Maximus Tacticus : Manchester United
In his farewell speech last year, Sir Alex Ferguson asked for the support and patience of club loyalists towards the newly appointed manager, David Moyes. The then Everton boss was preferred over all other big names being speculated upon at that time and thus has been labelled the Chosen One. There was an air of retrospect around Old Trafford. Everyone admitted Moyes was not handed over the best of squads and with the departure of Chairman David Gill as well, it was going to be a transition period for the champions. I acknowledged the same in my Season Preview and scaled down their target to a podium finish.
With the retirement of legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, things were going to be different. But the change has been rather dramatic. From being title contenders to mid table dwellers – it has been a fight this season for Manchester United to keep their reputation intact. David Moyes’ boys are going through the worst season in the Premier League era. Debojyoti Chakraborty scrutinises the Red Devils to find out the reason.
But it was really hard to predict that this transition would be so painful (may be even the legendary Paul the Octopus, who made a name for himself in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, would agree). It is like a workplace where the newly appointed Board of Directors – Edward Woodward, the Executive Vice Chairman along with the owners, Glazer family – are not able to draw out a smooth change management plan and, in turn, are suffering from low productivity. They might have expected a trophy-less season – notwithstanding the pointless Community Shield – but certainly not a free fall like this.
Manchester United are 7th in the table, a position they have never seen in the Premier League era at such an advanced stage in the league. Their league standing makes it obvious that Red Devils’ stats this season will be pretty poor. But in fact, they are even worse! Before the last match against Cardiff City, Manchester United were the only team, along with Fulham, who had failed to score in the first 15 minutes of any match in the league. So it is clear they are not able to dictate terms from the onset. This becomes quite obvious when one gets to know that Moyes has not even once fielded the same team in any two consecutive matches.
David de Gea, between the sticks, has been one of the very few players who has improved from his last season. But Patrice Evra’s rapidly diminishing form – mainly due to his loss of pace which has impeded him from creating a right balance between attack and defence – has overshadowed the Spaniard’s good showings. To add to the misery, there is no preferred centre back pairing. Or so it seems. Joining Evra in the aging defence are Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic who do not bring in an air of assurance even when they are playing. Their understudy, Johny Evans and Chris Smalling appear to be playing in a club too high for their abilities. But Right Back might be the position which has seen maximum changes this season. Rafael, Smalling, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia – none have given a run of consistent performances.
Moyes has tried to adapt to United’s favourite wing play with two strikers up front, which does not come naturally to him. He was more accustomed to play 4-4-1-1 where inevitably it would drift towards a compact five-man midfield rather than being too adventurous. But he has been let down by the awful display of wingers. Valencia and Ashley Young have been pathetic. They have averaged 27 crosses per game, better than any team in the league but their successful cross ratio remains one of the lowest. Take for example the loss against Chelsea on 19th January, 2014 – United managed to cross 26 times but only 4 of them were successful. Age has caught up with Ryan Giggs and one must admit he has outlived himself. Things have been so bad that a once-in-a-blue-moon performer Nani has been awarded with a five-year contract extension.
But United’s main problem has been their central midfield. Sluggish movements have meant fewer options for making a key pass in vital moments. Lack of pace and indecision in possession has either forced them to pass backwards or have left them bereft of the ball by their opponents. Michael Carrick has endured an injury hit season and even then he has tried his level best to dictate terms in matches he has played. But lack of creativity from his midfield partners – Tom Cleverly, Kagawa or Marouane Fellaini (playing in double pivot or more advanced role) – has hampered Manchester’s overall build up.
This lack of penetration from the midfield has forced Wayne Rooney to drop deeper and deeper. He is always very enthusiastic and likes to get involved in the build-up. But for his and more importantly team’s benefit, he should have been playing upfront just behind the striker – not in a tranquilista role. Just glance at his overall action areas in the home loss against Everton on 4th December, 2013 and you will know how much out of position he had to play.
But amidst all this, one thing has stood out – Moyes has very good game reading sense. His strategic alterations – mainly during the interval or even during normal playing time – have injected life into Manchester’s play. Take for example the game against Swansea on 11th January, 2014 at Old Trafford. United looked clueless, lacked energy and were going nowhere in the first half. Moyes pushed Shinji Kagawa in a more central role and asked Januzaj to take on the opponent Right Back, who was already on a yellow card. This tactical switch turned the game in United’s favour. But how one wishes – and not only for this match during the season – that United could have started like that!
In his defence, Moyes can rightly point out that Manchester has been hit hard by injuries to key players, especially their highest scorer last season Robin van Persie. His partnership with Rooney upfront was lethal last year but they could play together only nine times this time round – and RVP was in the field for a mere 33 minutes on one of those occasions. It is no surprise that United has drawn only two and lost none out of those eight (excluding the curtailed appearance of RVP against West Bromwich Albion) matches. Without them? Moyes has been frustrated as United have laboured to only 20 points out of the remaining 15 games.
As Uncle Ben said, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And how harshly David Moyes is realising the truth! Could he have done something different? Could he have tried a false 9 featuring both Kagawa and Rooney up front? This would have been a viable proposition in the absence of RVP and especially considering the lack of creativity United have suffered at the central areas. But Moyes is not known for being too adventurous and, as we all know, it is easier said than done.
Things did not look too promising even from the outset. The disastrous summer transfer season saw Manchester come close to signing quite a few players but inexplicably failed to land any major stars. Their only signing was Fellaini, but United definitely needed more than that. While the champions stagnated, their opponents became stronger with the influx of new blood and the results are there for everyone to see. Now with the addition of the midfield maestro Juan Mata, Manchester United are looking to get things back on track. But it is too little too late for at least this season.