Stuck in middle
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.