The lack of European pedigree caused many Manchester United fans concern upon David Moyes’ arrival at the club, but the Reds’ progress to the Champions League knockout stage has come with little fuss. The domestic situation, however, is bordering on disastrous, with the title all but gone and qualification for next season’s Champions League at great risk.
United’s weekend victory at Villa Park comes at an opportune time, but Moyes might just have to win the Champions League to keep United in Europe next season if his side fails to build upon the momentum gained on Sunday.
Good job the Reds form on the continent has been so strong. With only six games and a pile of money to be earned just by making it to the knockout rounds teams traditionally approach the group stage with some degree of caution. It is a round characterized by a mix of the well-established familiar names, alongside the odd flash-in-the pan new opponent.
Whatever the origin, Bayer Leverkusen, Shaktar Donetsk and Real Sociedad could afford to concentrate on Europe this season. Each set out to counter United with a deep defensive line and man-marking system that produced an environment in which a highly reactive manager such as Moyes could flourish.
This is not the case in the Premier League. At the European group stage there are 18 points to be won, but whopping 114 points are at stake in the Premier League season. Or another way of putting it: a Premier League point is worth less than 20 per cent of each at the Champions League group stage. ‘Weak’ Premier League opposition can afford to shun parking the bus at Old Trafford and attack United on the club’s own patch, often complicating the variables to which Moyes has to react.
React Moyes certainly has. The new United manager has continued to evolve over the season, often in constructive ways, even though results have been subpar and the Scot is under great pressure.
In fact many of United’s problems can be pinpointed to a deep defensive line, which has been a consistent feature of United’s set-up this season.
The Reds’ lone forward in Moyes’ preferred 4-4-1-1 system – often Robin Van Persie – has remained far too stationary, stretching the field of play. Indeed, Moyes’ use of Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj to connect midfield and attack suggests that the former Everton manager is not philosophically attached to direct football, but that a deep defensive unit has forced the Reds to resort to speculative passes nonetheless.
United enjoyed an excellent game at Villa Park, albeit against a mediocre opposition. At the end of the season the game might well be remembered more for the return of Darren Fletcher, but it should be marked as the fixture in which Moyes finally came to grips with his United squad.
Despite youthful Jonny Evans and Phil Jones starting in the heart of defence, the back-four remained deep, but the team as a whole dropped in a little deeper too. Wayne Rooney started as a central midfielder, with Danny Welbeck deployed as a false nine rather than a traditional striker. In central midfield Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley took turns becoming a third central defender and the set up caused the home side all sorts of problems.
David de Gea’s distribution also contributed to an excellent performance, leaving Aston Villa’s midfield unable to press United’s back-four in fear that the Spaniard could simply bypass the opposition and find Rooney at will. Meanwhile, the pace of Januzaj, Welbeck and Antonio Valencia forced Villa’s defenders to remain deep, allowing United’s trio room to create.
It was a system that escapes easy numerical categorisation, but enabled United’s central midfield to both drop deep and pick out the forwards. Valencia ran onto many balls played into the channel and chalked up two assists. Welbeck and Januzaj seemingly ghosted into the box unmarked – the English forward scoring two – while Cleverley also joined attack with great frequency.
The strategy allowed United’s forwards to receive the ball on the run – it suited those Reds more comfortable playing with the ball played in front of them than receiving it to their feet.
In fact, Kagawa made a name for himself putting the final touch on a rapid break in the Bundesliga, while neither Rooney nor Valencia can boast the first touch to truly influence the game on the ball, especially against sides that press.
It is a system that allows Moyes to field his preferred deeper line, maintain width through full backs and utilise the strengths of United forwards. De Gea remains key to the plan since his distribution is the bluff that prevents opposition midfielders from swarming the Reds. In essence, it is a sophisticated long-ball football that plays to United’s strengths.
Meanwhile, the use of Welbeck as a false nine and Rooney dropping deep suggests that Moyes has finally understood the fundamental difference between players he managed at Everton and ones at his disposal at Old Trafford. At Goodison Park Moyes boasted a squad full of specialists. The former Everton manager is now in charge of generalists who are shackled by tactics that specify their role.
Welbeck is not the greatest poacher in the world, nor Rooney the best number 10 in England. By allowing them freedom and, crucially, space to make their own decision, Moyes was rewarded with a much needed win in Birmingham.
The deep back-four may actually aid United’s offensive approach, especially in Europe, should Moyes continue to deploy his midfield and forwards deeper as well. Rooney, van Persie and company are all dangerous running onto the ball. Crucially, United’s forwards are highly versatile and intelligent, which should force future opposition back and relieve the pressure on the engine room, which will continue to leak even when Michael Carrick returns.
The template used against Villa will face much sterner tests in the future, but Moyes seems to have learned a crucial lesson in using his forwards. Moyes was not a surprise appointment and the fact that it took the Scot six months to understand his new players is disappointing. But at least he finally has.