The goal was so good it was almost offensive. Obnoxious because Danny Welbeck’s superb strike at the Hawthorns on Saturday exposed the real talent in Manchester United’s midst; a talent so desperately underused in David Moyes’ counter-revolution this season. Indeed, while much of United’s play over the past eight months harks back to a basic tactical approach largely superseded by the game’s élite, Welbeck’s fine team goal uncovered genuine potential for something more, but only if Moyes is prepared to release it.
Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Marouanne Fellaini and Wayne Rooney were involved in an 18-pass move before Welbeck’s classy 82nd minute finish sealed a comfortable United win at West Bromwich Albion. And while the goal can be celebrated as a rare moment of real class in an otherwise hugely disappointing campaign, frustration stems from the knowledge that Welbeck’s strike is likely to be another false dawn. The sight of United’s multi-faceted attack passing through rather than over Albion’s defence is countered by the back-to-basics approach used for much of the campaign.
This observation is fundamental to the philosophy underpinning manager Moyes’ career at the top; one that the Scot transposed to United rapidly, with almost universally disastrous consequences. After all, Moyes’ strict adherence to the crossing game is largely counter-intuitive to the presence of touch players such as Mata, Rooney, Kagawa and Welbeck in the United squad.
Throw starlet Adnan Januzaj into the mix and it is not so much a wonder that United’s approach has been so agricultural at times this season, but that Moyes’ rigidly taught approach has so rarely flexed. The players at Moyes’ disposal surely demand more.
United’s narrow formation against Albion and a more constructive build up should auger well given the personnel available to the Scot. Yet, we have been here before – and recently too. United’s relatively cocksure performance in victory at Crystal Palace last month came with both Mata and Januzaj in the side and greater focus on attacking flexibility.
Four days afterwards, Moyes’ outfit spent much of the 90 at Olympiakos launching hopeful long balls, or recycling possession wide at the earliest opportunity, only for another aimless cross to miss its target.
Indeed, in the men selected in wide positions often present United’s approach in microcosm. Technical players such as Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj on one pole; Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on the other. Moyes cannot have it both ways, yet rarely seems to trust to a fully creative approach.
Kagawa’s late introduction was significant at the Hawthorns even if it came at Januzaj’s expense. The Japanese international occupied the centre of the park, rather than hugging the touchline, and proved to be a catalyst for an entertaining final 20 minutes. Yet, he is unlikely to start many games before the season concludes.
Still, Moyes was entitled to feel pleased with a confident second half performance in the Midlands, even if the context was victory against a side whose form is significantly worse than any other in the division.
“The pitch was very lively, it was drying out a little bit and it wasn’t that easy to pass the ball, but we looked much more potent going forward and looked more likely to score than we have in other games,” said Moyes. “I made the point about us trying to attack more and have better play going forward and I think we did that.”
Next weekend’s match against Liverpool at Old Trafford is another level still; and a challenge that will test Moyes’ faith in a plethora of flexible creative players. With Valencia and Young both available, history suggests that the Scot will be unable to resist the temptation to start one or both against Brendan Rodgers’ improving side. In the battle between structure and creativity the former normally wins Moyes’ heart.
United’s challenge extends beyond tactics for next Sunday’s fixture. Whether the Scot’s side reverts back to a more rudimentary approach or otherwise Welbeck’s star cameo in the midlands also exposed Robin van Persie’s worrying lack of form, and a potentially destructive attitude.
The Dutchman has made no secret, at least through intermediaries, that he is unhappy with life at Old Trafford. It is a process months in the making – beginning with Moyes’ decision to “over train” the 30-year-old striker last summer, extending through the manager’s frustration with the player’s fitness, and augmented by Moyes’ decision to build a team around Rooney.
More pointedly van Persie benefits little from the type of aimless delivery that has characterised a season, although his intelligence around the box ensures that the Dutchman scores plenty when the ball is delivered from wide areas with a little more precision.
van Persie cut a dejected figure in the midlands, with the player’s state of mind such that his movement was minimal and impact limited. That Rooney and van Persie exchanged just four passes, and the Dutchman enjoyed only 16 touches in an hour on the pitch, is both a symptom and a contributor to the player’s malaise.
Moyes has little answer to the problem though. The Scot certainly appears reluctant to indulge the former Arsenal forward in the sycophantic manner to which Rooney’s ego has been massaged this season. While the alternative could be cataclysmic to van Persie’s deteriorating relationship with the Scot; that the Dutchman is dropped for Sunday’s fixture with Liverpool and Welbeck or Rooney leads the line.
It is a move some fans might support given van Persie’s perceived attitude. Certainly Welbeck’s touch and movement is conducive to an expansive game, although the Englishman’s finishing is a level or two below van Persie’s class. The ease with which Welbeck scored on Saturday is an exception to a generally more profligate contribution.
“When he was played in down the side, he opened up and finished terrifically well,” said Moyes. “I’m pleased Danny is looking sharper. We’re going to need him.”
Whether that comes on Sunday might just be pivotal for more than one member of Moyes’ squad ahead of a tough month. Sunday’s match is rapidly followed the second leg of United’s Champions League Round of 16 clash with Olympiakos, then West Ham United away and Manchester City at home. The Scot will need a positive result in at least one of the big three fixtures to keep the pressure at bay.
“It is a crucial month for us and, to be honest, I am very positive about it,” said Mata, who enjoyed a positive contribution from the right on Saturday. “We know that we have to win as many games as we can and we have to start this month.”
Whether United continues in the vein of Saturday’s second half or reverts to a season’s type might just dictate how far the team goes in the remaining weeks of the season.