Manchester United has seen innumerous ups and downs interspersed with the glorious run they’ve had since the re-branding of the English top-flight. But the defeat to Newcastle, their second in a row, has to be rated as one of their worst performances at the Theatre of Dreams. They’ve seldom played poorly in away games, but never has the 75000 strong Old Trafford been witness to such a lackadaisical and insipid display. So what really went wrong? And is the performance a one-off or a sign of things to come? Ever since Mr. Moyes took over from Sir Alex, doubts have been raised over the Scot’s ability to manage a team of United’s stature, his big-stage experience and a complete change in squad dynamics as compared to his time in Merseyside.
Moyes’ start to life in Manchester has been a mixed bag so far. His biggest coup was to persuade Wayne Rooney to stay, but his tactical capriciousness and excessive squad rotation has meant that United are staring at one of their worst league starts to the season. Fantastic wins over Leverkusen and Arsenal and the two-month long unbeaten run were reassuring to the OT faithful, but successive home defeats against Everton and Newcastle at a place which has been traditionally considered a fortress for away sides, has reignited some very pertinent questions regarding the gaffer’s team policies, tactics and motivational skills.
Against the Magpies, the team looked devoid of energy and enthusiasm, almost as if they were forced on to the pitch. When was the last time we said this about Manchester United? The central midfield was non-existent, with abysmal creativity and work-rate. Phil Jones looked like a League One player at best and Cleverly barely made a purposeful forward pass. Nani was at his inconsistent best, barring a couple of good runs down the wing. Januzaj looked like the only midfielder who wanted to play. The central defence pairing of Vidic and Evans looked solid, which again points a finger at Moyes and his irresolute mindset over his first-choice centre-back pairing. Evra ran around like a headless chicken and was the sole culprit in the run-up to Newcastle’s winner. Talking about the strikers, van Persie undoubtedly looked short on match practice and Chicharito, taking nothing away from his indefatigable effort, lacked focus and fluffed a couple of decent chances to score.
Team selection and player performances aside, the thing that must have baffled most of the spectators and viewers around the world was the complete lack of intent and determination on the team’s part to get back in the game. It was as if they resigned themselves to another sorry loss at the hands of a side they were expected to beat, more so at home. The tempo clearly was a couple of knots short and everyone on the pitch looked bereft of ideas. Credit to Newcastle for the way they shut shop and played on the counter, but Swansea gave a good lesson last weekend on how to beat the Magpies at their game. Surely Mr. Moyes would have picked up a thing or two from that game.
Over the last few weeks, some serious doubts have been raised regarding Mr. Moyes’ management of the squad and his on-field tactics. With United falling to their fourth loss of the season (one less than last season’s tally), those doubts have been reinvigorated. The time has come for Mr. Moyes to answer some of them.
The Kagawa Conundrum
United’s exploits in Europe have taught us one very important lesson- that Shinji Kagawa is the answer to the team’s midfield woes. Starting in the left-wing role against Sociedad and Leverkusen, the moment Kagawa was unleashed in his natural position, the pint-size Japanese exploded with creativity, transforming the playing style and providing bursts of flair to the team’s attack. Every United supporter has come to the conclusion that even Mr. Moyes realizes the impact of Kagawa in the hole behind the striker. But then why doesn’t he play him? Or even if Kagawa does play, why is being pushed aside to an indifferent role on the left flank, a position which clearly doesn’t suit the Japanese or the interests of the team.
What’s with the 4-4-2?
When the world has made a gradual shift over the last few years to a new universal formation of a 5-man midfield, why is Mr. Moyes stuck with the archaic system. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the setup, but the bottomline is that the two-man central midfield is competitively incapable of standing up to its 3-man modern counterpart. And that is exactly what we have seen with United. Their midfield has been outnumbered, outgunned and outmuscled by some very strong midfields in the Premier League.
Phil Jones is not a midfielder
Yes, he is strong. Yes, he is a decent passer. No, he is not a midfielder. You play him with Carrick, and he does well as the anchorman, like he did against Arsenal. But when you play him as the primary enforcer in the center of the park, like against Newcastle, is when his weaknesses are exposed. Lack of composure with the ball, limited vision and inept positional sense, these are not the traits you look for in a competent holding midfielder.
Fellaini needs time to adapt
This brings me to a certain Belgian, who was signed as a last-gasp solution to United’s long standing midfield inadequacies. Fellaini hasn’t started particularly well, is playing with an injury, but most importantly he has come to a new club and has been asked to play in a role which he definitely loves but is not accustomed to, that of the deep-lying playmaker. He started in that role at Everton, but then was moved to an advanced role after Tim Cahill’s departure. It was in the hole behind the striker where Fellaini reveled, scoring and creating goals aplenty, earning a name for himself and eventually attracting the interest of clubs such as Manchester United. Fellaini has to be given time to adjust to a new team, a new role, and a new home. Patience and transition, like with Mr Moyes, are the keywords with Marouane Fellaini.
Where’s the ‘United spirit’?
The striking aspect of many of United’s displays this season has been a complete change in the attitude of the players. The ‘Comeback Kings’ identity has been lost in the wilderness, the tempo has slowed down to embarrassing levels and the tireless persistence has waned. ‘Fergie’s time’ is a thing of the past and the complete lack of creativity and responsibility in the midfield paints a very gloomy picture. The famous ‘United’ spirit, which Sir Alex very tenderly cultivated over the last two decades, has either taken a very torrid beating or has left the echelons of Old Trafford along with Sir Alex Ferguson.
The staunch United fanbase has placed its complete trust in Mr. Moyes, after all that was the parting call of Sir Alex and that is the least the fans can do for their new gaffer. In fact these tough times have done well to separate the plastic from the loyal. No matter how they finish this season, no matter how many games they win, how many they lose, Mr. Moyes will always enjoy the support of the United faithful. For now, the only ardent plea of all United fans is too see their team play good football with their trademark attitude- the attitude of champions, something that has been associated with this great club for so long. For that is the least the fans can ask for in these times, that spark of genius, that moment of brilliance, that sign of great things to come under Mr. Moyes.
This article was first published on Back Page Football.