TACTICAL THOUGHTS: DAVID MOYES’ EARLY ADVENTURES IN RED

As we are now well past the mid-point of the season we have plenty of material to get our teeth into. In recent weeks, even perhaps since the turn of the year, there have been plenty of voices amongst the United community questioning David Moyes’s ability. Is the United manager’s job too much for him?

In our last Tactical Thoughts piece we commented that David Moyes has made a few mistakes; hopefully he will learn from them. At the same time, however, we should highlight the wider mistakes made by the club. Losing a long standing Chief Executive at the same time as a longstanding and highly successful team manager was a huge piece of mismanagement – poor strategic planning at the highest level of the club. A second, longer term mistake has been a critical underinvestment in the team since the Glazers’ take-over in 2005.

manutdtactics.com doesn’t do football politics, but the Glazers are business men and they won’t spend money unless they have to, because it will eat into profit margins. Under Sir Alex Ferguson they effectively got away with under-investment in the team on the back of HIS excellence and his coaching staff’s ability. In effect Sir Alex and his team propped the Glazers up. With Sir Alex no longer in position, the Glazers have to spend to make up that under-investment. Hopefully this summer we will see how astute they really are.

Talk of coaching staff brings us to what many consider to be David Moyes’ first significant mistake: the removal and replacement of Sir Alex’s staff. This is the third area where it was ‘all change’ at the club last summer; did David Moyes compound the upheaval higher up in the club by changing the coaching team? Unfortunately for David Moyes’ critics this doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Moyes did release Mike Phelan but he wanted Rene Meulensteen to stay. Eric Steele was reputedly only one year away from retirement so perhaps his loss was also inevitable. The question is: what is the quality of the coaching staff he has brought in?

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As supporters looking in from outside its difficult to judge and perhaps we need to give this issue more time before making a definitive judgement, but some tactical features of United’s play this season suggest that this may be an issue. Sir Alex is known to have relied heavily on his coaching staff, not just in respect of taking training but in respect of determining a tactical approach. He was not the world’s leading tactical manager and his best sides usually peaked when his collaboration with a high quality coach, (Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz, Rene  Meulensteen even), was at its zenith. There was almost certainly a degree of narcissism in Sir Alex recommendation of Moyes. He is a Scot from a similar social background who has a strong work ethic, someone who knows his own mind and likes things to be done his way. Does that sound familiar? If the similarities stretch to the level of his tactical astuteness then we must hope that Moyes’ coaching lieutenants prove to be at least as good as Sir Alex. We do have concerns.

This brings us to a review of the general tactical approach employed thus far under the new regime.

At the start of the season in previewing the campaign we picked out a number of features of David Moyes tactical approach at Everton in our piece: http://manutdtactics.com/?p=434 “David Moyes: What will his United team look like?” As highlighted there the general approach has remained a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape with a few subtle differences. Some of the differences are as anticipated; others are not, although with hindsight perhaps we might have anticipated them.

We didn’t specifically pick out pressing, although this was a tactic seen very early in the season. It was noticeable as early as the Community Shield win at Wembley. The press though is a high press instigated by the front four immediately after the side has lost the ball. We did pick out Moyes requirement that his side retain shape or after a transition quickly re-establish their shape. What this has often resulted in is a situation where the front four press high and the central midfield pair drop deep to sit as a screen in front of the central defence. This has frequently resulted in a big space between the forwards and the rest of the team; a space into which countless teams have found it easy to break. The consequence of this has been that a pattern has emerged where United start the game or half well, passing reasonably purposefully but not quiet making enough impact to make the breakthrough. Then comes a lull, they lose the ball and the opposition then breaks up the field through the middle of the park into this space and scores on the break. Most recently this happened in the Fulham game, but there have been countless other examples at Old Trafford this season. After that type of goal United have never seemed to have the same level of conviction in their play in these games.

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Another feature we picked out was Moyes’ preference for his teams to play with width. Again the Fulham game provides evidence of this. Width has always been a feature of United’s play of course but again subtle changes made by Moyes have impacted on United’s game. We picked out in our pre-season piece that Moyes prefers wide midfield players rather than out and out wingers, and that he prefers his fullbacks to stay wide as they advance rather than to cut inside with diagonal runs. United now have a plethora of wide midfield players or forwards who can play in wide positions, the purchase of Mata in January saw the addition of another, but the club already had Rooney, Kagawa, Januzaj, Valencia, Young and Welbeck all of whom can, with varying degrees of success, play as an inverted winger. One of the problems has been though that when these players play narrow the emphasis is then on the fullbacks to get forward in the wider positions to deliver crosses. Generally Evra, Rafael, Smalling, (especially Smalling), Jones and Buttner have delivered poor crosses. Evra had some early success with a number of early crossing assists, (notably for van Persie on the opening day of the league season at Swansea), and Buttner’s crosses at least have some whip on them, but generally crossing has been very poor. The inverted wingers are perhaps too narrow to cross and as such when they do they often over hit crosses beyond the far post, (again Fulham was evidence of this). They really need to practice their crossing range.

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With an inverted winger and an overlapping fullback there have been plenty of attempts to overload in wide areas, but often these attempts have yielded very little, again due to poor crossing. Rafael and Evra were noted under Sir Alex for their under lapping diagonal runs. These have not been entirely eliminated, but are far rarer now. Evra and Rafael had a tendency to get caught out of position after making this type of run, but their absence has made it far more difficult for United to draw a defence out across their lines. Teams now defend very narrowly against United and allow United space in wide areas, confident that they can deal with the quality of United’s crosses. With little diagonal movement from players approaching from deep, teams find it fairly easy to retain their shape as two fairly narrow banks of four.

We’ve already touched on deep lying midfield players and we won’t say too much more here as we intend to cover the midfield in more detail in a forthcoming piece. But it is clear that Moyes has asked the two central midfield players in the 4-2-3-1 to sit deep as a screen. This of course has contributed to the space between forward players and the defence which has been exploited so often by the opposition, but it has also affected our play in the attacking phase. The consequence is that the forwards often seem isolated. Early in the season Rooney was playing high, close to van Persie, helping to increase the gap or more frequently dropping deeper to pick up the ball to help make up a critical creative deficit in the middle. His dropping deep has often left van Persie isolated. In Greece against Olympiakos, van Persie simply wasn’t in the game for long periods, receiving fewer passes than de Gea in goal.

Robin van Persie

That game saw a very poor performance and one can’t help but think that it was an example of over-caution and the wrong tactical approach. In the run up to the game the Olympiakos coach, Michel, openly advised that they intended to go for United. So why did United sit back and allow Olympiakos to do so? In effect, United surrendered the initiative by sitting so deep and allowed the game to be played on the Greek side’s terms. This was all despite the fact that in the first half United had the greater share of possession.  Starting so deep they did very little with it, fashioning no clear cut first half chances and so emboldening the home side further. This was baffling.

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The final feature of Moyes’ tactical history which we highlighted previously and wish to touch upon now, is his love of the diagonal pass to switch play. We saw some of this earlier in the season, but it has not been a striking feature of our play.  More frequently we have channelled the ball man to man across the park, slowly and deliberately. This has frequently allowed the opposition to anticipate and adjust; closing down the space by the time the switch is made.  In recent weeks, however, we have seen more of this diagonal switching and it has corresponded with the arrival of Mata at the club. In his debut game against Cardiff City it was very noticeable that Mata dropped deep on the right, picked up the ball and delivered several diagonal passes in the direction of Young or Evra wide on the right. This tactic led directly to United’s opening goal that night. Those who expected Mata to play as a classic number 10 might therefore be disappointed; has Moyes bought him to play as a narrow, deep inverted winger for just this purpose? Only time will tell.

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We can’t finish without a word about Fellaini. Was he a panic buy? Currently he doesn’t look a United class player (although we will reserve judgement). He is entitled to a period to adjust at a new club and his season has been disrupted by injury. We will return to this subject when we take a closer look at the midfield, but it is not yet clear what role he is likely to be asked to fulfil at the club. He doesn’t appear to have the quick feet to play an advanced midfield role and he is perhaps not suited to a more defensive midfield role (where he has a similar failing to Michael Carrick: lack of mobility and inability to cope when pressed).

In our next piece we will look more closely at the Number 10 role and in later pieces we will consider United’s midfield weaknesses and defensive frailties.