A tale of two Moyes

Posted by Musa Okwonga

The recent weeks, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, have been "The Tale of Two Moyes." To adapt the opening moments of Dickens' great novel, "The Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of David Moyes, it was the worst of David Moyes." On occasion, the Manchester United manager has been resolute in his public statements; what Dickens might call "the best of Moyes."

Just after signing Juan Mata for a club record 37.1 million pounds, Moyes told the media, regarding his team's title defence: "I am not going to accept it... I'm disappointed that we're not in a much stronger position. I'm disappointed with how we have played. I will ultimately take the rap for that, but what I will do is make it right. I'm going to get better players in. There will be more."

However, following United's 2-1 defeat at Stoke City on Saturday -- their first loss to the Potters since 1984, and a match as disappointing in its performance as its outcome -- we saw "the worst of Moyes."

"I thought the performance was really good. I thought we played well," the manager said when events on the pitch had largely suggested anything but.

- Mitten: United season going from bad to worse
- Report: United players must fear failure

Of course, Moyes is in an unenviable position. It's never easy stepping into a seat whose previous incumbent brought years of glory, especially when the cost of that glory is becoming more apparent with each passing month. But, that said, optimism and honesty never cost anything. Moyes may be trying to protect his players with the pronouncement that he made after the Stoke City game. Then again, if he was indeed seeking to protect his players, he would not have stated just days before that he was looking to ship several of them out. The consistent theme with his statements seems to be that he is playing for time; perhaps until the summer, when the Glazers will presumably give him the money he needs to rebuild the squad.

The concern, though, should probably be more for Moyes than for the illustrious players he will probably bring in. After all, Manchester United's league position was no impediment to the arrival of Mata -- the club's name will retain a great deal of its pulling power. Nor should its probable failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League scare off, say, Douglas Costa of Shakhtar Donetsk. No, the problem will be whether Moyes, having rebuilt his squad, will then have the tactical nous to make them a consistent contender again.

In his press conference, Moyes said, "We created numerous opportunities; we played well, but we didn't pick anyone out around the box." However, it is instructive to contrast his approach with that of Arsene Wenger against Crystal Palace, a game Arsenal won 2-0 to keep them just ahead of Manchester City atop the Premier League. There is no question that Arsenal have better resources in midfield, but the manner in which both their goals arrived was revealing: the first a diagonal ball to an onrushing player after they had shifted the play from side to side, the second a one-two and a failure to track the initial runner. For the majority of the game, Arsenal passed the ball from side to side, and learned the lesson of the ineffectual long pass. They attempted four in the first half, each of which sailed clear of its target, and ultimately profited from a short passing game, with the ball rarely leaving the ground.

This is why Moyes' preoccupation with crossing the ball -- something which was successful in only five of 33 attempts against Stoke -- is so confusing. It almost appears to be a reflexive response to tactical problems -- and the irony is that, with a minor adjustment, he could do much to benefit his team. All Moyes needs to do is to cut out crossing. He is fortunate in that, unlike Arsenal, he has fast players in wide positions who can get to the byline, such as Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia.

Moyes also has players who are excellent at making late runs into the area -- a manner in which even the goal-shy Tom Cleverley has scored two of his last three goals for United: away against West Ham United in the FA Cup last season and away against Aston Villa in the Premier League this season. Why, then, does Moyes not simply transfer the ball swiftly to the wings -- as he is already doing -- and have his wingers cut the ball back into the area or across the top of the box, but simply across the ground?

The answer is probably very simple: Manchester United's poor passing is not so much technical as psychological. It is bracing to see the team's array of misplaced long balls, and it is difficult to believe that Moyes is merely telling them to sling the ball forward and see what happens. What we are very probably seeing at Manchester United is a team in rapid decline that lack the composure to solve it.

United's 1-0 home defeat to Newcastle United in early December was notable not only for the lack of ideas in attack, but also for the fear with which the home team played, shifting the ball from side to side, apparently terrified of moving it into the final third and losing possession. The team looks as bereft as a particular moment when England played Portugal in the semifinals of the Euro 2004 tournament. Then, Steven Gerrard hit a 40-yard pass to Darius Vassell, standing morosely between two 6-foot centre-backs.

To Gerrard's right in that game, pleading for the short square pass, was Paul Scholes. And that's the lesson here: Though Manchester United have no one so accomplished as Scholes in their ranks, they can at least learn from his example. Pack the middle of the pitch with an extra man, play it short, keep it on the ground, and don't cross it, but instead cut it back. A variation of that approach is working for Arsenal; though Manchester United will not be nearly so effective in its execution, it could be a good place to start.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.