One step forward, three steps back. Manchester United's 2-1 defeat at Stoke City was the eighth loss of their Premier League title defence. Many supporters are still calculating the champions' chances of finishing in fourth place, but on current form it would probably be wise to reassess those expectations. A seventh-place finish is wholly plausible.
Last week's acquisition of Juan Mata for a club-record 37.5 million pounds was a superb statement of intent, and the protracted nature of his purchase suggests how difficult it is to secure elite talent. The signings of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao -- who may have been prohibitively expensive -- and Fabio Coentrao, on loan from Real Madrid, fell by the wayside. Looking across Europe, there were few clubs who endured a satisfying January transfer window: Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City all failed to make their desired additions. Chelsea, however, showed everybody up with their signings of Mohamed Salah and Nemanja Matic, the latter precisely the sort of player that Manchester United needed for matches like that at the Britannia Stadium.
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Of course, Manchester United's answer to Matic -- in the loose sense of a tall, powerful midfield destroyer -- has been absent through injury, though Marouane Fellaini has so far done little to give the impression that he will be as imposing a figure. Instead of Fellaini, David Moyes chose Tom Cleverley to start alongside Michael Carrick, which was a surprising selection given that Darren Fletcher, a much better passer into the final third, was on the bench. He also deployed Mata on the right wing in a 4-4-2 formation, and the Spain playmaker struggled to have any impact from the margins. The result was that Charlie Adam was able to saunter about the midfield with the aplomb of Gheorghe Hagi.
Moyes' tenure has unfortunate parallels with that of basketball coach Mike Brown, who was hired to succeed the legendary Phil Jackson in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown took over an aging team of injury-prone superstars on long-term contracts who had just fought their way to a clutch of recent championships, and found that he could not cajole the same world-class performances from his men as had his predecessor. Brown's time in California ended in disappointment, and the fear is that Moyes' may be the same.
On Saturday, Moyes played Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata in the same lineup. If he wishes to accommodate all of those players in the same team, he needs about three or four new players: two physical, all-action midfielders, which explains his interest in Toni Kroos and Arturo Vidal, and at least one new full-back. The problem with Moyes' approach, though, is that he is not coaching the best out of his existing players. Too often, Manchester United found themselves resorting to the long ball and the cross against Stoke, when the squad has several players for whom swift passing and movement sees them at their most comfortable.
Here's an odd contradiction: Moyes has the ambition to secure players such as Mata, and then fits them into the most rigid and uninspiring of tactical systems. Moyes has proved in the games against Bayer Leverkusen that he is capable of playing expansive, attacking football, but this is not second nature to him. His watchword is caution, whilst across the city Manuel Pellegrini has shown the benefits of an enterprising approach.
Moyes may well end this season with an empty mantelpiece, with his only respite from an eye-watering domestic debut being the UEFA Champions League. It is to be hoped that, whether he claims a trophy or not, he continues in the vein of the attacking enterprise that he showed against Leverkusen -- a path that he may be trying to take, given that he did after all field Rooney, Mata and van Persie at the same time.
The wider question is whether Moyes can learn new tricks on the job, which will outsmart those rivals above him in the league table. At present, there are not too many signs that he can. The most patient of fans will reserve all judgment until the Glazers go shopping again in the summer, but Moyes' six-year contract is currently looking like a very long time.