Following Manchester United's 0-0 draw with Arsenal, David Moyes addressed the issue of whether his team could still finish fourth in the Premier League, and thus qualify automatically for the Champions League. "If there's one club in history who've been great at winning games in the second half of the season, it's Manchester United," he said.
Unfair as it might seem to pick over every quote uttered by Moyes, this one seems particularly revealing. After all, in order to finish fourth, Manchester United will have to displace one of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. It can safely be said, especially given the free-scoring ways of the Merseysiders -- the current occupants of that fourth and final position -- that this is not going to happen. Of course, there's a possibility of such an occurrence, and optimists are welcome to cling to it. But their hopes are forlorn as Billie Jean praying that Michael Jackson would accept fatherhood.
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Moyes' brave face on all this is understandable. After all, he is merely trying to rally his men. Yet, behind closed doors, there must be some form of admission that, in reality, Manchester United are engaged in a struggle for sixth place. Tottenham Hotspur, in fifth place, have just defeated Everton and Newcastle in the Premier League, scoring five goals without reply. Everton are currently three points ahead of the Old Trafford side with a game in hand, and behind the reigning champions, just three points back, lurk Southampton. To quote the Old Testament: "How the mighty have fallen."
At the start of the season, club staff and supporters alike did not expect to be contemplating Europa League football. (It's arguable that Manchester United might be better off out of that competition altogether, addressing their various squad problems without the distraction of that most drawn-out of contests.) Looking at the quality of players on Manchester United's roster, some might say that sixth place represents the team's true standing. With each passing week, though, it becomes less clear how much time Moyes will be given to make all of the investments necessary to overhaul his squad.
There are positives from Wednesday night's performance: The team avoided defeat, Nemanja Vidic was impressive, and Tom Cleverley, recently liberated from his torrid experience on Twitter, was resilient against Arsenal's midfield. Their defensive stance was logical from one point of view: Their confidence is clearly lower than it has been for some time. In attack, though, they were listless, typified by the tentative finishing of Robin van Persie.
It is to be hoped, too, that in time Juan Mata is brought in from the wing, where Shinji Kagawa was once ineffectually deployed. Moyes' use of Mata there in a 4-4-2 formation has the unfortunate appearance of exile, and it cannot be, in the long term, that Moyes believes the Spaniard's gifts will best serve the team from that position.
This may be the prevailing worry for many people: That, even if Moyes spends money in the summer and brings in excellent players, he will not put them in a system that suits them.
There have been unfortunate indications of this already, most visible in the endless stream of inaccurate crosses that sailed against the ankles of the first man or beyond the far post against Fulham. The assumption by optimists is that, if he acquires playmakers of the nature of, say, Athletic Bilbao's Ander Herrera, his side will blossom into one full of attacking vigour.
The problem with this analysis is that Moyes is not making the best of the players currently under his command. Given that his wingers have been crossing the ball poorly for the best part of two years, he should be encouraging them to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible. He should be asking them instead to use their speed and strength to spread the play, creating the room for Mata to operate in central areas: rather like, say, Arsenal's wide players eventually did for Santi Cazorla against Crystal Palace earlier this month.
Against defences of Premier League discipline, the diagonal ball from inside-left or inside-right positions is far more effective -- see, for example, the success that Alex Song had with this approach when at Arsenal -- than a thundered centre from the byline on either flank. Better still is the give-and-go approach which, interestingly enough, was Tom Cleverley's strength before his decline in form.
Crossing is the worst of all worlds, as it allows the opposing defence to sit comfortably deep and narrow, instead of luring them into playing a high line and then getting in behind or between them. The aim should be to give Mata as many touches as possible in central positions facing the opposition goal. It is not clear, either now or in the future, if that is Moyes' intention, and the last thing anyone wants to see is Mata becoming as out-of-sorts as the now-invisible Kagawa.