Tag David Moyes

Tag David Moyes

Moyes: 20 games in

November 29, 2013 Tags: , Reads 12 comments
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Manchester United’s record-breaking 5-0 win against Bayer Leverkusen last Wednesday marked the 20th game under David Moyes, and despite a shaky start to the campaign, the Reds are now on a decent run, with Moyes’ side unbeaten in 12 matches. With 20 down United has played enough games for Moyes’ tactical vision to emerge – there are significant departures from his Everton set-up.

The most conspicuous change in Moyes’ approach at Old Trafford is his use of United’s defenders. The Scot’s strict ‘two bands of four’ system was abandoned after the Reds’ 4-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad, although Moyes has persisted with a 4-4-1-1 system, or thereabouts, in the following weeks.

United’s perceived defensive vulnerability at full-back, particularly Patrice Evra, led Moyes to instruct his defenders to tuck in during the early weeks of the season. Defending the box a priority. The effect was to force United’s wingers onto the back foot and allow opponents to put the Reds under pressure. United’s 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield is a case in point.

In the weeks that followed the approach has changed, and United can now boast a more familiar set-up – one winger assisting the defence, the player on the opposite flank presenting a passing option.

However, in general Moyes has instructed his players to perform a functional role. Centre-backs and central midfielders hold their ground, with full-backs and wingers pushing forward in a well-drilled fashion.

But Moyes has adapted. At first, the former Everton manager tried to replicate an Everton favourite by instructing his wingers to cut in and full-backs push forward to provide width. Yet, Ashley Young and Nani failed to establish themselves in the first team and Antonio Valencia is not suited for the role.

Meanwhile, the diminishing athleticism of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand dictated that the side defended deep leaving Moyes’ wide men without the time or space to transform United’s two banks of four into a more flexible 4-2-3-1. The result: the Reds were often too slow to initiate attacks.

While Moyes gained notoriety for a direct approach at his former club, the Scot has become more cultured at Old Trafford over time. In general, United has played a careful possession game to establish a high line before playing aggressively to unsettle the opposition.

At Everton, Moyes preferred attacking full-backs who were also solid defensively, leaving favourites such as Steven Pienaar free to cut in knowing that the player overlapping him will do so while protecting the integrity of his team’s defensive shape. The system allowed Moyes to field a functional player like Maroune Fellaini in the hole to make late runs into the box.

Moyes faced a different challenge at Old Trafford, where the Scot could not afford to instruct his wingers to cut in without exposing Evra and his counterpart on the right. The knock-on effect was felt through the team. With little support, Wayne Rooney at 10 was forced to roam into the channels to overload the flank. Meanwhile, United’s central midfielders were forced to sit deep, while Robin van Persie was left isolated.

The Scousers role is particularly interesting. Despite another summer transfer saga, Rooney quickly established himself in the first team, with the vast space between the his strike partner and central midfield, widened by two wingers hugging the touchline, there for the former Everton man to navigate.

Yet, the recalcitrant striker has never been particularly good at holding up the ball, nor has he ever been a trequartista truly linking the midfield with attack.

It was a strange decision, then, in the opening weeks to shun Shinji Kagawa. Even in Rooney’s absence, seemingly more dependable players like Danny Welbeck were preferred to the sublime Kagawa at number 10. The Japanese does not present an aerial presence and Moyes’ preference for brawn perhaps makes sense given the United wingers’ inability to penetrate central areas.

Still, it is Rooney’s inability to maintain possession that has opened the door for the Japanese. The lack of a spare man in the middle restricted options for United’s holding midfield two. By contrast, Adnan Januzaj or Kagawa deployed on the left, with each keen to cut inside, presents a passing option that enables United to push up.

There are consequences though. Evra’s surges towards the byline masks the lack of width, but with Kagawa or Januzaj on the left United is undoubtedly more vulnerable in defence. The set up can also drain the Reds of tempo, with United too often playing in front of the opposition, struggling to break sides down.

United’s victory in Leverkusen may be a turning point, with Kagawa starting in his preferred central role for the first time since Moyes’ arrival at Old Trafford. The former Dortmund player had an excellent game as well. United’s wide men stretched the German side, affording Kagawa ample space in which to operate. Crucially, the playmaker’s quick feet injected pace into United’s attacks.

Rooney’s indiscipline also contributed greatly. The Liverpool-born striker does not possess the pace of yore, but he remains a far more mobile player than van Persie. Rooney’s constant running unsettled Leverkusen’s defenders and the team exploited the panic by putting five in the net.

This tactical indiscipline is often masked by the term “passion.” Yet, on the pitch, composure is often of far greater value than any zeal for running. As a forward on the shoulder of last defender, however, Rooney’s workrate is a major asset.

It leaves Moyes with plenty of questions. While van Persie is far better technically, the Dutch does not have the forcefulness that makes Rooney so effective up-front. Indeed, in the current set up Moyes will probably benefit more from using Rooney as the leading striker than van Persie.

Not that dislodging the two-time Premier League top scorer is anything but a larger political nightmare than the Rooney saga. Yet, with Kagawa now in the mix and Welbeck lurking, Moyes has much to think about. The good news is that the new United manager has continued to grow into the role.

Victory over Arsenal is Moyes’ opportunity and threat

November 12, 2013 Tags: , , , Reads 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.

Shinji freed, but Moyes’ mindset remains shackled

October 24, 2013 Tags: , Reads 14 comments
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It was a fleeting moment, but for many inside Old Trafford, one of real beauty: Shinji Kagawa freed from the left and deployed, at long last, in his favoured position at number 10. Legion Manchester United supporters have waited months to see it, and while there were no angels weeping, nor doves soaring high over Manchester, an inner child of joy was unleashed in thousands of grown men who should know better.

Kagawa’s move inside lasted little more than a dozen minutes against Real Sociedad on Wednesday night, but it was a liberation of sorts that brings both catharsis for the player and poses a key question: will the United now manager trust to the creative potential in his midst, or retreat once again into his own limitations?

True, there is little evidence that Kagawa is the solution to United’s problems, save for a feeling that his is a talent too good to waste on the bench or shunt out wide. Then there are those two excellent seasons in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, although the Japanese has done little at United to justify significant lionisation. But, then, he has been afforded little opportunity to do so either.

Indeed, such has been the paucity of creative spark from United this season, driven in part by available personnel, but predominantly by David Moyes’ mindset, that Kagawa’s potential impact is exaggerated in absentia.

Yet, for those few minutes against the Basque side Kagawa glided inside, with Wayne Rooney moving forward and the ever-hapless Ashley Young taking a position on the left-wing. Free at last, the playmaker was at liberty to dictate the tempo and direction of United’s play.

For the best part of 80 minutes Kagawa was typically energetic on the left, although it is pointed to note that the most frequent passing combination was with Patrice Evra, his supporting full-back. The role inherently limits the scope to which Kagawa is involved and the areas of the pitch he can probe.

Nor did Kagawa shirk his defensive responsibilities, frequently dropping back into his own half to cover Evra. It is an ethic Moyes predictably likes, but a requirement that also limits Kagawa’s offensive impact.

“I thought it was Shinji’s best game in my time here,” Moyes said in the aftermath of United’s 1-0 victory over Sociedad.

“He hadn’t really found his feet yet but I saw something from Shinji tonight which I hadn’t seen in other games, so I was really pleased. His effort when we didn’t have the ball was fantastic. With Shinji, everybody tells me about his ability and what he has got, but tonight is the first time I’ve really seen Shinji.

“I thought when we put him into the number 10 role, and even after it, he was good with Wayne. His attitude and energy were excellent and I was pleased for him.”

Yet, more than Kagawa’s impact on United’s performances the former Borussia player has become an icon for the style of play many Reds long for. Educated in a long-standing tradition of attacking football, however rosy the nostalgia, the notion of Moyes’ functional defensive-minded football is anathema to many match-going supporters.

It was with horror that many witnessed Moyes haul Rooney off for Chris Smalling against Southampton last weekend, however poor the striker’s performance. Moyes rationalised: protection at set pieces in the final moments of the game was more important than securing a second goal, but it was a move that said so much more about the Scot’s approach.

Despite the bright performance against La Real there are still significant barriers to Kagawa claiming a permanent place in Moyes’ side, not least the Scot’s apparent reluctance to part with a mindset honed over more than a decade fighting the good fight with Everton.

Then there is the question of how to fit Kagawa, Rooney and Robin van Persie into the side without compromising the role of one or more player in what has become a fairly static 4-4-2 formation under the new manager. Given van Persie’s status, and the extraordinarily sycophantic lengths to which Moyes has courted Rooney, it is safe to assume that it is the Japanese that will continue to miss out. He has most weeks since August 2012.

Throw Adnan Januzaj into the mix and United has a creative, flexible and inventive quartet that Moyes has not yet unleashed in tandem. It is doubtful that he ever will.

In fact Kagawa’s deployment in his natural position at ‘10’ has been so rare during nearly 18 months at the club that the playmaker’s departure this January had begun to feel inevitable. It may still be should the 24-year-old once again find himself consigned to the wing, or more likely, to the bench over the coming weeks.

And despite this there is the nagging sense that not only could the Japanese spark life into a run-of-the-mill United side, but help shape Moyes’ thinking away from the defense-first approach required at Everton, to something fundamentally more adventurous at Old Trafford.

After all, Moyes’ opening dozen games are disturbing, not only for the abject manner in which his team has too often performed, and the frustrating manner in which the new man has cast aside those players he does not know or trust, but for the fundamentally cautious approach. It is an instinct that will shape, for better or worse, Moyes’ legacy at Old Trafford.

In that Kagawa has become symbolic of the regime change. The man once described by former coach Jurgen Klopp as “one of the best players in the world” now a square peg in Moyes’ round hole. One bright performance against Sociedad won’t change that, but it could be the beginning of Kagawa’s revival.

If Moyes is open to it.

van Persie could benefit from new role

October 21, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 18 comments
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Wayne Rooney’s recent declaration that he is happy at Manchester United now that he is playing as a striker under David Moyes has been interpreted in a number of ways. But setting aside the claim and its message for a moment it is good to remember that Rooney had his best season in 2009/10 during which the Scouser played primarily as a traditional number nine. Given that Rooney lacks the typical qualities of a real number 10, or a winger for that matter, Moyes can be excused for using the Englishman as a striker given the player’s history.

But Moyes system has provoke a number of tactical question, some of which might be alleviated by using Dutchman Robin van Persie in a new role.

Moyes’ system, in which full backs are encouraged to aggressively provide width, means that Old Trafford’s two central midfielders – Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini as the first choice pair – cannot push forward without risk. Meanwhile, United’s wingers have been encouraged to cut inside with Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra pushing high up the pitch.

Yet, in the system there is also a clear need for someone to occupy the space between the main striker – Javier Hernandez or van Persie – and central midfield. It was a role Sir Alex Ferguson asked Rooney to fulfill in the Scot’s last Premier League winning side, leaving the Reds with a variety of channels in which to attack.

Typically Moyes deploys a forward in the hole, but this nominal number 10 has looked to attack the box late more than providing an additional passing option in the attacking third.

Theoretically United’s wide man are required to link midfield with attack, while the full-backs crosses from wide areas – turning Moyes’ formation from a 4-4-1-1 into a 4-2-2-2 in the attacking phase. However, there are weaknesses in United’s team that inhibit the Scot’s plan. The lack of a spare man in defense and Evra’s poor positional awareness has limited United’s opportunities in the final third, for example.

Additionally in recent matches against Southampton and Liverpool the opposition pressed United’s midfield duo heavily, forcing the Reds to attack almost exclusively down the flanks. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were shown the byline at Anfield, while Adnan Januzaj and Nani were fouled into submission at Old Trafford. In each United’s attack was predictable and blunted.

Moyes attempted to introduce a holding midfielder in European competition, but the United squad is loaded with forwards, and deploying a number 10 that links midfield and attack is surely more of a priority. Without this additional passing option in the middle United is forced to into wide areas, as has been the case in recent games.

With Rooney seemingly preferring a more direct role, Shinji Kagawa is the one man in the United squad capable of providing the missing link. Yet, dropping van Persie for Kagawa is unthinkable, leaving the Japanese out of favour and questioning his future at the club.

Moyes has always been keen on keen on having a player arrive late into the opposition box, which offers two separate targets to aim at with balls from wide areas. At Everton Tim Cahill and latterly Fellaini fulfilled the role, while at Old Trafford Rooney’s aerial presence might be weighing heavily in the former Everton manager’s mind.

Meanwhile, van Persie appears to be increasingly isolated in a United shirt, with United’s system not bringing the best out of the record Netherlands’ goalscorer.

These challenges bring to mind the once radical concept of false nine – a forward who drops deep – which is now mainstream tactical thinking. It is a role that might suit United’s Dutchman – in fact van Persie often played the role for Arsenal to great effect, with the former Arsenal player and Cesc Fabregas often devastating as a pair.

In Catalonia Lionel Messi is Barcelona’s false nine and his heroics outshine the fact that Barça’s wingers benefit from the space created by the Argentinean. At Old Trafford, allowing van Persie to drop deep might force opposition defenders to choose between letting the Dutchman crowd midfield or following him and leaving a gap in the defensive line.

Rooney and United’s wingers might even benefit from the additional movement in forward areas. The fact that Rooney, Januzaj and van Persie can all play as false nine suggests that the seemingly easy tactical switch of encouraging a forward to drop deep could inject the flair that United is desperate for.

In the plan van Persie will benefit from more touches of the ball, while United’s possession game – with just 76 per cent of passes completed against Southampton – will improve. The Dutchman’s presence in the hole would also allow midfielders to attack and Fellaini to offer his physical presence in the attacking third.

Retaining the ball for longer is advantageous in most situations, but it is particularly useful for United since Evra is better in the attacking than the defensive third.

Moyes is well known for his conservatism, but the concept of false nine is well documented and field tested. Spain won Euro 2012 with Cesc Fabregas dropping off opposition defenders, and Sir Alex is one of the pioneers of false nine, having used both Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney in the role.

It is a bold step, but using van Persie in a new role could both solve many of United’s attacking problems and negate the need to bring in new attacking players, of whom Moyes may have little trust in any case.

David’s darlings

October 10, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 18 comments
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Legendary Italian player Paolo Maldini was 35-years-old when asked if he still got nervous ahead of matches. “It’s much worse now”, he replied, “when you’re young, you don’t really care about all the fuss, you just want to prove yourself.” There’s probably a lot to learn from Maldini, and even more so when last Saturday’s game against Sunderland and subsequent goals from youngster Adnan Januzaj are put in to context.

Unlike many senior Manchester United players, the young Belgian-Albanian seemed to enjoy his football, looking eager to prove himself. There was no stress as Januzaj took two beautiful goals. The first a fine pass out to Patrice Evra on the left, with Sunderland hardman Lee Cattermole snipping at the young attacker’s heels, followed by a well-timed run in to the box and nice finish with his right. Januzaj’s second was even better when a poor John O’Shea clearance was hammered into the corner with a volley even Robin van Persie would have been proud of.

There’s no denying Januzaj a run in the first team now, not after Saturday’s display, especially if David Moyes considers Ashley Young to be the youngster’s main competitor on United’s left! England international Young hasn’t performed well in the United shirt since the Reds beat Manchester City at Ethiad in December, almost a year ago. Moyes probably realises this too, which perhaps is why Young was nowhere to be seen last weekend.

The soon-to-be-out-of-contract Januzaj actually became the youngest ever to score two goals in a Premier League game Saturday evening, so if Moyes and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward know a bit about what they’re doing – and the jury is still definitely out  – they’ll make sure the youngster signs a lengthy, and profitable, contract extension. The club can ill afford another Paul Pogba situation.

Can you actually win something with kids; perhaps Moyes should look to Januzaj and other United starlets to save this so far dismal season? It’s not as if blame can be attached to any of the squad’s younger players for United’s tepid season start.

Take Rio Ferdinand, for example, who was omitted from the squad against Sunderland with a groin strain. The England international has been at fault for much that’s been going on in United’s defence this season. Both of Bayern Leverkusen’s goals in the Champions League came from Rio’s mistakes, and the same argument can be made of West Bromwich Albion’s goals at Old Trafford.

Which begs the question: where’s Johnny Evans? Thoroughly solid two seasons on the trot, the Northern Irishman seems to be another of United’s forgotten men after his comfortable display in his first game this season against Liverpool in the league cup. Maybe Moyes blames the international for United’s shock defeat against WBA?

Phil Jones should perhaps have done better when Sunderland scored the opening goal last Saturday, but United captain Nemanja Vidic won’t be pleased with the way he handed Craig Gardner the opening goal. And hasn’t Chris Smalling been pretty much outstanding when given the chance this campaign? Perhaps a little more faith in youth at the back is the way forward, while playing with some enthusiasm like Rafael Da Silva would be nice.

Januzaj might not be the sole bright young spot on offer for United this season. It was, after all, a masterclass save from ‘keeper David De Gea with the score still at 1-0 to the home side that kept United in the game.

And Tom ‘TC23’ Cleverley might deserve a few more games next to Michael Carrick in the centre of the park after two decent performances against Shaktar Donetsk and the second half against Sunderland. At least the Englishman brings a bit more energy than Marouane Fellaini, who so far seems to only be very good at passing the ball back to Carrick, or even further back towards one of United’s defenders.

Perhaps another one to claim a future place next to Carrick could be the attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard, who’s on loan to Birmingham City in the Championship until the end of October. Lingard proved during this summer’s marketing tour – formerly known as “preseason” – that he knows how to shoot, so there seems little to lose in offering the youngster time when the loan deal expires. Four goals in his first game for the Brummies prompted the experienced Birmingham assistant manager Terry McDermott to say it was the best debut he had ever seen.

Then there is Nick Powell, the first player to ever have scored a goal for Wigan Athletic in Europe – a player that was hailed by Crewe Alexandra legend Dario Gradi as one of the finest to emerge from the club’s acknowledged academy.

It is not too much to ask that talents such as Januzaj, Lingard and Powell are given a chance ahead of those that have been given many, but failed to impress. If only to make sure the senior players know that their places are under threat. After all, the aforementioned Pogba went from United’s bench to star at Juventus – it should never happen again.

It also might not be a bad idea to give Wilfried Zaha a first team debut sometime soon. The youngster could show a tad more creative spark than the ultra boring Antonio Valencia, a player that Patrice Evra once described by saying “I think he ate a motor!” Some how the Ecuadorian who has “eaten a motor” now fails to track back, pass opposition defenders or properly cross the ball. Maybe the motor is depleted?

Meanwhile, many seem to think that want-away star Wayne Rooney has been United’s finest so far, but his form is surely vastly overrated. The Scouser’s touch doesn’t look good – always a barometer – and running around like a very rich man’s Carlos Tevez isn’t going to win United enough matches, nor trophies, unless is for appreciating “effort” above all else.

Sadly, Rooney’s new-found striking partner Robin van Persie doesn’t look all that fit either, not after fluffing the chance he had to score United’s third goal against Sunderland when the Dutchman was through one on one with the home side’s ‘keeper. van Persie in good form would score in a position like that. Possibly even in his sleep.

There is even an argument – a brutal one – that a younger guard in Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández have earned a chance during the coming run of ‘favourable fixtures.’

“Manchester United has always relied hugely on young players and my priority will always be to promote these talents”, Moyes said this summer. Now is the time to prove it, David, and play your darlings!

Shinji could become Moyes’ liberator

October 9, 2013 Tags: , Reads 31 comments
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In 10 years under David Moyes Everton relied heavily on width. With Sir Alex Ferguson also a believer, Moyes has persisted with the philosophy in his new role at Manchester United, although the result has been mixed at best.

Sides facing the Reds tend to focus on retaining a defensive shape, and an attacking philosophy that becomes predictable makes it easier for opposition to anticipate and react to United’s attacks. Relying heavily on the flanks, for example, falls into that category. This is one reason why Ferguson tried to include as many avenues of attack as possible to break down stubborn opposition.

After a run of poor results early in the season Moyes might have learned this lesson too, although he has problems with implementation. The line-up against Sunderland last weekend was versatile, with a variety of formations such as 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 all possible without substitution. Adnan Januzaj and Nani added flexibility – United could use the flanks traditionally or otherwise. Even deployed on the natural flank, each is comfortable using their weaker foot and Sunderland was forced to risk allowing the United duo to cut inside.

Meanwhile, with Wayne Rooney deployed as more of a forward than a genuine number 10 the Englishman came deep only occasionally, leaving room for Januzaj to play between the lines. The plan was scuppered only by Sunderland’s use of a 4-3-3 formation with Lee Cattermole holding. In the end United struggled to channel balls through the middle.

One consequence was that United attacked almost exclusively down the flanks, delivering 30 crosses, and made it easy for Sunderland to defend. In fact so easy was it for Sunderland in the first half that the Reds might have lost if it wasn’t for David de Gea’s heroics and, eventually, Januzaj’s brilliance.

It has been a pattern this season, with United’s opponents defending deep and shepherding Red wingers out wide into predictable situations. It is a tactic that doesn’t even play into the Reds’ hands, with Marouanne Fellaini the only aerial presence in the squad.

Meanwhile, Robin Van Persie’s isolation up front has been an issue throughout the campaign. One good game against Swansea City lies in contrast to his fine record last season. Even so the Dutch striker’s form this season is puzzling given that United hasn’t lost any key personnel nor has the side changed tactics significantly.

Perhaps the answer lies in the lack of a player deployed behind the Dutchman. Rooney was deployed at number 10 last season, while Danny Welbeck played a similar role against Swansea on the opening day of the campaign. With a player in the hole the opposition is forced to commit an extra man between the lines.

Meanwhile United’s wingers are more potent too. After all, crosses are more dangerous with a forward arriving late into the box having escaped his marker. Yet, for the most part Rooney has been deployed as a partner of, rather than a supporting man to, van Persie this year.

Over the past two seasons Rooney has played successfully at 10 – at least in terms of his output, albeit with differing instructions each campaign. Yet, United’s performances have dropped since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, with a group of wide players taking poor form into the current season from the last.

Aside from Ronaldo’s loss, much of the problem lies with in Rooney’s footballing style. The former Evertonian has never been particularly comfortable playing in tight quarters, leading the 27-year-old, whether by instinct or instruction, to release the ball to the flanks. It is always an easier out ball since wide men tend to have more space than the central forward.

To his credit ‘White Pele’ is a player who looks for the ball, but his influence directly affects the type and quality of football United plays, and his tendency to shift the focus to the flank has prompted some of club’s lower quality displays in recent years. Not least because United can boast so few wide players in form.

Width is, of course, central not just to Moyes, but to many managers in world football. Wingers tend to suffer the least opposition pressure and present an easy passing option. Speedy wide men also stretch the field of play and make it easier for those through the middle to find space.

Yet, Rooney’s style tends to offer a map to the Reds’ approach – one that’s not particularly useful in any case, with so little aerial prowess in the squad.

In order to break out of this cycle Moyes could refocus United’s threat through the middle. Welbeck has often played at 10, and presents a safe option given his work rate and tactical intelligence. But the academy graduate lacks real incision leaving Shinji Kagawa a far more adventurous choice in the hole.

Despite not playing regularly the former Dortmund player boasted the highest passing completion rate in the final third in England last season. Notwithstanding his excellent form in the Bundesliga from 2010-12, Kagawa affords United a passing option near the opposition box that no other player offers.

There are risks: it is often said Kagawa’s lack of physicality causes United problems through the middle. However, recent changes in the squad may offer an answer to this problem.

Fellaini has long held that his natural role is that of a defensive midfielder, although the Belgian has added little steel in the engine room to date. Indeed, the Champions League game against Shaktar brutally exposed a serious flaw in the former Everton player. The Belgian gave away a series of fouls, which was understandable because of his limited European experience, but the tendency to give away possession, was even more worrying.

Closer to home, Cleverley has become a defensive midfielder of note under Moyes. The England international is making more interceptions and tackles this season than ever before. On average he has made three tackles per game this season against 1.68 tackles per game last season, while the midfielder’s tackling success rate has increased from 78 per cent to 93 per cent.

At the Stadium of Light, for example, Cleverley successfully completed eight tackles from nine attempts. The midfielder was deployed in a central two against Sunderland’s three man midfield and his tackle success rate, number of tackles and courage, knowing that a missed tackle would put his defence under pressure, was highly impressive.

Moreover, Cleverley has maintained the 90 per cent pass completion rate of last season. Incredibly, 63.6 per cent of his passes are forwards – against 56.5 per cent last season. The former Wigan Athletic player does not offer the sheer brawn of Fellaini, but the statistics suggest that Cleverley is now an accomplished tackler who also keeps possession.

Meanwhile, Kagawa is the one United player who can go laterally and offer United more attacking options. Rooney is a better crosser, and perhaps more threatening than the Japanese out wide, but Kagawa is unquestionably superior floating behind a striker.

The former Dortmund player covered more ground than any other player in his last Bundesliga season, roaming in search of space and allowing midfielders to move the ball up field safely. The Japanese could do the same for United, helping the Reds to keep possession in the middle and freeing Michael Carrick at the same time. In fact, Kagawa’s ability to navigate the game in tight quarters means that Moyes could even consider a Carrick-free midfield.

Ferguson’s purchase of Kagawa, and the Scot’s initial deployment of the Japan international at 10, indicates that the transfer had a rationale behind it. Cleverley’s development might allow Moyes to deploy a traditional number 10 whose primary role is to provide creativity.

Although this switch might place too much emphasis on Kagawa the creator, Januzaj’s rapid growth could divert attention from the Japanese, if Moyes dares to deploy both.

And while is Rooney still is a better all-round footballer than Kagawa the Scouser severely limits United’s attacking variety. Sir Alex benched expensive and seemingly important players, such as Dimitar Berbatov and Ruud Nisterlooy, when needed. Does Moyes have the bottle to do the same with Rooney? He might just benefit from it.

Moyes: 10 games in

October 7, 2013 Tags: Reads 14 comments
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“Your job now, is to stand by our new manager!” were the famous words Sir Alex Ferguson said to David Moyes’ bodyguard before the pre-season tour. But as it turned out people interpreted it rather differently. Idiots! After four months and four hundred changes of mind about the new manager’s ability that quote is turning out to be everyone’s punchline. No exceptions. You can’t blame them really. When a great man is so impactful, people won’t hesitate to quote him, particularly when a few retweets are in it.

One Liverpool fan even tweeted Bill Shankly’s line “Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league”  four games into the season. Of the two one shouldn’t be used the way it is. We’ll figure out why the other is being used 10 games into the new season.

There have been many talking points since Moyes was announced as Manchester United’s new manager – staff changes, Ashley Young, young players getting closer to the first team, transfers, the defeat at Anfield, the defeat at the Etihad, the defeat at Old Trafford, Freenji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney, Rooney’s drink, Rooney’s shoulder, shin, forehead, headband and yes, goals.

Judgments have been passed on every small decision Moyes makes, which inflates them into big decisions – big decisions which are arriving at a very fast rate.

Albert Einstein taught that time goes SLOWER due to high velocity (of events), but people can remember all 26 years of Sir Alex’s time within no more than 2.13 seconds. Events from memory have high velocity and they don’t slow down time. Checkmate Einstein.

When you replay Sir Alex’s time the regular bad patches are forgotten. Ferguson’s team wasn’t flawless and in his last four years, having won two titles, this United wasn’t his best either. There were imperfections in the squad which were deemed insignificant only because of Sir Alex’s genius. They persist, and David Moyes has tackled those imperfections as his first job in charge at Old Trafford. Like Barack Obama and Guantanamo Bay prison.

United have made efforts to acquire quality central midfielders. Moyes has tried to improve Rooney’s relations within the club. The team has tried to defend from the top – versus Swansea, Leverkusen, Liverpool at home –  pressing high, four men funneling the ball towards one wing and squeezing it out. But let’s face it, Moyes hasn’t yet been successful. There’s no hiding behind quotes. There is no ‘Change’. #ObamaOut. Moyes? Time will tell.

One thing Moyes hasn’t done is get points on the table.

United’s centre-backs worked very well last season, and with Carrick they formed an effective triumvirate, holding hands, covering each other’s flaws. At the other end was Robin Van Persie, covering everyone’s flaws.

This season a shaky defence means Carrick must play very deep and Rooney’s form means he has to play inside the box. This leaves the wide players with very few passing options in midfield, which results in meaningless floaty crosses. The limitations of some are exposed and David Moyes hasn’t been able to work past them.

With a squad as big and as diverse as United, Moyes will take time to get to know his players. Perhaps he should have kept some of the old staff. Right now, the coaching staff is learning from the players and it should be the other way around. If René Meulensteen was around, Moyes’ inability to rotate the squad effectively could not have been lumped on the old “he needs time to know his players” line, which the manager has used as an escape route a few times already. Or that he has “been told” when talking about younger players.

In fact, he has used a few escape routes. During the transfer season Moyes used the “Edward Wodward is handling transfers, not me, don’t look here” hand raiser. Then there was the laughable “I am not sure that’s how the balls came out for the fixtures” sympathy gainer. And the “we don’t have the required five or six world class players” slap your foreheader.

It is acceptable that Moyes does not trust the relatively inexperienced players like Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Shinji Kagawa, or Wilfried Zaha so early in his new job. So he decided to go with the players he has seen for years in the league, which is why his decision to play Ashley Young is even more difficult to comprehend. Nobody plays Young if they know how he plays. They drop Young if they know how he plays.

Moyes started with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra in almost all the opening half-dozen games – and United looked solid enough with their experience. The flip side was that by the derby defeat United lacked the fitness – and the quality – to withstand City’s brutality.

We also now know for a fact that Fellaini is not as good a midfielder as Touré; unless we’re talking about Kolo Touré playing midfield.

It is hard to point to a more unpopular decision from Moyes so far than his decision to play Young ahead of Nani, Kagawa, Zaha, Ryan Giggs or Adnan Januzaj. Moyes hasn’t picked Kagawa because he doesn’t know him, which is acceptable, given that at times even Sir Alex didn’t know how to get the best out of the midfielder. Kagawa looks like a part of a jigsaw puzzle – it’s just that he’s a piece from some other set altogether.

Moyes has to be brave enough to give tactics greater weight than players. He can’t deploy three midfielders in the team simply because of their ability to track back and cover the defence’s slower players, a plan in which players like Kagawa don’t fit. The results of the plan, though, are still in front of us.

Januzaj finally got his first start for United at Sunderland and, like the old cliché, he did exactly what he would’ve dreamt the night before. It’s fair to say that United’s board – and the fans – are now spending their nights dreaming of Januzaj signing that new contract.

Where does that performance put Januzaj in the pecking order? His performance certainly made everyone aware of his talents, but is he ready to play every game? Will he be allowed to develop away from the spotlight or is he capable of handling the responsibility of playing every week? It is certainly going to be exciting to watch him progress, which he won’t do if he decides to play for England. Heh, look, banter!

What Moyes must have learnt from these 10 games is the importance of squad rotation. He went from one extreme to the other against West Bromwich Albion as he played a heavily rotated side. This produced an unusual situation where a number of players were rusty more than a month into the season. It is ok to question Moyes’ tactical decision, what he says in the media, his transfer business, but he still needs time to learn the art of juggling 25 players in his 11 hands.

Sir Alex was a master at keeping most of his players happy and in form. Something he did really well against Real Madrid last season where he got the tactics right by playing the right players. Yet, he got there after spending 26 years at the club. Moyes? It’s no comparison.

United may not have the sparkling players Chelsea, City or Tottenham Hotspur can boast, but this is a flexible squad and there is the feeling that United can play many styles of football. Supporters just hope that Moyes picks the more adventurous, exciting, attacking combinations.

And out of all that Moyes decided to play Marouanne Fellaini as the target man against City at 4-0 down. It was a similar policy at Shakhtar Donetsk. If the manager is going to sacrifice attacking football for results and deploy a 4-5-1 formation, then there’s no reason to be happy with draws. May the singing section have mercy.

Having managed the club for a nice round figure of 10 games – the Charity Shield game was a friendly – fans hope Moyes, and the tactical genius Phil Neville, know enough about the squad to let them play to their potential. Because, after all, that is a manager’s basic job.

Caution marks a new United way

October 3, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 9 comments
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“We didn’t play for a draw, we played to win,” insisted Manchester United manager David Moyes as the Donass Arena emptied on Wednesday night. It’s the way he tells them, with not a flicker in the straightest face.

It was the second conference in succession that the Scot had drawn mirth from the gathered fourth estate. Little more than 24 hours previously Moyes had spoken of his time at Preston North End as if five years in charge of the Lancashire outfit was ample preparation for a difficult start Old Trafford.

Justification in the conceit came with a point claimed – the first Champions League draw any Premier League side has taken at the Donbass in the decade since Shaktar Donetsk dispatched Arsenal to emerge onto the European scene.

It was a point earned as Moyes’ side returned to the Scot’s coaching roots. Defensively, United’s back-to-basics approach, disciplined shape, and much improved performances were far superior to recent matches against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City. The Reds rarely looked under pressure even as a decent Shaktar outfit hogged possession in a tense second half.

But defending has only ever been one half of the game. The ying to a creative yang that is seemingly missing from United’s game under the new manager.

United stepped a point closer to the Champions League knock-out stages, but this was a side that managed just a single shot on target in eastern Ukraine, with just 42 per cent possession gained.

Moyes recounts a contradictory tale, but this was a United side content to wholly concede the impetus against Europe’s 15th-ranked team. And contrary to popular myth Shaktar has won just two home games in the past two years in this competition.

It was as if Moyes didn’t truly believe United could win. On Monday Moyes argued that United is “five or six players” short of winning the tournament. Wednesday served to underline the Scot’s point.

Still, time may prove the draw valuable in Group A, although the attitude said as much about United’s form and ambition in this year’s Champions League as the hosts’ quality.

“There’s a bit of disappointment that we didn’t see the game out,” the United manager said.

“But Shakhtar had a lot of pressure in the second half. I don’t think they really worried us but unfortunately in the end we gave away a goal. We had to be harder to play against than we have in recent games, and overall we were.”

United was certainly that.

Compact and disciplined, United rarely looked over-run in midfield – an area where Moyes’ side had suffered in successive Premier League defeats. Michael Carrick, sat at the base of United’s diamond, with Marouanne Fellaini and Tom Cleverley providing energy in midfield, to ensure United remained competitive throughout. It was an thoroughly conservative approach.

Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia remained vigilant on the wings, although the Ecuadorian failed to track his man as Shaktar equalised with 15 to go.

Fellaini, meanwhile, created an opportunist goal, spinning away from his marker to deliver a low cross that Welbeck stabbed home, although it was the Belgian’s sole contribution of note in a sloppy performance that lasted just over an hour.

Indeed, now a little over a month into his United career, the Belgian’s acquisition has created more questions than solutions provided. While the 25-year-old rarely tackles, and is far from a natural defender, he has contributed little in the attacking third either.

More concerning still, the midfielder’s lack of pace is such that Reds recalling the marauding forward, who caused United’s back four so much trouble at Goodison Park last season, might have caused to reconsider the memory.

The approach also left Robin van Persie desperately isolated – a lone striker too often half a  pitch away from his colleagues. Little wonder United was reduced to feeding off semi chances and set-pieces.

Still, there were positives, not least a far more commanding performance from captain Nemanja Vidić than has been delivered of late. Vidić has suffered three serious knee injuries in recent seasons, blunting the Serbian’s pace, and forcing United’s back-four to defend ever deeper – a factor that for once suited Moyes’ tactics in Donetsk.

“We were hard to beat in all positions, not just at the back, but in midfield and wide, and that’s the way we have to play,” said the 31-year-old.

“We have to accept it has not been a great start. We have not been getting the performances we would have liked and we also have to be realistic enough to accept we have made some mistakes.

“Sometimes the results don’t come. Sometimes the performances don’t come. The most important thing is to defend right. If we defend well, I think we have a really good chance to win trophies.”

It is a sentiment with which his manager will concur. Moyes in a microcosm; a defender’s perspective on coaching, from a man who preached shape first in a decade at Everton. Function over form and substance often in lieu of style.

Expect not a return to United’s swashbuckling displays of the late 1990s, nor the panche of the 2008 trophy winning side. But then Moyes does not possess the same wealth of creative talent as Sir Alex Ferguson, nor hold a bank of credit that would enable the 50-year-old to take greater risks in his first European season.

This United side may have to come out of its shell if the Reds are to progress to the tournament’s latter stages, but for now supporters can expect a more pragmatic style than ever. This is an observation underlined by Moyes’ 90th minute substitution: defender Phil Jones for goalscorer Welbeck.

Yet, pragmatism and United remain uneasy bedfellows. While Sir Alex evolved United’s style to match the most circumspect on the continent it is one thing to park the bus at Camp Nou, as United successfully achieved in 2008, quite another to match the feat at Shaktar.

Moyes’ gaffe-prone Euro trash

September 30, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 17 comments
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David Moyes has a problem; one that stems, it seems, not from the raft of changes in Manchester United’s coaching staff this summer. Nor the painfully embarrassing approach to the transfer market. And certainly not one born of the Scot’s tactics, no matter how jumbled the defensive mess fans have witnessed in recent weeks. No, Moyes has a problem with speaking. Particularly words. In English. And especially the kind that draw not the quizzical eyebrow to which the Scot is becoming depressingly familiar.

Indeed, it is a problem that Moyes has brought to light in the past week, twice raising the real challenge that the former Everton manager believes he faces in his first season as United manager: the quality of his team. Or lack thereof.

From the assertion that his side is six players short of winning the Champions League, to the contention that United won the Premier League by fault of others’ weakness, to an oft repeated belief that United must buy to compete; it’s the Scot’s penchant for motivational speaking, Rant suspects, that won Moyes the United gig in the first place.

“To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players,” Moyes said ahead of United’s trip to Shaktar Donetsk this week.

”Look at Bayern Munich, they have it. Look at Barcelona, who had it in the past and Real Madrid, who have maybe got it now. That’s the level you have to be at to win it. We’ve not got that yet.”

This week has delivered a double-dose of foot in mouth disease from the Scot. It was not, said Moyes last Wednesday, United’s quality that won the Old Trafford club a 20th league title last season, but “other teams that were poor.”

Way to throw cold water on supporters’ ongoing celebrations. Still, it must come as little surprise to the Scot that his players have looked so listless in recent weeks. He seems keen to let the world know just how bad they are.

Successive Premier League defeats have come. First to Manchester City at the Etihad, followed in abject style by Saturday’s loss to West Bromwich Albion at home. Moyes is yet to comment on which caused more humiliation.

That double-header made it three league defeats in the past four, with no goals scored from open-play since United’s victory at Swansea City on the opening day of the season. And if United’s attacking play has been dysfunctional, then the back four, as one, is seemingly one pint short of the full pub team.

The campaign for change on the pitch, if not the managerial hotseat, cannot be far away.

Still, the surprise is not in Moyes’ analysis, but that it has been made public at all. After all, City’s degeneration under Roberto Mancini put-paid to the former champions’ hopes last season. Meanwhile, Roman Abramovich’s rapid-fire dismissal of nine coaches in as many years ensures instability reigns in west London.

Neither do many, but the most one-eyed supporters, believe United will take the Champions League this season – not given the disparity in quality between the Reds and the best. Especially in midfield. It is, after all, debatable whether any of United’s central midfield would make Bayern Munich’s bench, let alone the first team

But this is a debate for the terraces and a post-match pint, rather than the manager and the fourth estate. Not least because it ensures Moyes sounds just a little too Benitez-esque for comfort.

Still, if a change in personnel is to come – and how could it not after three defeats in seven Premier League games – those players on the fringes of Moyes’ team, who brought respite against Liverpool in the Capital One Cup last Wednesday, need fear not. For the manager’s guns are squarely aimed at those who more frequently adorn the starting XI.

“We’ve got work to do,” said the 50-year-old. Work to acquire players that “will go right into the team.”

“The job when I took over was always going to be that we’d have to make changes and improve as we go along. I wasn’t going to come in here and say ‘such and such isn’t good’, not at all. But, in time, obviously I’ll have to make some changes.”

Cynics might wonder whether it is 25 years of unprecedented success that Moyes changed first. Rant couldn’t possibly comment, although it is hard not to take a cynical view after back-to-back league defeats of such calamity.

Four goals conceded at the Etihad on Sunday last proved humiliating in both execution and meaning, but it is the weekend’s defeat to West Brom that will cause most concern at Old Trafford. After all it wasn’t complacency, or a rare off-day that caused United’s downfall, but a tactical and technical mess all of Moyes’ own making.

The Scot can do little but issue the now frequented mea culpa.

“I don’t think it was only one department where you’d say we were lacking,” the Scot admitted post Saturday’s match.

“I think it would be unfair to single any out – it was the whole thing. We were lacklustre in nearly all the areas. There were lots of things that disappointed me. We should be scoring more from open play. And we should be defending better. We couldn’t do it at either end.”

How how the tables have turned. It’s not four weeks since the former Everton manager declared that he was “really impressed” with how his team played in the utterly miserable 1-0 defeat at Anfield. A performance so good that Moyes could now “see why they’re champions.”

United managed just four shots on target at Anfield. Reality, it seems, has now struck home hard.

“I may have to take a few more blows, definitely,” admitted the Scot. “Maybe even more than that. Maybe all season I have to take a few blows.”

Respite comes in the form of European competition, with United jetting out to Ukraine on Tuesday morning. It is, of course, the competition in which the Reds scored four against Bayer Leverkusen last time out.

Shaktar, you have been warned. Just don’t be disappointed when United fail to turn up with a raft of world-class players. Dave wouldn’t simply have it.

Moyes forced onto the defensive

September 29, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 30 comments
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Manchester United’s loss to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was the third reverse in the Premier League this season. Many of David Moyes’ problems tie in the tactics the former Everton manager has deployed, which have impacted both defence and attack.

One of the key concepts behind Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 formation is to develop two points of attack. By contrast two pure strikers offers essentially only one target to aim for. With a forward deployed in the hole, however, the team uses the number ten to feed its advanced forward, or provide other attacking players passing options.

The two banks of four used in Moyes’ prefered 4-4-1-1 formation offers a solid defensive base – it is a relatively simple shape that offers cover as the midfield four closely tracks the opposition midfield. And with at least one forward staying in the opposition half the team can quickly attack on the counter.

However, these two banks of four are rigid and the formation needs careful calibration if the side wants to avoid becoming overly direct. After all, the system deploys nobody to mark the opposition number ten so the gap between the defence and midfield needs to be narrow in order to squeeze the space in which opposition playmakers can operate.

This space has to be carefully managed, lest the team is forced deep, especially where the defence is immobile. The consequence is the requirement for a high line if the team is to play attacking football. It was this gap that Samir Nasri expertly exploited  in the recent derby, ravaging United’s defence in the Reds 4-1 defeat at the Etihad.

Jonny Evans’ return, a mobile and seasoned defender, offers hope and Rafael da Silva should soon regain match fitness to take up his position on the right. It will allow Moyes to use Phil Jones or Chris Smalling in their natural position at centre back. However, United’s new conservatism under Moyes suggests that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will feature prominently in the future. There are times that call for a deep line, but being forced into it is a different matter entirely.

The most significant weakness in United’s two banks of four is that against most systems in modern football there is no spare man at the back. With the Reds’ central midfielders, wingers and full-backs completely occupied man-for-man by the opposition, United’s central defenders are left to deal with two opposition forwards by themselves.

The system also requires central midfielders to act as a duo; a staggered pair in the middle can easily be outmaneuvered. Moyes’ apparent faith in Anderson is perhaps an attempt at enabling a midfielder to join the attack while maintaining a deep line, trusting the Brazilian’s pace to quickly return to midfield in defensive situations.

With the engine room pinned back United’s attacking thrust must come from the flanks. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 the Reds’ wide midfielders must hug the byline – getting caught out in central positions can put the team in an undesirable situation where central midfielders are dragged out wide and the wide men are forced to cover through the middle.

Part of United’s problem this season lies in Wayne Rooney. The former Everton player is in very good form, but he has been deployed as a second striker. Rooney comes deep only when the opposition is in possession for a prolonged period of time and bombs forward as soon as United regains the ball.

With Vidić and Ferdinand uncomfortable in a high line, Michael Carrick and his partner cannot push up the pitch without compromising United’s defensive integrity. Carrick and Maroune Fellaini’s lack of pace exacerbates this problem.

Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj can all play the traditional wide role, but the fact that United doesn’t have a genuine aerial presence bar the new Belgian acquisition limits the usefulness of this quintessentially British approach to football.

The unexpected defeat to West Brom on Saturday epitomizes the problems both in defence and attack inherent in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1. Perhaps emboldened by Evans’ return, the Reds pushed high up the pitch. Anderson and Carrick, in particular, enjoyed time on the ball, although West Brom’s midfield stuck close enough to the United duo to limit the incision or penetration from the middle.

Meanwhile, United used a mixed approach on the flanks. Nani played well in the first half, but was seldom seen after the break. On the right the Portuguese attacked the byline and crossed. Yet, with little height in United’s forward line, West Brom opted to defend the box, allowing the winger space and time to play.

While Rooney and Javier Hernández failed to penetrate the deep-lying West Brom defence, a breakthrough appeared possible with Nani delivering sharp crosses and United having good possession.

During the opening period Nani and Shinji Kagawa also drifted inside. With Rooney seemingly neither playing up front or in the hole United’s nominal wingers offered additional passing options in central attacking midfield.

This changed at half-time when Moyes introduced Adnan Januzaj and removed Kagawa, who failed to provide much creativity from the left. However, the former Everton manager put the left-footed Belgian youngster on the right and switched Nani to the left. The intention was clear – central midfielders spreading the play wide, wingers cutting in and full-backs crossing. It is a sound, if predictable, tactic that was often been used by Moyes in a decade at Everton.

Yet, the Scot failed to recognize the difference between his current and previous clubs. The approach in the first half offered great flexibility. The lack of running from central midfield was disappointing, but Nani at least put in several quality crosses.

The second half rendered United predictable. Rooney continued to storm forward, leaving nobody operating in the hole. Carrick and Anderson, who was replaced by Fellaini, were nullified by West Brom’s engine room and there was no one linking the forwards and midfielders.

Robin Van Persie, just back from injury, was introduced, but the delivery from Buttner and Jones was poor and, with the Belgian midfielder sitting deep, there was little aerial prowess in the box to threaten the West Brom defence.

Two goals conceded at Old Trafford and four the Etihad showcase the defensive frailty inherent in the current United set up. United’s central midfielders were occupied by their counterparts. There was no spare man at the back and the defence was pulled out of shape by the opposition, leaving the Reds extremely vulnerable with far too many gaps.

The concept of using Rooney as a second striker is attractive if United can genuinely create a presence in the hole. Kagawa is having great difficulty in fulfilling that role, with Moyes insisting that the former Dortmund player defend as a wide man in two banks of four. Meanwhile, United’s midfield pair needs to move as one unit to preserve the Reds’ defensive shape and cannot consistently provide runners from deep.

It leads to an obvious conclusion: a dedicated holding midfielder is required. Rafael Benitez, a manager well versed in the 4-2-3-1 system, has always argued that both central midfielders need to stay deep to accommodate two attacking full-backs. Indeed, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side included Alvaro Arbeloa, a solid defender, at right-back. United, however, does not possess a forward in Cristiano Ronaldo’s mould and the utility of whipping crosses into the box is limited.

Such a move is virtually impossible in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 with wide players holding a defensive responsibility and unable to cut in. The in vogue concept that ‘central midfielders take turns going forward’ requires a number ten like Toni Kroos at Bayern Munich who comes deep and forms a midfield triangle in the middle to play the ball out of defence. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 though, the number ten dropping deep leaves the number nine – normally van Persie – completely isolated.

There are other questions too. Of late David De Gea has been passing the ball out to defenders rather than putting it in the opposition half. It is probably a measure to retain possession and defensive shape, but the move has considerably slowed down United’s tempo, leaving the opposition ample time to set up defensively.

Perhaps a tactical shift to 4-3-3 is possible should Moyes persist with the rapid introduction of Januzaj into the first team. But with four good strikers and a number ten of Kagawa’s pedigree in the squad, the formation isn’t Moyes’ best option.

However, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 might allow the number ten to drop deep and let defenders move the ball quickly and accurately up the field without isolating the advanced forward. The central midfield will have to sit deep though, with Evra and Rafael aggressive attackers and head and shoulders above United’s alternate full-backs. Rooney can play the Kroos role, but the problem of fitting in five central forwards into two spots has lingered on from last season.

Alternatively, a midfield diamond solves a lot of Moyes’ problems. A dedicated holding midfielder provides defensive cover and enables other central midfielders to join the attack. With three central forwards, Moyes can take full advantage of a variety of strikers at his disposal. However, the suspicion remains that the new United manager is too cautious for such an adventurous endeavor.

It is still early days – Moyes has been in charge for only a handful of games at United. The former Everton manager has been exposed to great pressure, but his excuse that he is still getting to know the squad rings hollow. The Scot has assessed his team during preseason and all evidence suggests that he was approached about being Ferguson’s success long before the official announcement.

United’s abysmal failure in the transfer market, aided and abetted by Ed Woodward, is understandable. Neither Woodward nor Moyes has ever operated at the top end of the market.

United’s offensive failure is disappointing; that United’s defence has been repeatedly breached too is appalling given that Moyes’ reputation is built on solidity.