What exactly does David Moyes stand for? It is an open question that has touched the lips of many Manchester United supporters this season. For so long the Scot has been considered one of the Premier Leagues more reactionary managers in an era when the philosopher-coach has dominated. It is a précis of Moyes’ time at the top-level as much as a contemporary observation – one that has seemingly carried over to the 50-year-old’s first season with United.
Moyes reputation lies in relief to many of the game’s top managers; those that build teams conforming to a predetermined style. Pep Guardiola’s tika taka; Jurgen Klopp’s hard pressing game; Manuel Pellegrini’s intricate possession play; Arsene Wenger’s passing carousel. Even Brendan Rodgers has transferred his preference for possession football from Swansea City to Liverpool, as has Roberto Martinez to Everton.
Moyes, by contrast, has no philosophy of note; except the hugely predictable crossing game that has proven so ineffective this season. Predicated on quickly recycling possession into wide areas, overloading the flanks, and delivering crosses, United has scored just 38 Premier League goals this season. That’s 19 fewer than at the same time last season.
Yet, the £37.1 million acquisition of Juan Mata threatens to break the mold; to undermine critics of Moyes’ style. Characterised by some as a poor relation to modern football’s best, Moyes is now afforded the opportunity to adapt his philosophy with Mata in the side. The coach will have to if he is to get the best out of his new signing. Unless, of course, Mata breaks first.
There is, of course, legitimate discourse in Mata’s value to United. Not that there is any doubt in the 25-year-old Spaniard’s quality. In two full seasons with Chelsea the Spanish international twice claimed the club’s Player of the Year prize.
But at a time when the Reds’ vulnerability in central midfield – and at the back – has been stark, Mata is luxurious quality when Moyes could also do with a little more steel. It is problem United did not correct this window.
Still, in acquiring another creative talent, one that doesn’t fit into Moyes’ typical pattern, the manager faces a fascinating choice: to shape Mata into the Scot’s preferred system, or to evolve the habit of the past decade.
Indeed, Mata was deployed in a loose number 10 role against Cardiff City on Tuesday night and enjoyed 51 touches, but the Spaniard spent much of the night delivering cross-field passes to either flank. The contrast to Mata’s short-passing game at Chelsea, particularly under Rafael Benítez last season, is marked.
World-class playmaker or not, Moyes’ gameplan is still Moyes’ gameplan.
But that, of course, is where the debate really lies. Whether the Scot is ready to take his game on from a decade at Goodison Park. To use Mata, alongside Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and perhaps even Shinji Kagawa, in a more fluid, less structured formation.
Time will provide the answer, although the manager’s history dictates it is an unlikely scenario. In fact Mata’s role will change again on Saturday, with United visiting Stoke City in the Premier League where the Spaniard is likely to start on the left in support of Rooney and van Persie in what looks much like Moyes’ 4-4-2 of old.
Whatever formation Moyes eventually adopts Mata’s capture has at least proffered the Scot more confidence than any of his victories with United this season. Perhaps more importantly the Spaniard’s introduction into the United dressing is the first step in what Moyes hopes is a transition away from a group of players who have largely failed him this season.
“I am disappointed we are not in a much stronger position,” admitted Moyes after capturing the Spaniard last weekend.
“I am disappointed with how we have played. I take the rap for that. But what I will do is make it right. I am going to get better players in.
“I have given every player the opportunity to show what they can do. If they want to be here they have to show it in the games. The message this sends is that we’re going for all the best players in the world.”
Even if the Glazer family’s predilection for parsimony has ended building a new side is no simple task. More so given Moyes’ total lack of experience in creating a team at the very highest level, if that is indeed the club’s summer plan. After all, the club’s market capitalisation on the New York exchange has lost more than 10 per cent since Moyes took control, seemingly prompting a new strategy to spend heavily for the first time in more than eight years.
First though United must surely qualify for next season’s Champions League. Without it dreams of signing Toni Kroos, Arturo Vidal, Luke Shaw or any of the many names brought up in the nation’s red tops will dissipate before a player walks through Old Trafford’s doors, let alone drags Moyes’ outfit kicking and screaming to a league title.
And that is where Moyes’ approach counts; where the shackles that have dominated United’s season can now fall. Those 38 goals scored to date might ordinarily suggest just 60 to 65 in the full campaign. To put that in perspective United scored 86 and 89 in the past two seasons under Ferguson. Everton failed to score more than 60 in any campaign during Moyes’ reign on Merseyside.
Goals are but a proxy for a more expansive style of course, although any observation of Moyes conservatism is hardly new. Rooney’s substitution for Chris Smalling in United’s draw with Southampton is just one example of many this season. Given a choice between a risk and a safer bet the Scot always takes the latter.
van Persie’s return to fitness will help United’s cause of course, as will Rooney’s reintroduction to the side after a month out. Yet, the Reds start Saturday’s fixture against Stoke six points adrift of Liverpool. Effectively seven with the Merseysiders’ vastly superior goal difference. It is a situation that requires United to win many of the 15 games remaining this season.
In that Mata is both a bold buy and a key player. It is not just that Mata could both create and score liberally as the season draws to a close, but that he might just prompt the manager into a rethink. In that there is but a small hope.