Robin van Persie’s timely hat-trick against Olympiacos on Wednesday has almost certainly prolonged David Moyes’ tenuous reign at Manchester United. Yet, Moyes’ departure may only be a matter of time, with the board reportedly wavering in its previously steadfast support for the Scot. United’s upcoming match against Manchester City at Old Trafford – and a Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich – might just be decisive in determining the under-fire manager’s future.
Contrary to most predictions Moyes’ side made it through the Champions League Round of 16 this week. The former Everton manager has persisted with ‘space based’ tactics throughout the campaign – designed largely to exploit width and zones and not passing into feet – and has found Europe easier to navigate than the Premier League. Continental teams tend to set up deeper and leave more room for United to exploit.
Personnel have been key to United’s success in Europe this season. The solidity provided by Antonio Valencia on the right has allowed United’s right-back, even Chris Smalling, to attack, while Michael Carrick’s holding role has enabled his midfield partner, and United’s left winger, to advance.
It is no coincidence that Ryan Giggs started both United’s 5-0 victory over Leverkusen and 3-0 win against Olympiakos. The 40-year-old provides the spark that engages United’s forwards to run amok in the attacking third.
But Giggs continued presence cannot be guaranteed. Including the final in Lisbon there are five matches to be played in the Champions League this season. Giggs, who turns 41 this year, cannot realistically start all five, yet the Welsh Wizard’s flair in connecting the Reds’ attack and defence will surely be used in some capacity.
It may be unwise to persist with Giggs in the Reds’ engine room though, especially against a Bayern Munich side that will press heavily in the quarter-final. United’s 2-0 loss in Athens was predominantly due to Tom Cleverley failing to run past the Greek press. Giggs is a better dribbler, but still lacks the forcefulness required against better opposition.
While Maroune Fellaini has started to show a semblance of mobility in recent matches, Moyes may turn to Phil Jones, as did Sir Alex Ferguson in games against Real Madrid last season, to neutralise Bayern’s dynamic midfield. With Bayern boasting outstanding options, including Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, Moyes is likely to take a cautious approach.
After all, Leverkusen and Olympiakos were not the toughest opponents, enabling United able to get away with deploying Giggs through the middle. Against stronger sides an alternative creative catalyst must be found.
While Rafael da Silva is a potent weapon from full-back, the Brazilian cannot be expected to instigate United’s attacks given his deeper role. But the 23-year-old can, in addition to the traditional tools of the attacking full-back, make an impact in more central areas by cutting in. Valencia might just be included, à la Ji-Sung Park, to accommodate the former Fluminense player’s attacking role against Bayern.
Another question surrounds Wayne Rooney and van Persie. Each began their careers as a bright number 10, and the Dutch forward certainly made numerous attempts to release his teammates at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Few came to fruition, perhaps understandably since the Dutchman has spent the past three seasons as finisher, not a creator.
Meanwhile on paper, Rooney is United’s chief creator – the Englishman is only one behind Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria in the Champions League assists table this season. Unlike his Dutch partner, the former Everton striker diligently works the channels. European sides often encourage full-backs to push forward and it is an area that could be rewarding for United.
Still, the White Pele has a critical flaw; having lost the ability to beat opponents, Rooney cannot create chances for himself. The 28-year-old requires the space provided by others to operate. van Persie’s clinical finishing and ability in tight quarters have been drawing opponents away from the former Everton man.
The Dutchman’s availability for the games against Bayern is critical, as well as Danny Welbeck has done this season, although United still faces a problem with initiating attacks against Bayern.
Defensively United will miss Patrice Evra, who is banned for the opener against Bayern. Should Jonny Evans recover in time, the Northern Irishman is best place to deputise. Evans lacks Evra’s attacking prowess, but will provide greater security for whomever occupies United’s left flank.
Still, the possibility of Alexander Buttner starting at Old Trafford on 1 April cannot be discounted, meaning that defensive nous is an important criterion in team selection on the left flank.
Welbeck could provide the greatest cover, but he is not the most incisive from a wide role. Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa is completely out of form and has been distinctly uncomfortable playing from the left this season. Giggs could fill in, but playing wide is far more physically draining on the 40-year-old.
Whatever the selection Moyes must avoid deploying Ashley Young against Bayern as the former Aston Villa will be tamely shepherded down the left flank.
This observation leaves Adnan Januzaj as perhaps the Scot’s best choice against the European champions. Januzaj has done a decent job shielding his full-back thus far this season and, perhaps because of his time spent in the United academy, has looked at relative ease when defending. While the teenager may develop into a classic number 10 in time, Januzaj can operate as a traditional left winger if needed.
Welbeck’s explosive pace can be negated by denying the Englishman space, but Januzaj has the close control to handle such situations. Crucially, the 19-year-old has shown enough glimpses to suggest that he could hold key to launching United’s attacks, which are likely to be rare against Bayern.
There is a warning though: should Moyes deem Januzaj ready for the European knockout stages his team-mates trust the youngster and not starve him of the ball as was the case in defeat to Liverpool.
And while the odds remain against United knocking out Bayern, a Chelsea side in complete disarray managed to lift the Champions League in 2011/12. With that precedent in mind, United might as well prioritise continental football this season, using the remaining Premier League games, even the derby, as practice for Europe.
Although Moyes might do well to recall that Roberto di Matteo was fired even after winning the Chelsea’s first Champions League.