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.