I never thought I would see the day when British journalists would mutter the word ‘crossing’ as though it were some kind of vulgarity, but it has arrived. That a manager can get pilloried for his reliance on British football’s historically preferred mode of attack shows just how much the game has changed over the last few years. It now comes down to this: if David Moyes cannot modernise Manchester United’s attack, he will find himself out of a job before long.
Of course, Moyes did not establish the high ball from out wide at Old Trafford – United have a tradition of playing with two wingers and getting the ball into the box that goes back to their earliest days – but his reliance on a tactic that is debunked and discredited at the highest level is the most obvious problem he has at the moment.
Defenders of United’s 4-4-2 will say that the same system saw them win trophies aplenty up until last year. However, anyone that has watched football and thought about what they were seeing over the last few years knew that their time was running out. The modern game has dominant tactics in attack and defence and United use neither. They have increasingly looked like yesterday’s men and it is only natural that results finally reflect that.
With the ball, the best teams use technical and positional skill to create numerical advantages in the middle of the pitch. From that platform, they either play through teams with rapid short-passing combinations or use aggressive vertical bursts to break through defensive barriers and reach the goal. United get the ball out wide, load the box and toss a high ball into it.
Off the ball, almost all top sides press high up the pitch and attempt a huge number of tackles near the opponents’ goal. United play with two banks of four and have no coherent system of pressurising the ball. It is simply the responsibility of the player closest to the ball to make sure it goes no further. Consequently, teams play through their two-man midfield with ease.
Teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund have developed scientific methods of playing and reaped the benefits. United have stuck with the same 4-4-2, trusting that by turning up, sticking the ball in the mixer and really, truly and honestly believing they will win, they will somehow muddle through.
In an age decided by reasoned actions in midfield, playing what is essentially pot-luck penalty-box football is suicidal.
Relatively small funds and little pulling power
As always, the fans are responding to a bad season by demanding greater investment in the playing staff. Dissenting voices are once again pointing fingers at the Glazers for draining incredible sums of money out of the club. Their claims are not without merit, but this is hardly a threadbare squad: there is barely a player in Manchester United’s first team that did not arrive for around €20m.
Despite this, it goes without saying that part of the reason that Moyes has struggled has been that much of the squad is not good enough. Unusually, the chief targets for fan criticism have been homegrown players like Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, but the performances of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Chris Smalling have also drawn considerable ire over the course of the season.
Then there is the old guard, the stalwarts of the club’s mid-to-late-noughties heyday, whose efforts to rage against the dying of the light have been frankly embarrassing. Injuries have done for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, and for that their sharp declines could be excused, but the likes of Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs are playing to a level that should shame them.
Of the youngsters at United, only Adnan Januzaj is clearly destined for big things. Jonny Evans, Wilfried Zaha and Phil Jones are highly rated but often play like footballers from the 1980s, the latter especially appearing to be the result of a bizarre experiment to see what would happen if a man with a greater talent for slapstick comedy than sport was allowed to play for one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
The signing of Juan Mata was supposed to save United’s season and revitalise the club in the manner that Eric Cantona’s arrival from Leeds did in 1992 but clearly it is not enough by itself. No matter which system Moyes chooses and whichever eleven he sends out onto the field of play, there are always going to be square pegs in round holes. This season is a write-off. From now on it is all about getting things right in the summer.
However, the cost of remedying United’s problems would take them into Real Madrid splurge territory, and as plenty of managers are keen to remind us, there are not too many players available that would improve the elite clubs. If six or seven were somehow to become available simultaneously, Manchester United would find it impossible to win more than two bidding wars at the very most.
Although recent sponsorship deals combined with the Premier League’s TV deal mean that they have considerable funds to call on, they are still behind the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, not only in terms of wages but in terms of the total package on offer.
The elephant in the room is that United will not even be able to offer Champions League football any more. Without that, the best United can hope for is taking cast-offs from the giants that none of the others want – like Mata – and the occasional good-but-not-great player from smaller clubs – like Marouane Fellaini.
Indeed, it says everything that Wayne Rooney, a man that the suits at Old Trafford are chomping at the bit to pay more than fifteen million pounds a year, is apparently desperate to move to West London. Equally, with such a struggle on to turn things around, it is no surprise to hear that several first team players have made their minds up to move on to pastures new in the summer.
Alex Ferguson did an unparalleled job over twenty-seven years in Manchester, but none of it would have been possible had he not had deeper pockets than his rivals and, more often than not, a phenomenal set of players to invite recruits to join. With neither of those attributes of Moyes’ United, he will find it very difficult to turn things around.
He learned his trade in the worst possible place
More than a year ago, I wrote that if Moyes really did have his sights on the Old Trafford hotseat he needed to take a transitional job between moving from Everton and arriving at Manchester United. My logic was that he obviously knew perfectly well how to set his teams up to not lose, but it is another thing entirely to have to go for three points in every game. Having skipped that necessary educational step, he is now performing exactly as one would expect.
It is worth remembering that Moyes has spent the majority of his career as a player and a manager in the British lower leagues, where long balls and crossing remain the primary – in many cases, only – methods of attack. Fulham defender Dan Burn made headlines after Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Old Trafford when he said that playing against Manchester United reminded him of the time he spent in the Conference – English football’s fifth tier.
One would hope that Moyes has been educated to understand the more subtle arts that decide football matches at the highest level, but he remains a product of his own formative experiences. It is no wonder that a footballing culture that is fundamentally conservative, reactive and distrustful of individual skill has produced such a limited thinker.
Unlike Brendan Rodgers, who retired early and set about making up the shortfall in playing experience by expanding his horizons with an educational odyssey through Europe, or Roberto Martínez, who allied his own experimental philosophies with supreme confidence and charisma in order to make them work, Moyes has cautiously stuck with what he knows best throughout his career.
The Scot’s results at Old Trafford are not only an indictment of his tactical beliefs or of the club’s financial predicament: they are illustrative of the failures of the British system to educate its coaches and to encourage them to embrace new, adventurous ideas.
Moyes himself does not believe that he will succeed
Evidently, the confidence that borders on arrogance present in the biggest managerial personalities is missing in David Moyes. José Mourinho has it in spades, while Pep Guardiola brings a different kind of assurance to the plate. Sir Alex Ferguson was always convinced that no matter what happened on match day, his players would understand that they owed it to him to return to the dressing room with three points in the bag.
Elsewhere in the Premier League, Manuel Pellegrini, Arsène Wenger and Roberto Martínez are reserved but charismatic, sharing confidence in their players and trust in proactive, devil-may-care philosophies. All of the above are fundamentally positive thinkers. When watching their sides or studying their body language, it is obvious that they have instilled this same self-assurance and faith in their players.
In contrast, Moyes emanates doubt at the best of times and it does not take much to see him quickly progress straight to trouser-browning fear. I do not refer to what he says or how he comes across in press conferences – far too much importance is placed on what happens in these mundane and ultimately irrelevant gatherings – but to his footballing ideas and his responses to his team’s setbacks.
After Manchester United’s Capital One Cup semi-final exit at home to Sunderland, a Vine did the rounds showing Moyes’ reaction to the costly error made by David De Gea towards the end of that game. It spread like wildfire because it proved to us in a couple of seconds everything that we had suspected all along: that despite what he says, he is primarily scared of defeat and appears almost fatally preoccupied with the concept.
While it should be noted that – shock! horror! – I am not a psychologist by profession, most managers’ responses to such a disastrous moment would be primarily angry. I certainly know that if Alex Ferguson’s goalkeeper did that, he would respond by bellowing a string of extremely loud expletives and very possibly by kicking the nearest inanimate object.
Ferguson would do this because the goalkeeper’s error was not supposed to happen. At no point in the script was disaster supposed to befall his side, derailing their charge towards glory and leaving team spirit in tatters. A naturally positive thinker would never have seen that scenario coming and a true winner would see it as a travesty.
Moyes’ reaction betrays his lack of surprise. In his head, the possibility of catastrophe has always been present. That it should strike at the worst possible moment in a tie that he cannot afford to lose is painful but almost inevitable. Deep down, he knew it was coming.
Faced with this sort of weakness, the achievements of Ferguson look even more impressive. After lifting his first league title in 1993, the Scot went twenty full years never once transmitting to his players a feeling of vulnerability or impending doom. His successor has taken less than a full season to break the squad’s self-belief and leave his players so twisted by fear that they subconsciously will their own downfall on a weekly basis.
Does Moyes believe he can turn it around? Does he see United winning the 2014/2015 Premier League title? Does he believe he is going to stay twenty-seven years and leave with a statue outside the ground? Does he hell. In his mind, in his own worry-filled vision of the future, he has already been sacked in disgrace.