One of the most telling insights into David Moyes’ thinking came when the Scot told a reporter that he excluded Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion to “keep Rio and Vida for games coming up.” Managers should never to be judged by press activity alone, but the former Everton manager’s choices this season suggest that he views a deep-lying defense as a tactical requirement rather than a stop-gap measure to protect ageing legs.
The game against West Brom saw United win convincingly. Yet, United held a deep line despite youthful Phil Jones and Chris Smalling starting at the centre of defence, against one of the Premier League’s worst sides.
There were some knock-on consequences nuances too, such as how deep Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini dropped in the defensive phase, effectively becoming auxiliary centre backs as Jones and Smalling split wide at every opportunity. The move allowed Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to close down their opponents at will, but United’s defence was still repeatedly pulled around by West Brom forwards.
With the engine room pinned in its own penalty box, Moyes’ side persisted with the much criticised direct approach for much of the game on Saturday. The incumbent United manager, however, use three distinct methods of transition and was rewarded with three goals.
On the left Evra consistently tried to hit the ball long to release Adnan Januzaj into attacking areas. While the youngster failed to fire on his return to the side the right flank proved to be more fruitful.
Meanwhile, David de Gea abandoned his more natural short passing game to directly engage the right flank, with Fellaini motoring forward to support Rafael.
Rafael to Fellaini was the most frequent passing combination of the match. The Brazilian frequently brought the ball forward and the Belgian midfielder overloaded the flank, holding up the ball and gaining time for Rafael to advance. Juan Mata’s usual natural movement towards the centre vacated the space for United’s full-back to fill.
But it was movement from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that won the game for United. Rooney dragged defenders out of position from his starting role at ‘number nine’, while contrary to expectation van Persie began a little deeper, arriving late into the box during an hour on the pitch.
The strike partners took turns making runs behind the midlanders’ defense and often made contact with the ball unmarked. Time and again United’s forwards received long balls on the run and took full advantage of the disarray in the home side’s back four.
Yet, with Carrick and Fellaini sitting deep, Mata and van Persie were too often isolated through middle. It is a strategy unlikely to inspire either player given the complete isolation forced on them.
Evra and Januzaj also had a quiet game, with the Frenchman frequently misplacing passes to the winger ahead. Fellaini’s brawny presence, together with Mata’s creativity, leaves the right flank as United’s most likely route to goal against Liverpool next weekend, although the former Everton midfielder’s form has been far too patchy to place much faith in him.
But while United’s upcoming game against Liverpool must be won to sustain any chance at qualifying for the Champions League next season, the Merseysiders’ rear-guard will be nowhere near as porous as West Brom’s.
If only to stifle the space Liverpool’s number 10 can exploit, United’s midfielders must be more disciplined in their positioning next week. With the engine room operating in defensive mode rather attacking the opposition box, Evra, van Persie and Mata will be in a better position to offer the variety required to breach the Scousers’ defence.
While long ball approach is not known for its accuracy, United must spend more time in the final third, if only to relieve the likely pressure on the back four.
In attack van Persie’s frustration was obvious at the Hawthorns, with the Dutchman making a series of rash tackles that could have led to a dismissal. Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball limits his usefulness in certain areas, but the Liverpool-born forward’s diligence in dragging the opposition defence out of position cannot be replicated by van Persie. As such, it would surprise few if the former Arsenal man began next week’s fixture on the bench.
Indeed, Welbeck’s physical presence is arguably required more than van Persie’s finesse. The academy graduate’s defensive nous will surely appeal to Moyes too.
Meanwhile, on the flanks it is likely that Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young – or both – will return against Liverpool this Sunday. After all, the under-fire United manager has long been accused of distrusting flair players. The Ecuadorian has often been used by the Scot as an out ball on the right flank – another target for De Gea to hit. It might just be very welcome given the current set up.
Deploying Valencia will also free Fellaini from supporting the right flank, enabling the 6’4″ midfielder to use his brute force in more central areas. The Belgian has not enjoyed a strong season, but he allows more mobile players some freedom.
Mata, for example, could be used in his preferred position at ‘number 10’ next Sunday. The Spaniard is a proven goal scorer and his experience playing with Eden Hazard could be put to good use closer to Januzaj on the left. In fact, much could be gained by dropping van Persie – after all, it’s the approach not United’s finishing that is causing more problems right now.
Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League is not a foregone conclusion, though realistically unlikely. Still, the time for experimentation is long gone and van Persie’s ego cannot be prioritised over desperately needed victories. In any case, the Dutch striker can be deployed in Europe where the general lack of tempo suits his natural game more.
And aesthetically pleasing football can wait six months too – a manager used to working with technically gifted footballers could have replaced Moyes by then anyway.