Tag Tactics

Tag Tactics

Van Gaal’s ‘modern’ wing-backs

September 6, 2014 Tags: , , , Reads 4 comments
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Deploying a ‘wrong-footed’ winger is no longer a radical concept – in fact it is now fully mainstream. Wingers cut inside, vacate space for full-backs to run into, enabling attacking teams to get more bodies into the middle whilst retaining some width. Even lowly Sunderland regularly use inverted wingers these days. More interesting, perhaps, is a corollary now being tested at Old Trafford. Just a little deeper.

Ashley Young has deputised for the injured Luke Shaw at left wing-back this season; perhaps it is a simple stop-gap measure, and a natural one at that, considering Young’s typical role as a left winger. Yet, there is also some evidence that Louis van Gaal is entirely comfortable deploying the ‘wrong-footed’ Young at wing-backs. That it is, in fact, part of his grand design.

Consider United’s match against Swansea City for a moment, when Adnan Januzaj, a left-footed player, replaced Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. Van Gaal held plenty of alternatives to the Belgian; he could have brought Michael Keane into the centre and shifted Phil Jones to the right, or swapped Young and Januzaj’s flanks. Meanwhile, Nani, a genuine right-winger, was left on the bench.

Deploying a left footer at right wing-back seemingly makes little sense. After all, in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, wing-backs are the sole providers of width and must be ready to cross; having to cut back eats up precious time, slowing down attacking play.

Yet, Van Gaal also asks his midfield two to offer some auxiliary width to make up for the lack of wingers in the system. Should a central midfielder vacate the centre to take the ball down the touchline, midfield could look very bare. In this scenario United’s wing-backs are a natural alternative to provide cover and fill the gap.

Wing-backs in 3-4-1-2 formation, for example, are often free to receive the ball and able to cut inside allowing central midfielders space to run into the channels. In this case being wrong-footed helps the wing-back cut in.

During early season matches Darren Fletcher has played a loose holding role, with the Scot’s partner is deployed box-to-box. Notice that Ander Herrera partnered the wrong footed Januzaj on the right in the Swansea game and Tom Cleverley was the left central midfielder near Young against Sunderland. Deliberate rather than coincidental, perhaps.

Reports that Rafael da Silva has been deemed a surplus are puzzling given that there is a dearth of right full-backs/wing-backs at Old Trafford. The lack of recruitment in this area points to the reports being fallacious. Yet, Van Gaal has a track record of retraining players in a new position. United’s back five come December could – as one example – very well include, Januzaj, and Jones, together with Marcus Rojo and Jonny Evans.

Of course, it is easy to read too much into early season developments; the trap of confusing emergency measures with innovation is obvious.

Still, the idea of an inverted wing-back cutting into the middle makes much sense. With Juan Mata deployed at number 10, and Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up-front, a central midfielder rushing into the box only adds to the traffic, occupying the forwards’ “zone” as the Dutchman one put it. By contrast, diagonal runs from central midfield to the flank take a marker away and create space for the front three.

The security provided by an additional centre-back in Van Gaal’s system allows a central defender to act as full-back if required. Tyler Blackett, in particular, has been doing so already. Inverted wing-backs, therefore, allow the front three space, backed by a two man midfield, with a fully functional flank as well.

Otherwise there is little to suggest that 3-4-1-2 will be a long-term solution. Herrera is mobile, but lacks the defensive nous to partner Angel di Maria, while Fletcher no longer has the legs. It is hard to see how United will successfully make the transition from defence to attack when the opposition is simply willing to camp behind the ball.

At international level Van Gaal used 3-4-1-2 an emergency measure forced by Kevin Strootman’s untimely injury. At Old Trafford it is to accommodate Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the same team. Shaw’s return, together will Rafael, will offer some genuine width and ease the transition, but it is still hard to foresee how United will break down teams happy to park the bus.

United’s lack of wingers mean that lone wing-backs can easily be defended by doubling up. Tempo will be taken out as forwards drop deep to move the ball upfield and United’s opponents will have ample time to organise into a solid unit. Shaw and da Silva are better crossers than Young or Antonio Valencia, but Premier League sides are adept at defending balls delivered into the box. Just ask David Moyes.

It is also worth noting that while a draw might well be a ‘half win’ in the World Cup, given the penalty shoot-outs on offer, too many are fatal to top teams’ hopes in the Premier League. The fact that one of Mata or Rooney will have to be deployed wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 adds weight to the theory that an inverted wing-back is a genuine tactical innovation by Van Gaal. Though correct-footed, we may see Rafael or Shaw cutting in at will.

Van Gaal certainly has a resumé for tactical revolution. Sir Alex Ferguson, by contrast, was always more of a fast follower than proper innovator. The Dutchman has a Fergusonian ruthless streak though and might very well shoehorn Rooney or Mata into 4-3-3. The thought lingers, however, that United cannot counter-attack its way into the top four. Nor will that extra central defender create or score enough to guarantee Champions League football next season.

van Gaal ushers in a brave new tactical dawn

July 24, 2014 Tags: , Reads 10 comments
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While the 7-0 scoreline spoke amply to its effectiveness, it was Manchester United’s tactical complexity that astounded in Louis Van Gaal’s debut against LA Galaxy on Wednesday night. The veteran manager’s strategy was far more intricate and exotic than any employed by David Moyes’ yet the team carried out the plan with remarkable fluidly despite an unfamiliar back-three system.

The complexity of the approach fed through to the media, with morning reports varying in their analysis of van Gaal’s system from 5-3-2 to 5-2-3 and 3-5-2. The latter being much more accurate given how advanced Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia were, while United’s wing-backs did not defend in line with the centre back trio of Johnny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.

In the middle Darren Fletcher, captain for the day, partnered new signing Ander Herrera, with Juan Mata completing the midfield triangle, while Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck made a pair up-front.

The Netherlands’ World Cup template bears significant resemblance; one born of van Gaal’s need to cover for the lack of midfield options after Kevin Strootman’s knee injury. United is in a similar situation, with Michael Carrick out for 12 weeks. Perhaps more significant still, the Dutchman’s system also allows the Reds to do without the perpetually under-performing wingers. 3-5-2 makes a lot of sense.

Much of United’s play against Galaxy was channeled down the left where Shaw showcased some of the talent that cost United £30 million. The youngster spent much of his 45 minutes in the Galaxy half and Evans often advanced to fill in the gap at wing-back, while Smalling and Phil Jones shuttled across to cover. Jones was brave in defending as he shunned the temptation to hold his central place to close down the flanks.

United held a high line and pressed relatively heavily, starting in attacking midfield areas – another transition from the Moyes era. Fletcher was impressive in orchestrating the defence, while the close control of Mata and Herrera allowed United to navigate through the central midfield congestion. Indeed, it was the new recruit from the Athletic Bilbao who was the most impressive in van Gaal’s first game in charge.

The Reds set up relatively wide, with wing-backs bombing forward and the midfield duo often isolated. The mobility of Herrera, however, allowed United to completely dominate the centre of the park against a physically fitter opposition. The Spaniard was brave enough, and had the skills, to receive the ball in tight spots and keep United moving. He must watch his Scholesian tackling though.

Up front, United was less impressive despite scoring seven. Rooney was largely quiet – two goals aside – as his runs were rarely found. Mata’s preferred central role allowed him to pop up in various places – and combine neatly with the two forwards and Herrera – but United’s strikers kept running into each others zones. It’s a problem that will be cleared once the team has clocked up some minutes on the training ground.

Indeed, there were some glaring weaknesses that stronger sides might exploit. Smalling’s distribution was alarmingly wasteful and the ball was more or less forced down the left with the Englishman continually losing possession on the right side of United’s back three.

Valencia also had an ineffectual night despite being found in promising positions several times. As it has become the norm the Ecuadorian captain rarely threatened with crossing opportunities. Albeit against a fully routed opposition in the second half, Rafael da Silva was much more exciting.

The back-three is also a cause for much concern. Galaxy had some joy attacking down the channels, though some of it due to the inherent weakness of any three-at-the-back system, especially as Evans and Smalling seemed uncomfortable dealing with threats out wide. Shaw and Rafael’s acclimatisation into the system, alongside better defensive cover, will help. A new classy holding midfielder might yet arrive to shore up United’s defending.

The crucial issue, though, is United’s ability to navigate the opposition’s press. Smalling’s poor distribution rendered United predictable and Herrera cannot be expected on to run his way past opposition every single game.

While van Gaal said that he wants “to play with two strikers” there is adequate attacking cover – Shinji Kagawa, Mata and Adnan Januzaj and four strikers are all available to the Dutchman. This summer’s priority is a central defender who is comfortable on the ball.

Still, the Dutchman is brave despite complaining about the imbalance of “four number tens.” The Dutchman, ever pragmatic, might yet dabble with a strikerless formation to accommodate as many as possible.

This bravery showed in the formation. Mata was in line with Rooney and Welbeck in the defensive phase, and though the Spaniard started the match relatively deep, he increasingly spent time in more advanced areas once Herrera established dominance in central midfield. Certainly, neither Welbeck nor Rooney was deployed as a permanent number nine – and while it might be a step too far to describe van Gaal’s system as as “3-4-3-0” – few reports have truly captured the nuances of United’s new approach.

United’s upcoming match against AS Roma will present a sterner test, of course. It’ll be a better look at Van Gaal’s tactical outlook too. Yet, putting seven past a fully fit side with only two training sessions on the clock does bode well for the future.

In fact, with Nani and Ashley Young fit, van Gaal could have opted for a more conventional system. The fact that he is continuing with the summer’s 3-5-2 system demonstrates a level of bravery that Moyes always lacked.

The new man has much to do

April 22, 2014 Tags: , Reads 9 comments
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As if the season wasn’t chaotic enough for those at Old Trafford, Liverpool is set to win the Premier League for the first time, while Manchester United is in a desperate fight for Europa League qualification. Little wonder that United’s 2-0 defeat to Everton proved to be the final straw, ending David Moyes’ disastrous 10 month tenure at Old Trafford. Moyes, however, has inflicted damage far greater than United’s lowly league position and whomever the new man proves to be – he will face much headache in getting the Reds back into Europe.

Moyes’ seemingly fruitless transfer activity over two windows has nonetheless complicated the upcoming summer market. United will have to build from a position of little strength.

In David de Gea the Reds boast one of the finest goalkeepers in the world. Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone will provide solid backup if Anders Lindegaard leaves in search of games. The back four, however, is in need of a complete overhaul. Nemanja Vidić is leaving for Internazionale and Rio Ferdinand will be squad filler at best even if the veteran lands an unlikely contract extension.

There are question marks about each of United’s younger defenders. Phil Jones has played himself into first team picture in his preferred central position, although Jonny Evans has failed to grow into a top class defender – or one who is consistently fit. Chris Smalling lacks the distribution and composure needed to start every match. It leaves United in need of star recruits, especially with Ferdinand’s unclear future and Evans’ tendency for injuries.

Despite suspicions that Moyes doesn’t trust United’s right-back Rafael da Silva has kept his first choice status when fit. Yet, the Brazilian’s poor injury record necessitates new cover at right back, although – depending on the manager – Antonio Valencia might be converted into a full time defender.

On the other flank Alexander Büttner certainly needs to be replaced – the Dutchman having failed to convinced anybody he has the quality to make it at United.

Meanwhile, long-serving Patrice Evra is nearing his ‘Gary Neville against West Bromwich Albion moment’ and could find himself on the bench next season even if the Frenchman is awarded a new deal. Quality left-backs are a rarity and United United might have to settle for Fábio Coentrão depending on the market climate this summer.

As it has been the case for almost a decade United’s major problem area is in midfield. The Reds have far too many ‘number 10s’ and too few ‘number eights’. Without new recruits in wide areas  United’s new manager will be forced to field only playmakers behind the principal striker and rely on full-backs for width. Ashley Young, Luis Nani and Valencia’s mediocrity is now long established.

Whatever the method of providing width United can provide little protection in the engine room, with Michael Carrick and Maroune Fellaini both poor this season. Marauding full-backs require cover, although United’s surfeit of playmakers relieves the central pair of any attacking requirements. Theoretically United could get away with a functional midfield next season, although Tom Cleverley, Anderson and, sadly, Darren Fletcher are simply not of the required class.

Carrick is as good a deep lying playmaker, but lacks mobility and drive. The link to Toni Kroos is interesting as the Bayern Munich midfielder is mobile enough to carry the ball on his own. Although Kroos is ponderous in possession that isn’t a concern with three fleet-footed playmakers deployed ahead of him.

In the likely event that Kroos is a fantasy United’s biggest problem is finding Carrick a partner. Fellaini is far too ill-disciplined to be trusted in key games regardless of his physical qualities. And should the new manager rely of his full-backs for width he will need a central midfielder tactically savvy enough to fill in gaps as they appear.

Indeed, there is a scenario in which United’s defensive structure could be sacrificed to indulge Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. United will need a defensively capable midfielder – Fletcher in prime would do nicely.

In fact Carrick and Fellaini are far better suited to a midfield trio – supported by a genuine box-to-box player who can move with the ball at his feet. How United could do with Yaya Touré. It is a role Anderson often played, although to little effect, while Thiago Alcântara was supposedly lined up before Moyes decided against signing the Spanish midfielder.

Yet, United face multiple conflicting transfer requirements. Remodeling the defence will be costly – and central midfield might just have to wait. Again.

In addition, there is little option to provide direct running from the flanks. Welbeck lacks the finesse to be truly effective out wide, and despite the youngster’s introduction this season the experiment with Januzaj in such role has failed to date. It is mooted that Marco Reus has a transfer release clause in the region of £30 million.

Up front Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are aging and lack the mobility needed in most modern football philosophies, while the team’s requirements elsewhere limits the amount of money that can be invested. Danny Welbeck’s presence and the rise of James Wilson from the academy ought to be enough to maintain a decent strike force – even if Javier Hernández chooses to leave.

Then there is the problem of Rooney’s  fitness,  which has again been questionable this season, and the player’s first touch that has long deserted United’s number 10. However, Rooney has been effective up-front – his poor tactical discipline tending to unsettle the opposition. In a season when van Persie has turned into a relatively immobile poacher, the Dutchman might benefit from a more energetic partner in close proximity. Kagawa lacks forcefulness, while Mata was ostracised by José Mourinho as the Spaniard tends to slow down tempo.

At Goodison Park, United conspicuously exploited the middle as if Moyes was responding to criticisms of his over-reliance on the flanks. Everton, however, remained confident that Büttner and Smalling would pose little threat – packed central areas to prevent the Reds from playing through the middle, and then hit United on the counter. Both goals came by Everton attacking Evans and Jones from angles.

Everton exposed in one game both Moyes’ failings and United’s weaknesses.

Still, whatever United’s transfer activity there is something to work from next season even if there are many gaps. United may still be able to provide genuine attacking options from full-backs, while Jones, Evans and Smalling can at least maintain a higher line than Vidić and Ferdinand.

Up front each of United’s strikers have the technical skills to double as number 10s, while Mata and Kagawa are proven goalscorers. At least at other clubs. There is plenty of potential creativity there.

United certainly cannot afford any further upheaval next season. The league table is justification enough for dismissing Moyes. Not only has the former Everton manager failed to take the reigning champions of England into the Champions League, Moyes has left behind a squad that prohibitively limits his successor’s chances. This is a mess that now calls for a top class manager.

Moyes ignored Fergie’s plan and it cost him his job

April 22, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 15 comments
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David Moyes’ nightmarish reign is now over. Manchester United, however, has been left in tatters with rookie coach Ryan Giggs in charge for the final four games. Given the lack of available top class managers the Welshman may very well end up as the best choice to take over on a permanent basis. It leaves an open question as to why was Moyes was appointed in the first place when Jose Mourinho, Josep Guardiola  and Carlo Anchelotti were available last summer.

One conspiracy theory is that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to deify his legacy at Old Trafford by appointing an incompetent successor. The facts over the past ten months paint a more reasonable picture than that.

When Ferguson retired Wayne Rooney was all but sold while Thiago Alcântara had been lined up as a star midfield purchase. United’s weak midfield and aging backline needed attention, but a decent transfer fund was available to address the problem.

Robin van Persie’s opportunistic acquisiton had limited Shinji Kagawa’s appearances, but the Japanese had a title-winning start in the Premier League at least. There was plenty of reason to believe United had attacking options to excite.

Thiago has proven to be an exceptional holding midfielder at Bayern Munich this season. United would have gained much had the former Barcelona player come to Old Trafford. Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, for example, could have advanced with far greater confidence had Thiago and Michael Carrick been present in midfield. The Reds might have even garnered another season out of the Frenchman by letting him concentrate on attacking rather than defensive duties.

It proved to be a crucial mistake – at £21.5m Thiago’s acquisition should have left enough money for a gifted winger, allowing Kagawa to play centrally in a replica of Borussia Dortmund’s approach that compensates for the lack of energy with extra creativity from deep.

In this context Moyes’ appointment made some sense. The Scot’s approach is far more system-based than Mourinho or Guardiola and the Scot’s default template is actually similar to the Dortmund model. The youth of Kagawa et al would have weathered a few years of Glazers-enforced austerity too.

So what went wrong?

Moyes decided against bringing in Thiago, experimenting in pre-season with Carrick in a role that demanded more pressing than the Geordie typically offers. Moyes’ very early trust of Anderson over Kagawa suggested that the Scot thought he could get away with Tom Cleverley or Anderson partnering Carrick in the engine room. He couldn’t.

Another Barcelona midfielder in Cesc Fabregas was eventually pursued. The suspicion, though, is that Fabregas would have played behind van Persie rather in central midfield – just as Danny Welbeck did in the season opener against Swansea City. The former Arsenal midfielder would have brought great energy and thrust in attacking areas.

The chase for Fabregas ended in humiliation. Having failed – or neglected – to bring in any wide players, Welbeck has spent as season providing cover on the flanks. Moyes certainly wanted directness if Adnan Januzaj’s exile in recent games is anything to go by. The Belgian-Kosovar is surely a considerate number 10 by nature. Meanwhile,  Rooney was given another chance and gained much leverage over Moyes, to the detriment of manager and club.

Kagawa thrives in space and tempo, neither of which have been provided by United’s functional midfield. Moyes perhaps realised his error and United’s late window approach for Ander Herrera, a player similar to Thiago, was the result. The transfer saga, which at one point supposedly involved imposters bidding for the young Spaniard, ended with Maroune Fellaini arriving at Old Trafford. Moyes’ initial trust in Anderson and Cleverley was clearly misguided, if not completely insane.

In the end Moyes’ true nature reared its conservative head. Kagawa started out wide, asked to cut in and maintain possession rather than make impact in advanced central areas. The immobile midfield partnership of Carrick and Cleverley exposed both Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, while Moyes blindly trusted Rooney to provide all the thrust alone. He couldn’t.

Juan Mata’s arrival was, in part at least, a move to appease an increasingly angry fanbase, but the former Chelsea player of the year also serves a tactical purpose. Mata’s genius has made the best of second balls while the Spaniard’s versatility has filled the void out in wide areas.

But the fact that Kagawa was often chosen ahead of Januzaj on the left suggests that Moyes views wide players as a function of a greater system. Spending £37.5 million on a world class player to support Rooney made little sense. Considering that Moyes deploys energy – Rooney or Fabregas – in the hole Mata was simply brought in as cover, or with no plan at all. 

The long term implication is frightening. Mata is much better than Kagawa in creating space on his own and would work better with a target man that United does not possess.

van Persie is now a bona fide poacher, while Javier Hernández has been preferred in leading the line over the more well-rounded Welbeck. Moyes clearly values a man in the box at any given moment and the promising talents in Januzaj and Welbeck were always destined to face limited opportunities in their natural positions. It is worth noting that Ross Barkley at Everton is flourishing with Moyes elsewhere.

This is a theory, of course. If true though Moyes had no accurate assessment of United players and was foolish, or arrogant, enough to work against what appears to have been Sir Alex’ plan for squad evolution. Perhaps the most disturbing implication, however, is that Ferguson expected the current financial climate at Old Trafford to continue. Consistency, not excellence, is United’s target now.

Welbeck goal challenges Moyes’ approach

March 9, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 45 comments
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The goal was so good it was almost offensive. Obnoxious because Danny Welbeck’s superb strike at the Hawthorns on Saturday exposed the real talent in Manchester United’s midst; a talent so desperately underused in David Moyes’ counter-revolution this season. Indeed, while much of United’s play over the past eight months harks back to a basic tactical approach largely superseded by the game’s élite, Welbeck’s fine team goal uncovered genuine potential for something more, but only if Moyes is prepared to release it.

Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Marouanne Fellaini and Wayne Rooney were involved in an 18-pass move before Welbeck’s classy 82nd minute finish sealed a comfortable United win at West Bromwich Albion. And while the goal can be celebrated as a rare moment of real class in an otherwise hugely disappointing campaign, frustration stems from the knowledge that Welbeck’s strike is likely to be another false dawn. The sight of United’s multi-faceted attack passing through rather than over Albion’s defence is countered by the back-to-basics approach used for much of the campaign.

This observation is fundamental to the philosophy underpinning manager Moyes’ career at the top; one that the Scot transposed to United rapidly, with almost universally disastrous consequences. After all, Moyes’ strict adherence to the crossing game is largely counter-intuitive to the presence of touch players such as Mata, Rooney, Kagawa and Welbeck in the United squad.

Throw starlet Adnan Januzaj into the mix and it is not so much a wonder that United’s approach has been so agricultural at times this season, but that Moyes’ rigidly taught approach has so rarely flexed. The players at Moyes’ disposal surely demand more.

United’s narrow formation against Albion and a more constructive build up should auger well given the personnel available to the Scot. Yet, we have been here before – and recently too. United’s relatively cocksure performance in victory at Crystal Palace last month came with both Mata and Januzaj in the side and greater focus on attacking flexibility.

Four days afterwards, Moyes’ outfit spent much of the 90 at Olympiakos launching hopeful long balls, or recycling possession wide at the earliest opportunity, only for another aimless cross to miss its target.

Indeed, in the men selected in wide positions often present United’s approach in microcosm. Technical players such as Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj on one pole; Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on the other. Moyes cannot have it both ways, yet rarely seems to trust to a fully creative approach.

Kagawa’s late introduction was significant at the Hawthorns even if it came at Januzaj’s expense. The Japanese international occupied the centre of the park, rather than hugging the touchline, and proved to be a catalyst for an entertaining final 20 minutes. Yet, he is unlikely to start many games before the season concludes.

Still, Moyes was entitled to feel pleased with a confident second half performance in the Midlands, even if the context was victory against a side whose form is significantly worse than any other in the division.

“The pitch was very lively, it was drying out a little bit and it wasn’t that easy to pass the ball, but we looked much more potent going forward and looked more likely to score than we have in other games,” said Moyes. “I made the point about us trying to attack more and have better play going forward and I think we did that.”

Next weekend’s match against Liverpool at Old Trafford is another level still; and a challenge that will test Moyes’ faith in a plethora of flexible creative players. With Valencia and Young both available, history suggests that the Scot will be unable to resist the temptation to start one or both against Brendan Rodgers’ improving side. In the battle between structure and creativity the former normally wins Moyes’ heart.

United’s challenge extends beyond tactics for next Sunday’s fixture. Whether the Scot’s side reverts back to a more rudimentary approach or otherwise Welbeck’s star cameo in the midlands also exposed Robin van Persie’s worrying lack of form, and a potentially destructive attitude.

The Dutchman has made no secret, at least through intermediaries, that he is unhappy with life at Old Trafford. It is a process months in the making – beginning with Moyes’ decision to “over train” the 30-year-old striker last summer, extending through the manager’s frustration with the player’s fitness, and augmented by Moyes’ decision to build a team around Rooney.

More pointedly van Persie benefits little from the type of aimless delivery that has characterised a season, although his intelligence around the box ensures that the Dutchman scores plenty when the ball is delivered from wide areas with a little more precision.

van Persie cut a dejected figure in the midlands, with the player’s state of mind such that his movement was minimal and impact limited. That Rooney and van Persie exchanged just four passes, and the Dutchman enjoyed only 16 touches in an hour on the pitch, is both a symptom and a contributor to the player’s malaise.

Moyes has little answer to the problem though. The Scot certainly appears reluctant to indulge the former Arsenal forward in the sycophantic manner to which Rooney’s ego has been massaged this season. While the alternative could be cataclysmic to van Persie’s deteriorating relationship with the Scot; that the Dutchman is dropped for Sunday’s fixture with Liverpool and Welbeck or Rooney leads the line.

It is a move some fans might support given van Persie’s perceived attitude. Certainly Welbeck’s touch and movement is conducive to an expansive game, although the Englishman’s finishing is a level or two below van Persie’s class. The ease with which Welbeck scored on Saturday is an exception to a generally more profligate contribution.

“When he was played in down the side, he opened up and finished terrifically well,” said Moyes. “I’m pleased Danny is looking sharper. We’re going to need him.”

Whether that comes on Sunday might just be pivotal for more than one member of Moyes’ squad ahead of a tough month. Sunday’s match is rapidly followed the second leg of United’s Champions League Round of 16 clash with Olympiakos, then West Ham United away and Manchester City at home. The Scot will need a positive result in at least one of the big three fixtures to keep the pressure at bay.

“It is a crucial month for us and, to be honest, I am very positive about it,” said Mata, who enjoyed a positive contribution from the right on Saturday. “We know that we have to win as many games as we can and we have to start this month.”

Whether United continues in the vein of Saturday’s second half or reverts to a season’s type might just dictate how far the team goes in the remaining weeks of the season.

How United could benefit from the long ball

March 5, 2014 Tags: , Reads 16 comments
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David Moyes is withstanding significant criticism due to the listless performances of Manchester United under his management this season. The former Everton manager has continued to garner support from within; including Sir Alex Ferguson, meaning the United manager is likely to continue in charge of the reigning English champion for the foreseeable future.

Whispers to the contrary, however, are picking up. Indeed, changing manager now leaves little to lose regarding United’s hunt for trophies and the rapid appointment of a new man could allow early assessment of the squad ahead of the summer transfer window. After all, Moyes’ lack of time in the job has been offered as one excuse for United’s failure in the market last summer. A second Maroune Felliani-style farce cannot be tolerated given next season’s importance to United’s long-term future.

Reports that Moyes has lost the dressing room have emerged, while Robin van Persie’s open criticism of United’s tactics has added fuel to the fire. Realistically, the Scot will not suddenly grow into a manager that commands respect of some of the planet’s finest talents and a new man – Louis van Gaal is the latest suggestion – could at least fire up the playing staff, if only temporarily.

Andre Villas-Boas is another manager linked with Old Trafford, having been sacked at Tottenham Hotspur despite boasting the best winning percentage in the club’s Premier League history. The former Porto manager is famous for favouring a ‘score one more than the opposition’ approach and the Stretford End would probably embrace the style should an unlikely appointment take place.

Villas-Boas popularized the term “high block” and his fanatical obsession with a high defensive line cost the 36-year-old the Chelsea job in 2012. The “Football Manager” aficionado considers the second ball critical in attacking football and deploys a sometimes ludicrously high line to regain lost possession as quickly as possible.

The quintessential Villas-Boas side features dizzyingly fast transition from back to front, and his forwards are allowed freedom to express themselves. Should the first salvo fail to bear fruit, the ‘high block’ enables his midfielders to press and regain possession. As such, Villas-Boas’ teams take advantage of any opposition dragged out of shape by the first phase of play.

Moyes is another manager appreciative of opportunities provided by the second ball. However, unlike the Portuguese manager Moyes prefers his team to maintain its defensive shape and rely on crosses to initiate attacks.

Villas-Boas is not likely to replace the Scot, but Moyes has much to gain by recognizing the key element of the Portuguese manager’s philosophy – speed. United boasts one of most potent forward line-ups in Europe and goals could come aplenty should the Reds focus the play in more advanced areas.

However, John Terry’s struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ methods suggests that United defenders will not be able to maintain a high line either – at least not with the current ageing personnel. In addition, United’s engine room has been stuck in the first gear since 2007, and thus duplicating the former Tottenham manager’s template is simply not feasible.

Instead of successions of quick, short passes into the lone striker, United could adopt a more British approach to deliver the ball from back to front – the long ball! United has already become much more direct under Moyes, but there is an argument for taking the long ball game to another level.

By launching the ball long, quickly, United can retain defensive shape, cope with a static midfield, and rely less on full-backs carrying the ball forward, while involving van Persie, Mata and Wayne Rooney more in the final third. The holding midfield duo can free Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to run past markers in attacking areas, receiving the ball from van Persie, who has the first touch to control hopeful punts forward.

While there is little height in the final third, Rooney and his fellow forwards are “number 10s” at heart and could tiki-taka their way into the box from an advanced position. Midfielders sitting deep can work the second ball by pelting clearances back into the final third or utilizing advancing full-backs to create width.

In theory, a more direct game can solidify the defence, suit United’s forwards’ natural game, and quicken the tempo, while providing two ways to take advantage from clearances – via a plethora of ‘number 10s’ or full-backs on the run.

Moyes seems to be fully aware of the problems caused by a cautious transition and the former Everton manager has experimented with various tactical systems to utilize central areas of the pitch. Yet, United’s continuing woes have forced the Scot into bypassing midfield entirely to build up the tempo. One suspects Moyes would not hesitate skipping even the transitional build-up phase with points now needed desperately.

Indeed, the Scot has built his career as a pragmatist and his experience is needed at this crucial moment. Tottenham is being managed by a caretaker boss, while in the past two seasons Liverpool and Arsenal have failed to sustain early season form. United could yet fluke into the top four, but only with a plan. Sir Alex took considerable risks to force a favorable result when needed – it is now time for Moyes to emulate his predecessor.

Moyes’ pride masks his predjudice

February 26, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 53 comments
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Amid the inevitable hue and cry from the social media crowd over David Moyes’ position as Manchester United manager one wonders quite when the Scot’s pride comes into play. The pride to fix a team fundamentally broken; or the self-respect to walk away before more damage is done. This is, as one supporter put it, no time to talk about dignity – Moyes’ was obliterated in the red-hot Karaiskakis Stadium atmosphere in Piereus on Tuesday night.

Yet, conceit – that most caustic sin – is surely an explicit actor in the Scot’s future. Moyes’ ability to finish a job he has only barely started references inextricably against the harm that may be caused with the 50-year-old remaining in charge.

United’s performance in 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos was as miserable as any this season – and there has seemingly been one nadir followed by another new low over the past six months. United’s only saving grace was that the Greek side, which this winter sold its leading scorer to relegation-bound Fulham, struck only twice.  It is the hope that kills, but hope there is indeed for the second leg in three weeks’ time.

Yet, it will take the most unlikely of United victories to save the Reds season. Out of contention in the Premier League, unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, dumped out of both domestic cups, Moyes’ debut campaign now rests on European redemption. Few will bank on the Scot’s team achieving that goal at Old Trafford next month.

Familiar weaknesses were apparent once again in Athens. Possession was gained and lost with so little care and embarrassingly small impact. United’s inability to turn good positions into real creativity was both a facilitator to defeat and a symptom of the reductive style Moyes has imposed.

Once again United drove the ball long to little effect – the play quickly recycled from central to wide areas and almost inevitably towards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack with little precision. What chances the Reds created were squandered, with just one shot hitting the target all night.

In midfield Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were as ineffective as at any time this season – a problem exacerbated by the less than sophisticated approach. Meanwhile at the back Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic sat so deep as to positively encourage Olympiakos forward. How the home side took advantage.

More frustrating still, United’s 11th defeat of the campaign was built from a base of mental negativity so apparently during Moyes’ reign. It is, after all, not the first time that the Scot’s team has sought predominantly to react to an opponent’s style rather impose one of its own. Against such limited opposition supporters might ponder quite where the Reds’ ambition has gone.

Juan Mata may be cup tied in Europe, but inexplicably Moyes overlooked both the prodigious talents of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa, looking instead to the predictable defensive work of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. That Januzaj was left out of the matchday squad altogether baffled many.


Moyes had little choice but to offer contrition for another shocking performance, although once again the Scot offered luck as an excuse. It wears very thin.

“It’s the worst we’ve played in Europe that’s for sure,” said Moyes in the aftermath.

“It was a really poor performance. We didn’t get going from the start. We didn’t deserve anything from tonight. We just didn’t perform well. I’m surprised. I didn’t see that level of performance coming. We came into the game in good form and a good mindset but it didn’t show tonight.”

“I have to say I don’t think we were two goals worse off in the game. They had a shot, which got deflected, but we didn’t offer enough on the night to create a goal really.”

Failure to progress on 19 March will bring the curtain down on the worse United campaign in a quarter-century. Defeat over two legs will also open up the debate about Moyes’ role in United’s slide into mediocrity with ever greater fervour. It will legitimise those already calling for the manager’s head, and add credence to the growing belief that regime change is less painful if both brutally honest and swift.

“We’ll do everything we possibly can to reverse the 2-0 defeat tonight,” added the Scot.

“We’ll put it right, we’re determined to put it right and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the coming weeks. The one good thing is there’s still a second game to come.

“I take responsibility. It’s my team and I’ll always front up. The players are hurting as well. They know how they performed. We’re a team and we stick together.”

Indeed, the momentum now gathering for change may have begun in the heated atmosphere of social media, but has spread to some supporters who are normally a barometer for reason and patience. It is hard not to be reactive when United’s results are so poor and the performances far off a level deemed acceptable.

Still, there is little chance Moyes will be fired before the season is out. It is not much more likely that the Scot will leave in the summer. The word remains that United’s owners are resolutely supportive of a manager who has also been let down by his players.

“There is a lack of confidence and there are some players who just don’t have the quality,” said former United captain Roy Keane, now a pundit on ITV.

“They need six or seven players to rebuild the club. Privately, David Moyes will be shocked at the quality he is working with.”

Those players may come in the summer; whether new talent fixes the problems associated with Moyes’ approach is another question. Little in the season has diverted the former Everton manager from his core belief in the way the game is played, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

It’s that pride thing again.

A new low

February 11, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 40 comments
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The inner chimp, says sports psychologist Dr. Steve Peters, dominates. The chimp is primitive. The chimp is emotion. The chimp is basic needs: power, sex, territory, food. The chimp is 99 per cent of our psyche. This chimp is angry at Manchester United’s performances this season. More specifically, at David Moyes.

The one per cent is logic. The one per cent says ‘give him time’. It says ‘let it stew, allow the rage to pass.’ It hopes that Moyes may turn a disastrous season around. Strange thing, but this rage seems only to have intensified. The chimp has battered logic into submission.

Catalysed by the debate surrounding Moyes’ inept tactics; egged-on by former United coach Rene Meulenstein’s to-the-point analysis of the Reds’ shortcomings. Stirred by a 21-year-old Fulham defender likening United’s approach to ‘Conference level football’. The anger rises to boiling point and above. And it rises, simply, because it is all so true.

Yet, there is a new, as yet unseen, level of chagrin with United’s current predicament. Frustration heaped on growing resentment because United’s fall from grace was all so predictable; fait accompli the moment Moyes was anointed to the job by Sir Alex Ferguson last May. From Moyes’ over-training summer boot camp, and United’s subsequent injury crisis, to the Scot’s penchant for percentage football that coloured so much of his time in charge at Everton. Nothing, bar perhaps United’s disastrous string of results, was beyond the scope of prediction.

United’s draw with Fulham on Sunday night played out like a précis, albeit in extremis, for much of the season gone. United’s possession was recycled quickly into wide areas, with the strategy of delivering countless deep, at times aimless, crosses in the belief that delivery alone will create a chance or prompt a mistake. It is classic Charles Hughes; of a bygone era, a masterclass long consigned to history.

Despite this approach also being the one routinely practiced by Moyes’ sides during a decade at Goodison Park many United fans have rationalised – pushing an abstract theorem that somehow the Scot might change. That with better players at his disposal Moyes will transform a philosophy decades in the making. Fulham debunks that myth if any confirmation was really needed.

With £37 million playmaker Juan Mata essentially deployed on the right-wing, United set up in a wholly orthodox 4-4-2 system, delivering 82 crosses into the Fulham box. The miracle wasn’t, as Moyes suggested in the aftermath, that United failed to score more, but that 21 per cent of those deliveries actually connected with a United player. Against Stoke City a fortnight ago United delivered just 15 per cent of balls accurately from wide areas.

Those 18 accurate crosses against Fulham produced just seven shots and no goals. Or to put that more concretely: United wasted possession on 82 occasions. Little wonder Fulham defender Dan Burn, who was playing for Conference side Darlington Rovers just three years ago, lapped up United’s delivery. The 6′ 7″ defender headed away 22 of the Reds’ 82 crosses alone.

“We knew that was going to happen and I was happy for them to play like that,” said Burn. “I was saying to the lads that I’ve never headed that many balls since I was playing in the Conference. I’m six foot seven so it helps when dealing with those sort of balls. United know they should be doing better. They didn’t have many chances.”

Yet, the frustration with Moyes is that his philosophy is so deeply ingrained that the Scot neither believed United had concentrated on crossing as the primary – some might say only – strategy to break down a stubborn opponent, nor saw any contradiction in the approach.

On the same weekend European Champions Bayern Munich started with two wide players in Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller; they delivered just 11 crosses. Real Madrid’s number was 17, Atletico Madrid racked up 19, Chelsea also 19, Juventus just 21 and Borussia Dortmund fired in 24 balls from wide areas.

It is not that crossing is somehow inherently a proxy for failure, nor that delivery from the wings is absent from the armoury of the very best teams, both contemporary and in the game’s history, but that one-dimensional play will always be easier to repel. It twas ever thus under Moyes’ direction. Indeed, the better the opposition, the more variety United will need if the club is to progress from what is the lowest point to which United has sunk for 25 years.

“Their game plan was straightforward. They put crosses in from wide angles. We defended it well,” said Fulham manager Meulensteen, who left United’s coaching staff last summer.

“If you’re well organised and the goalkeeper is in good positions then, yes, it can be easy. You need a little bit of creativity and a bit of variety at times to open teams up.

“I do think that a few teams have come here with a different approach. Teams have come to Old Trafford and got something. Teams are thinking that there is a chink in United’s armour. We set out as everyone can see, we made it very difficult for them. They have some problems.”

Nor is United’s approach likely to change post Mata’s arrival at Old Trafford. Not unless the manager changes, of course. It certainly hasn’t in the three matches the Spaniard has started to date. Nor, so the word has it on the street, is Moyes even remotely interested in spending time coaching attacking variety during training.

Yet, in Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie United boasts some of the most talented and flexible attacking options in European football. What might some of the continent’s best coaches do with the riches on offer? It is an opportunity wasted.

And whatever the complaint about United’s style of football, the approach has not been successful either. There is no rejoinder to the criticism other than United supporters should ‘wait and see’. While it is clear that many of Moyes’ squad are under performing for the new coach, it takes not a crystal ball to believe that the Scot is unlikely to get the best out of his roster of creative talent with the approach currently employed.

United’s 10 defeats in all competitions this season leaves Moyes hanging on to the Champions League as his only hope of silverware in the coming weeks. The odds on a successful United victory at Estádio da Luz in May is now 20/1 according to some bookmakers. It’s a far better deal than the 4/6 being offered on Moyes finishing his time with United trophyless. No, Rant doesn’t count the Community Shield.

Then comes the summer and Moyes’ reported £100 million budget. He’ll spend that on three new defenders and a midfielder of note alone; to replace the departing Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, and to augment United’s weakest position. Indeed, the Scot may need a far greater budget if he is to transform the squad into one that maps against his philosophy more closely.

Yet, in that there are few guarantees new signings will change United’s fortune. Less still, it seems, that Moyes is prepared to bend his approach. Fear rarely does that, and with United’s management insistent that Moyes will be given significant time, there are likely to be many more games like Monday’s. The chimp will surely stir again.

Stuck in middle

December 21, 2013 Tags: , Reads 7 comments
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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: , Reads 6 comments
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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.