The underlying difficulty in scoring a goal is often overlooked in modern day football. It’s arguably the toughest task to accomplish as a footballer. So there’s no shock to see the average fan flabbergasted at the phenomenal goal-scoring ratios of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Since the invention of the sport, its been clear that goals are a key component to success – you can’t win if you don’t score – which is why many are concerned about Manchester United’s recent form.
The reigning Premier League champions have failed to score domestically from open play in 450 minutes, which stems back to late August when Danny Welbeck scored an injury time goal against Swansea. In that time, Manchester United have suffered three defeats in their last five matches, the latest coming against an inferior, yet well-assembled West Bromwich Albion side. A main concern to United’s slow start is that no side has won the league since 1950 after losing three of their opening six matches. United have encountered slow starts in the past – whether it be an abundance of injuries, or last year’s ‘score more than their opponent’ ploy – but the main difference this year is the manager.
David Moyes accepted arguably the most difficult job in football by succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson this summer, and the Scottish manager is now coming to terms with the pressure that comes with coaching the most successful side of the Premier League era. And although many believe this pressure is new to Moyes – based on his tenure Everton, where he had full control – the Scot and Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward have encountered it since day one – starting with negative criticism for United’s transfer activity all summer.
However, it wasn’t surprising to see the Red Devils fail to acquire their main summer targets. They were looking to add world-class talents from around the continent to bolster their midfield, yet Ferguson and former chief executive David Gill were unable to attract world-class players across the continent over the past decade. United has been known for buying young talent and molding them into stars – Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo come to mind – or reverting to their academy and experienced Premier League players, making Moyes’ transfer pursuits unrealistic.
Expectations were set too high for the United duo, who were both settling into their new positions, thus leading to the desperate deadline day purchase of Marouane Fellaini – who came at an inflated price due to his buyout clause expiring on July 31. Woodward’s ability to close deals was poor, but the likelihood of landing a Luka Modric, Cesc Fabregas or Thiago Alcantara was naïve.
This left Moyes in an uncomfortable situation, one similar to Roberto Mancini’s predicament at the Ethiad last season. Manchester City’s failure to improve on their title-winning squad saw them finish last in their Champions League group, and 11 points behind United domestically. Evolving is a necessity towards competing at the highest level on a yearly basis, and failure to do so, along with the improvement of other title contenders has been an issue.
Moyes is aware of the lack of quality personnel available and wasn’t afraid to state it. “To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players,” Moyes said earlier this week. “That’s the level you have to be at to win it. We’ve not got that yet but what we have got is experience,” he added. It’s uncertain as to whether this was an attempt to fire up his players, or a dejected figure stating the obvious flaws his team possesses. It’s rare to see Moyes behave in such a manner – the once feisty, motivated, selfless manager on Merseyside looks a shadow of himself.
Nevertheless, Moyes’ side has an issue bigger than his unpredictable statements in post-match interview – the Scotsman possesses a squad that lacks a tactical identity. In majority of United’s matches this season, Moyes’ men have looked disjointed going forward, often lacking a link between midfield and attack.
One of the great characteristics in Ferguson’s methodology was his ability to get the best out of his players – albeit with a lesser names in comparison to other top sides. United are still aligned in a variation of a 4-4-2 that often looks like a 4-4-1-1, the difference being the Red Devils look one-dimensional going forward. A common feat in their play has been to push Patrice Evra forward – identical to Leighton Baines’ forward runs during Moyes’ tenure at Everton – with the Frenchman delivering crosses into the box.
To be fair, it was successful in the opening matches of the season, but teams have adapted to Evra’s threat by providing extra cover on that flank or an attacker to peg him back. Moyes’ persistence on production from wide outlets has handed a larger amount of responsibility on wide players to produce quality service. The issue has been no legitimate United winger has performed at the level required – as Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have failed to impress, Nani is showing signs of improvement but he’s still relatively inconsistent, and Shinji Kagawa hasn’t lived up to the hype that’s led to many questioning his place on the bench.
Frankly, in terms of attacking options, United’s substitutes don’t merit a starting spot. Javier Hernandez may continue to score the odd goal, but he still drifts out of matches for long-periods and his play is one-dimensional. Anderson’s fitness, along with his inability to take control of a match or protect the back four has been a recurring issue. Tom Cleverley has also been overrun in a double-pivot with Michael Carrick – yet his performance against Shakhtar highlighted he can make up numbers in midfield or play on the left of a narrow midfield. Meanwhile, youngsters Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha – more so Januzaj – have been bright during their short cameos, but proper utilization of minutes is key to their development, which explains minimal appearances off the bench.
With that being said, this places heavy reliance on a starting eleven that hasn’t addressed issues that were exposed last season. Moyes has tinkered with the overall shape in his 4-4-1-1, which has seen Carrick and Fellaini sit 10-yards deeper than last year’s double pivot did. This has affected Carrick and Fellaini’s impact on the attack, as both men have failed to play penetrating passes, while Fellaini rarely makes forward runs into the box. Nevertheless, Carrick’s been phenomenal on the defensive end, completing more tackles and according to whoscored.com he averages a league high 5.2 interceptions a match.
In fairness, United as a whole sits deeper in their third this season, and it could be to cope with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s lack of pace. The once formidable duo has aged and United’s backline has looked better with Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans partnering the experienced centre backs. Whether Moyes trusts Smalling, Evans or even Phil Jones at centre back is unknown, but if not, purchasing a young, established defender for the future is logical.
Nonetheless, although sitting deeper may benefit the centre back duo – albeit several Ferdinand mistakes last month – its tampered with United as a whole. Sitting deeper gives United’s opponent’s an opportunity to overrun their midfield, and also allows them to get back into shape – based on United’s poor counter attack this season – thus forcing Moyes’ men to break down teams that intend on sitting deeper, while maintaining a compact shape.
United lack creativity in midfield – specifically in the final third. A player with the ability to play the defence splitting passes in the final third, along with a box-to-box midfielder who can surge forward with conviction from deeper areas. A natural link between midfield in attack has been missed in United’s play and although Rooney has been playing well as of late, he hasn’t necessarily connected with Robin Van Persie, nor has any player in midfield. As of late, the Dutch striker has been left isolated up top, deprived of the service he needs to play at his full potential.
Moyes’ tenure has started with United playing a more pedestrian-esque possession game in the final third, as they look to get the ball to their full backs higher up the pitch. Now, it would be harsh to criticize the Scotsman’s philosophy, or label it naïve, as he hasn’t been able to bring in his own players. Across Europe many of the teams with new high-profile managers are slowly beginning to showcase a new tactical identity, yet majority – excluding Bayern Munich, as their marquee signings have been injured – have added new pieces to the puzzle.
This was never going to be an easy transition for Moyes – United needed to make a few changes to their squad to contend on both fronts, despite last year’s large point difference. Moyes was always going to face adversity, pressure and heavy criticism if things didn’t go his way, but how he copes with these challenges will be the decisive factor. His decision to appoint his own backroom staff and dismiss Ferguson’s shows the grit and initiative needed to stray away from Fergie’s shadow, and embed his own philosophy at Old Trafford.
This may be United’s worst start to a campaign in 24 years, but the Red Devils are more than capable of lifting the Premier League title in May, and shouldn’t be taken lightly despite their mediocre start. The squad still maintains a winning DNA, and although they lack world-class players in specific areas, their rivals aren’t any much superior. Moyes’ job won’t get any easier in the future, yet patience and backing from the club and its supporters is required for the Scotsman to succeed.
Remember, the red side of Manchester wasn’t built overnight.