Southampton check David Moyes' momentum

Posted by Musa Okwonga



Poor David Moyes. Manchester United drew 1-1 with Southampton at home, conceding the sort of last-minute equaliser for which his predecessor's teams were famous for scoring. When Dejan Lovren's late strike was knocked in by Adam Lallana to level the score, Moyes' players' return to the halfway line was painfully disconsolate. David De Gea sat dejected on his goal-line, as the rest of his team trudged toward the restart as reluctantly as students returning to school in September.

This fixture was more awkward than it initially appeared. It was a home game, true, but one against a smartly coached side, which had conceded only twice in seven previous Premier League matches. Still, it was an occasion in which Manchester United were expected, not without difficulty, to prevail. This is not the easy October that the club may have anticipated when first scanning the calendar.

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It had all started so well -- with boldness both in the team selection and on the pitch. Moyes had selected what looked like his best starting XI. Nani and Adnan Januzaj, whose new five-year contract had been announced just before kickoff, were the wingers. Phil Jones had been chosen alongside Jonny Evans and ahead of Nemanja Vidic. Marouane Fellaini, impressive for Belgium against Croatia, began next to Michael Carrick in midfield. Ahead of them, both fresh from goal-scoring feats in World Cup qualifiers, were Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. What was not to like?

The first half, in particular, was an attacking performance as good as any that Manchester United have produced under Moyes. Januzaj's decision-making set the tone for the opening 45 minutes, and he was only once caught in possession. Otherwise, he moved the ball on swiftly, whether dribbling it past one man or two, cutting it early across the six-yard box or stretching the play with a cross-field pass. Nani, perhaps inspired by his teammate's enterprising approach, began to overlap well with Rafael. But for the crossbar, Manchester United would have had at least one additional goal to Van Persie's opener -- a goal that he needed perhaps more than his team did. The Dutchman, though still somewhat short of his best, was inventive throughout.

But the negatives were there. They were present in at least two areas, arguably three. The first was the blend in central midfield. Neither Fellaini nor Carrick pressed the ball, which allowed Southampton room to create in front of the home team's back four. This is because both players are naturally reactive and are not runners in the mould of, say, a fully fit Anderson (that mythical beast) or the failed transfer target from the summer transfer window, Athletic Bilbao's Ander Herrera. Much is made of the fact that Fellaini must still settle, but the problem in this area seems tactical rather than psychological. Put simply, the current configuration in central midfield invites pressure because no one is attacking the ball and carrying it forward to the second striker (in this case, Rooney).

The second negative was Rooney's subpar outing. It was simply not his day. He was offside twice as his team built promising attacks, his touch looked somewhat laboured, and his selection of passing was uncertain. Rooney's performance, of course, was a complex one. Even when off-colour, he remained productive and hit the bar with a furious drive from 12 yards, the ball cannoning back beyond the edge of the penalty area. Unfortunately, given the deep-lying nature of his central midfielders, he needed to provide greater mobility in that area than he managed before his late substitution. The only alternative in that number 10 position was Shinji Kagawa, but the Japan international has lost form and fitness for both club and country. Seeing Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Ryan Giggs leave the bench while Wilfried Zaha and Kagawa remained there was one of the game's gravest disappointments.

This is where we arrive at the third negative: the substitutions that Moyes made, which undid some of his good work. The introduction of Giggs for Nani made sense from the perspective that the Portugal winger -- now and then frustrating, but for the most part incisive -- may have been tiring. However, if it was intended as a means of closing out the game, then it was a mistake, as Giggs' ball retention has not been particularly good this season. It can be argued that, in bringing on Smalling and Welbeck, Moyes invited further attacking pressure. On the flip side, it did seem as though basic individual errors were at play for Southampton's equaliser, a concession from a corner.

Moyes will be attacked for his conservatism, but ultimately his team created enough chances to be comfortably ahead by injury time and his men did not take them. It was as straightforward as that. Outside Old Trafford, the skies delivered their displeasure; unfortunately for Moyes, it looks as though the next few days' headlines will do the same.

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