-3-1 or variants.

So far this season, the man tasked with playing from the left – Kagawa, Januzaj and sometimes Welbeck – has almost always had an inclination to drift inside leaving Patrice Evra to provide the width and exposed defensively. Similarly, with an inside forward deployed on the right, Rafael’s injury has left little balance.

In fact Moyes often plays one conventional winger, usually Valencia from the right, and an inside forward on the opposite flank. It is an organic formation that is heavily reliant on controlled possession, something seldom afforded by United’s current midfield.

Systems can be over-analysed, of course, yet the benefit of a common philosophy throughout a club, particularly to youth development carries significance. Historically, a classic United side might have lined up with two wingers and two forwards; formations at the heart of United’s identity. The philosophy of width was clear and these were systems taught throughout the club.

This season, however, United has often been less balanced, requiring a tactically astute left back and better retention of possession to be effective. It explains United’s relentless pursuit of Leighton Baines, a player vastly experienced in providing attacking width from full-back, while allowing his winger to drift inside.

Similarly, Kagawa has suffered for United’s lack of a clear direction – the player’s talent is not in question, but his suitability to United is. At 10 Kagawa has shown glimpses of brilliance, but played wide invariably the player is simply a square peg, in a round hole. And with two up front, the Japanese playmaker is not best suited to what has historically been United’s favoured shape.

Moreover, deployed on the left of an interchangeable front three for his country is simply incomparable to a role in which Kagawa is expected to provide width and defensive awareness at United.

Indeed, this is the real issue that confronts Moyes this winter. The United manager must decide whether to retain a system that has brought United success, or to adapt. With January approaching it is a decision to be made with courage.

If Moyes retains a basic 4-4-2 he will require higher quality in both wide areas and central midfield, where a two deployed in an expansive system are often exposed.

By contrast if Moyes adapts to a narrower 4-2-3-1 it might be a change contrary to a historical philosophy, but will use talented forwards such as Kagawa and Januzaj it their natural positions, allowing an attacking three to rotate behind a single striker.

More radically, Moyes has the talent available to deploy three defenders in 3-4-1-2 system. In Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones United have great options for a balanced back three, particularly with Jones well suited to organising from the centre of defence and stepping into midfield.

Deploying wing backs may also suit both the da Silva twins, Alex Buttner and even Valencia. It is also a system that accommodates two strikers and a player at 10 – a formation to extract the best from Kagawa, Januzaj and Rooney. It is a system that has been used to good effect in recent times by Liverpool and Hull City.

Still, there have been some positives in recent weeks, especially the club’s form away from home and in the Champions League. The manager’s plans are starting to take hold – in the end that may also include a change of shape.

Identity cannot be underestimated – from Barcelona’s tiki-taka, to the self-styled “heavy metal” of Dortmund. It is a philosophy that facilitates youth development whatever vision a new manager brings. Building an identity takes time, and short term failure is acceptable if coupled with evidence of long-term progression. It is tough to say, but Brendan Rodgers philosophy at Liverpool is beginning to blossom.

Moyes predecessor re-invented the side numerous times throughout his tenure. It was perhaps Ferguson’s biggest strength. Even the relatively barren period between 2003-2007 gave birth to a formidable side that would go on to win a Premier and Champions League double at its peak in 2008.

The side passed on by Ferguson in May also requires reconstruction. It is a job now encumbered on Moyes and one that may take some very bold decisions.

Moyes’ evolution offers United hope

December 18, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments
featured image

The lack of European pedigree caused many Manchester United fans concern upon David Moyes’ arrival at the club, but the Reds’ progress to the Champions League knockout stage has come with little fuss. The domestic situation, however, is bordering on disastrous, with the title all but gone and qualification for next season’s Champions League at great risk.

United’s weekend victory at Villa Park comes at an opportune time, but Moyes might just have to win the Champions League to keep United in Europe next season if his side fails to build upon the momentum gained on Sunday.

Good job the Reds form on the continent has been so strong. With only six games and a pile of money to be earned just by making it to the knockout rounds teams traditionally approach the group stage with some degree of caution. It is a round characterized by a mix of the well-established familiar names, alongside the odd flash-in-the pan new opponent.

Whatever the origin, Bayer Leverkusen, Shaktar Donetsk and Real Sociedad could afford to concentrate on Europe this season. Each set out to counter United with a deep defensive line and man-marking system that produced an environment in which a highly reactive manager such as Moyes could flourish.

This is not the case in the Premier League. At the European group stage there are 18 points to be won, but whopping 114 points are at stake in the Premier League season. Or another way of putting it: a Premier League point is worth less than 20 per cent of each at the Champions League group stage. ‘Weak’ Premier League opposition can afford to shun parking the bus at Old Trafford and attack United on the club’s own patch, often complicating the variables to which Moyes has to react.

React Moyes certainly has. The new United manager has continued to evolve over the season, often in constructive ways, even though results have been subpar and the Scot is under great pressure.

In fact many of United’s problems can be pinpointed to a deep defensive line, which has been a consistent feature of United’s set-up this season.

The Reds’ lone forward in Moyes’ preferred 4-4-1-1 system – often Robin Van Persie – has remained far too stationary, stretching the field of play. Indeed, Moyes’ use of Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj to connect midfield and attack suggests that the former Everton manager is not philosophically attached to direct football, but that a deep defensive unit has forced the Reds to resort to speculative passes nonetheless.

United enjoyed an excellent game at Villa Park, albeit against a mediocre opposition. At the end of the season the game might well be remembered more for the return of Darren Fletcher, but it should be marked as the fixture in which Moyes finally came to grips with his United squad.

Despite youthful Jonny Evans and Phil Jones starting in the heart of defence, the back-four remained deep, but the team as a whole dropped in a little deeper too. Wayne Rooney started as a central midfielder, with Danny Welbeck deployed as a false nine rather than a traditional striker. In central midfield Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley took turns becoming a third central defender and the set up caused the home side all sorts of problems.

David de Gea’s distribution also contributed to an excellent performance, leaving Aston Villa’s midfield unable to press United’s back-four in fear that the Spaniard could simply bypass the opposition and find Rooney at will. Meanwhile, the pace of Januzaj, Welbeck and Antonio Valencia forced Villa’s defenders to remain deep, allowing United’s trio room to create.

It was a system that escapes easy numerical categorisation, but enabled United’s central midfield to both drop deep and pick out the forwards. Valencia ran onto many balls played into the channel and chalked up two assists. Welbeck and Januzaj seemingly ghosted into the box unmarked – the English forward scoring two – while Cleverley also joined attack with great frequency.

The strategy allowed United’s forwards to receive the ball on the run – it suited those Reds more comfortable playing with the ball played in front of them than receiving it to their feet.

In fact, Kagawa made a name for himself putting the final touch on a rapid break in the Bundesliga, while neither Rooney nor Valencia can boast the first touch to truly influence the game on the ball, especially against sides that press.

It is a system that allows Moyes to field his preferred deeper line, maintain width through full backs and utilise the strengths of United forwards. De Gea remains key to the plan since his distribution is the bluff that prevents opposition midfielders from swarming the Reds. In essence, it is a sophisticated long-ball football that plays to United’s strengths.

Meanwhile, the use of Welbeck as a false nine and Rooney dropping deep suggests that Moyes has finally understood the fundamental difference between players he managed at Everton and ones at his disposal at Old Trafford. At Goodison Park Moyes boasted a squad full of specialists. The former Everton manager is now in charge of generalists who are shackled by tactics that specify their role.

Welbeck is not the greatest poacher in the world, nor Rooney the best number 10 in England. By allowing them freedom and, crucially, space to make their own decision, Moyes was rewarded with a much needed win in Birmingham.

The deep back-four may actually aid United’s offensive approach, especially in Europe, should Moyes continue to deploy his midfield and forwards deeper as well. Rooney, van Persie and company are all dangerous running onto the ball. Crucially, United’s forwards are highly versatile and intelligent, which should force future opposition back and relieve the pressure on the engine room, which will continue to leak even when Michael Carrick returns.

The template used against Villa will face much sterner tests in the future, but Moyes seems to have learned a crucial lesson in using his forwards. Moyes was not a surprise appointment and the fact that it took the Scot six months to understand his new players is disappointing. But at least he finally has.

Five games that will define United’s season

December 12, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 5 comments
featured image

Salvation was hard fought and, frankly, pretty lucky, but Manchester United secured a first win in four matches on Tuesday night – and boy did David Moyes need it. Defeats to Everton and Newcastle United were not only damaging to Moyes’ credibility, and United’s confidence, but utterly wretched. That Newcastle, 16th last season, completely outplayed United was a measure of just how far Moyes’ side has sunk.

But the narrow victory over Shaktar Donetsk could be the first in a confidence-boosting run leading up to the new year, with the Reds facing five winnable games before 2013 is out. Indeed, it is not hyperbole to say that Moyes desperately needs United to win each of those five – first against Aston Villa in the Premier League, followed by Stoke City in the Capital One Cup. League matches against West Ham United, Hull City and Norwich City follow. It is a period that will surely define the arc of United’s narrative for months to come.

Tuesday’s fixture could have been so different though. For much of the opening period United suffered for the same lethargy, tactical indiscipline and frightful passing that has plagued the Reds for much of this season. Shaktar, ranked 15th in UEFA’s coefficient and having made it to a Champions League quarter-final just once, passed around and through United with such ease that Moyes’ side should have been two down by the interim. The visitors’ 11 shots brought scant reward for a vibrant opening period.

Familiar failings were clear. Through midfield the odd couple of Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs struggled both to contain Shaktar’s attacking movement and to retain possession.

Jones in particular was guilty of allowing midfield runners past him at will, placing Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans under pressure as the Ukrainians’ Brazilian contingent quickstepped their way through. Only profligate finishing saved Moyes further embarrassment.

In fact Jones made just 33 passes in the opening period, with the game all too often bypassing the 21-year-old Lancastrian. Giggs too struggled to impose himself on the game, erring on the side of caution with his passing, before giving the ball away with the few progressive insertions made.

It is a pattern that clearly frustrates Moyes, although at least partly one of his own making. United’s rigidity has reduced passing options all over the pitch, with Moyes seemingly unaware of how to remedy the problem.

“To be honest, it’s been that way since I came here,” said Moyes of his side’s passing.

“We need to win matches and the players responded well to that encouragement. We passed the ball much better after we had given it away terribly in the first half and that’s not like us. We didn’t play particularly well in the opening 30 minutes, we could have been fortunate still to be 0-0 but we missed a couple of chances just before half-time ourselves but we played much better in the second half.

“I thought there wasn’t much difference to the Everton and Newcastle games. Tonight we got the goal. In those other games, Everton and Newcastle got the goal. There wasn’t an awful lot of difference between them.”

In that Moyes is right – United’s performance was only marginally better than against Everton and Newcastle, although the manager may have been more generous in his assessment. Certainly Moyes’ criticism was more reserved than former player Roy Keane, who was far from reticent in his assessment of United’s failings.

“There has been no reaction from the United players from the disappointment of last week,” said the Irishman.

“They don’t look like a team, just a collection of individuals running around. You can defend players for making mistakes but you cannot defend players for not tackling and not getting close to people.

“David Moyes took the heat off the players before the game by saying it is his responsibility but we are talking about experienced players. There are big question marks over the manager and the players. That for Manchester United is certainly not good enough.”

Indeed, United’s players barely dragged themselves out of a gutter of wretchedness in at least two and a half games over the past 10 days. Victory came against Shaktar, but it could so easily have been a reverse.

Yet, the half-time break brought renewed confidence for the home side, although much of the apparent revival can be found in Shaktar’s inexplicable choice to slow the match down just as the visitors had been on top. Had Mircea Lucescu’s side attacked with equal vigor in the second period United might now be staring at the wrong end of defeat, and a Round of 16 tie with one of Europe’s finest.

In such minor details are matches won and lost; confidence found or forgone. But win United did, and it was a fine goal from Jones, whose energy finally began to compensate for a tactical naïvety that is all too apparent when the youngster is deployed in midfield.

With victory comes a sense of renewed hope not only in European competition, where United will be paired with one of Europe’s lesser lights in the next round, but domestic fixtures to come. In a season of no genuine momentum, where performances have rarely sparkled, a quintet of victories before Tottenham Hotspur arrives on New Years Day might just create a little impetus.

Certainly, United’s 12 game unbeaten run before defeat to Everton last week brought only a modicum of belief. In those dozen games five draws peppered victories that only rarely exceeded the mundane. It was a sequence that underlined a common observation: this is not the United of old. Not even the United of a year ago.

Still, there are few excuses left for short-term failure now. Moyes passes six full months in charge by the end of the year, while of the opponents to come none can claim any real form. In fact each of United’s next four league fixtures is against a team below the Reds in the Premier League table.

Paul Lambert’s Villains were beaten comfortably at relegation threatened Fulham last week. West Ham would join their capital neighbours in the bottom three but for goal difference, while Hull and Norwich have each struggled to find any consistency.

In the cup United will face a Stoke side whose focus is on ensuring Premier League status next season, with knock-out competitions a distant second priority.

Only then comes a difficult January, with Spurs at Old Trafford as the year turns, followed by two fixtures with Swansea City, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and a potential Capital One Cup semi-final. If United hasn’t picked up momentum by then, Moyes’ side surely never will.

Six months and it’s all crap – ta ra Moyes!

December 7, 2013 Tags: Opinion 67 comments
featured image

Six months with David Moyes and Manchester United has transformed from Premier League champions to something akin to a relegation contender. After all the amateur decision-making that has surrounded the club these past few months, it’s a wonder how the Reds are not long out of the Champions League as well. Maybe the age of miracles really isn’t over?

Moyes has made mistakes from the off. He came in to the position as United manager and sacked world-class coaches in René Meulensteen and Eric Steele in too much of a hurry. Preposterously, he went on to claim that he was “still getting to know” his players. Really? It might have been a good idea to keep some of the coaches that had trained these players for years.

Fast forward a few months and Moyes publicly claims that he needs more coaching manpower and wants to hire yet another former Everton coach in John Murtough, the Premier League’s Head of Elite Performance. One wonders what, exactly, was the point of giving Meulensteen, Steele, and even Mike Phelan the boot in the first place. Given Sir Alex Ferguson’s superhuman work ethic, it wouldn’t have been strange for Moyes to increase the number of backroom staff last summer, rather than shed experience.

During Ferguson’s recent lecture “Repeating Success”, held in Oslo a few weeks back, United’s former manager said that letting his staff take care of the day-to-day coaching was one of the best decisions he’d ever made. Ferguson explained that it was former assistant Archie Knox’ idea from their days at Aberdeen, freeing Sir Alex to concentrate on pretty much everything else.

In that context it is baffling that Moyes felt the need to stroll in to the Carrington – sorry, the “Aon Training Complex” – to take charge of every single training session from the off. Where does that leave Steve Round and what, exactly, does he do?

After all, the manager’s role at United is so big, so complex, and the workload so huge that it is simply common sense to rely on an extensive, and world-class, backroom staff, and Moyes had the opportunity to keep some pretty good coaches around. Instead, he felt the need to show United’s multi-millionaire stars, whom between them have won countless trophies, ‘how it really should be done’. No wonder Moyes has struggled to gain the players’ respect.

It is not as if Moyes’ training sessions have led to blistering football in any case. Quite the opposite. If Moyes had led an attacking revolution, it would be harder for supporters to criticise. As it is, with a top four finish seemingly unrealistic, it is oh so easy. In fact training, Moyes-style, has led only to slow, boring football, with two-time Premier League top-scorer Robin van Persie sat on the sidelines injured. Nice work, David.

It gets even worse when it comes to acquisitions. United’s bizarre and embarrassing approach to the summer transfer window has been fully analysed. Yet, after failing to acquire any top talent, it still boggles the mind why Moyes believed that United’s squad would benefit from the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini.

In fact Fellaini has been so bad that further analysis about the ‘wigman’ is unnecessary; you’ve seen him play. Fellaini was decent enough in the average punter’s Fantasy League team last season, but few actually wanted him in a United shirt. Yet, even with that observation in mind it would be natural to expect United’s coaching team to define Fellaini’s role with the side. The very same coaching team that know him from Everton.

It’s an obvious question, but how does Moyes expect Fellaini to contribute this season? As a midfield shield; holding up the ball; scoring goals, and using his height from set-pieces? He is doing none, and certainly not all of them! And, as an aside, Fellaini should have been sent off in United’s recent loss against Everton – not for the first time either. United’s disciplinary record is excellent, let’s keep it that way, eh?

Then there is the public pursuit of left-back Leighton Baines, when United already possesses one of the world’s finest in the position, the club vice-captain, Patrice Evra. Evra is almost never injured and his heart bleeds United, and he remains extremely important in the dressing room. Unsettling the man made little sense, especially when United have decent cover in Alexander “street footballer” Büttner, Fabio Da Silva and the fine youngster Guillermo Varela.

Off the pitch Moyes inspires no confidence either. The 50-year-old has name dropped Everton and what “we did there” in almost every press conference. But, David, sixth place isn’t honourable and at United it isn’t good enough either. United shalt always compete for honours – it is what fans have come to expect with Sir Alex at the helm.

After all, United’s worst position since the inauguration of the Premiership is third place, and that was widely criticised as a poor season. How about not finishing in the top four? For United’s ‘spoilt’ fans – sorry, “customers” – that is akin to living in either Sodomma or Gomorra. Take your pick.

This is, after all, the reigning Champions, not a club struggling for survival as United found itself in 1986 when Sir Alex took charge. Not only did United win the league by 11 points last season, but the side was unlucky not to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.

It begs the question – exactly who does Moyes think he is coming to United and changing everything? This is a top club, and Moyes inherited top coaches and top playing talent served on a silver platter.

Whatever happened to Moyes’ promise to ‘continue the United way’? There’s nothing United-esque about the side these days. Two home defeats on the trot is almost unheard of! Yet, Moyes felt the need to reinvent the wheel. Some nerve after 11 seasons at Everton and not a single trophy secured.

It is a situation reminiscent of Roy Hodgson’s time at Liverpool – a decent manager that no one ever warmed to, who failed to gain his players’ respect. Wrong man, at the wrong time.

Approach with caution: Moyes’ defensive demeanour

December 7, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments
featured image

One of the themes of David Moyes reign at Manchester United is the criticism levelled at the new manager for his cautious predilection. Many fans have always believed that the Scot’s conservatism was bound to resurface at Old Trafford since this was one of the defining characteristics of his Everton reign.

To say Moyes has been exclusively defensive in his approach is unfair, especially in the wake of winning a European away game by an unprecedented margin of five goals. Yet, six months in, United supporters remain worried about the tactical outlook of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor.

Moyes has, at least, paid lip service to his obligation to honour United’s rich heritage of attacking football. It is a point he was keen to emphasise as early as the relatively dull 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford, and reiterated after the pulsating victory over Bayern Leverkusen 10 days ago. “It’s what I’ve been hoping to get more often,” claimed the Scot.

United fans were collectively ushered back into reality after last Sunday’s curiously erratic 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur. Defeat at home to Everton in midweek simply confirmed that Moyes’ hope and reality are poles apart.

It took a week for the memories of Moyes, purveyor of attacking football, to dissipate, leaving fans once again with a brand of football that errs towards safety first. This is, after all, a former centre half who spent £27 million on a battering ram only to employ him as a defensive midfielder.

It is important not to get carried away with characterising Moyes as purely a defensive tactician. Old Trafford has not yet seen two banks of four sat deep on the edge of United’s own box; even in the goalless draw with Chelsea the Reds looked more assertive than the visitors, with Mourinho strangely content to take a point.

Yet, the fact remains that as an attacking force the Reds have been far from potent this season, winning only three games by a margin of three or more since the start of the campaign, including the 4-0 defeat of an utterly toothless Norwich City in the Capital One Cup.

One problem is Moyes’ tendency to fall back on cautious tactics in the important moments of games. The most tangible example came in United’s 1-1 draw with Southampton at home, and Wayne Rooney’s substitution for Chris Smalling two minutes prior to Adam Lallana’s 89th minute equaliser.

The irony in this instance is that Southampton equalised from a corner, which might suggest Moyes made the right change by bringing on a central defender, but that football is a game that loves to confound.

In the end this change served only to highlight the manager’s favour for caution over attacking intent. Had the change been made five minutes earlier, with Rooney swapped for one of the more offensive unused substitutes – Javier Hernández, Shinki Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha were all available on the bench – it might have been United securing the 89th minute corner , pushing to increase a slender lead rather than protect it.

Moyes’ penchant for caution plays out in the lack of tactical variation and fluidity this season. The United manager is bound by his fondness for a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation that only ever evolves when it morphs into a more conventional 4-4-2. In reality any variation depends entirely on Rooney’s positioning.

In this observation there is real surprise in United’s performance in Leverkusen, with Shinji Kagawa tantalisingly elusive between the lines, Ryan Giggs creative and positive in his use of the ball and Rooney, positionally capricious. The Scouser was at once a goal-scoring threat and incisive in creating chances, as evidenced by his four assists.

This attacking vigour was possible in the seemingly rigid confines of Moyes’ 4-4-1 formation, although one of the reasons the Reds prospered in the BayArena was because the team played in an attacking style that was tremendously fluid. United’s players interchanged positions and passed the ball with imagination. The Reds’ build-up was no longer predictable and the home side struggled to gain any kind of foothold in the game.

This is why United’s performances in the Premier League this week have been so disheartening. Kagawa, given a berth in the number 10 role against Spurs and Everton, was subdued in both matches, while Valencia was erratic in north London.

Most worrying of all though is Tom Cleverley’s form, Giggs’ replacement in the starting XI at Spurs. The 24-year-old has not been able to build the promise of youth, with any hope that he is United’s next big midfield star dissipating quickly. The England midfielder’s passing lacks penetration, with the player set on shifting the ball sideways rather than looking to create any meaningful attacks.

Cleverley’s defensive susceptibility is a real problem too – he was nowhere when Jordan Mutch split United’s defence with, an albeit wonderful, through ball for Cardiff’s first goal a fortnight ago. At White Hart Lane Cleverley could not get close enough to Sandro to stop the Brazilian launching a swerving shot into the top corner.

Away from individuals, perhaps United’s problem is not in the choice of formation, but in its application. Giggs cannot play every match, or even be expected to reach the standard of performance he displayed against Leverkusen on a regular basis, and without Carrick United look devoid of ideas in a flat-footed central midfield.

This is one area where Moyes can break loose of his inherent defensive sensibility. Kagawa could, for example, drop into central midfield alongside Jones, giving United greater creative impetus at the cost of some measure of defensive stability. Alternatively, Moyes could mold his attacking players into a more interchangeable unit that is a match for the dynamic trio of Cristano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in 2008.

After all, Moyes has the talent at his disposal in Rooney, Kagawa, Nani, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj. It would certainly please many fans to see the manager abandon a degree of caution in his tactical approach.

The Scot’s use of substitutions is can be more positive too. Draws might have become victories in United’s games against Southampton, Cardiff and the away fixture with Real Sociedad if the manager’s changes had shown more attacking intent.

Don’t mistake the desire to see more attacking football as nostalgia either. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t end every game with four strikers on the pitch and a return to the gung-ho tactics of the late 1990s is unrealistic.

But some of the old United attacking exuberance would be a more than adequate antidote. Even if it is to at least allay the fear that Moyes actually prefers Chris Smalling at right-back to Rafael.