Season Preview 2013-14: Part 2

David Moyes: What will his United team look like?

It has been a summer of speculation.  As ever much of this is about transfers, but this year there has been plenty of speculation about another subject; how will David Moyes’ United side take shape?

In truth this can only be speculation. The new season will be a trip into the unknown for us all, as for the first time since 1986 someone new will be steering the ship.  Summer transfer activity may give us a clue about what lies ahead, but we can’t know for sure until the new season gets underway. Moyes’ tactical approach at Everton is another clue, but it would be wrong to draw definitive conclusions.


It is worth considering how his Everton sides have played however, as in many ways Moyes is Sir Alex’s tactical twin. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Sir Alex chose him as his successor and a significant change in his approach would be a surprise. Many commentators have focused on the similarity in the two managers’ background and character. Both are working class Glaswegians; they even have links to the same Junior Football club, Drumchapel Amateurs FC.  Both are renowned for being driven, hard workers with an appetite for great detail. But maybe the similarities in their tactical approach to the game are more pertinent.  All managers have tactical traits; maybe Sir Alex sees similar traits to his own in David Moyes.

So what are the characteristics of a David Moyes team? Moyes’ Everton sides have in recent years used the same 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape favoured by Sir Alex, but there were differences in the way these shapes were used. These differences were subtle, but significant for what might lie ahead.


Typical United shape 2012-13

David Moyes has an obsession with the retention of team shape.  This is especially so after transitions; that is, when possession passes from one team to the other. At this point he requires his side to form up in the prescribed shape instantly. There are many stories of Moyes’ work on this in training.  He adds additional line markings to the training pitch to ensure players develop a heightened sense of their own on-pitch orientation, dividing the pitch into lines or squares so that players are always conscious of their position in relation to each other and the general pitch shape. United’s use of the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shapes has been more fluid than Everton’s with players more likely to interchange and to make diagonal runs.

What will this mean at United? Well, Moyes likes his teams to retain their width, especially when attacking. His exercise in adding lines down the length of the pitch is aimed at encouraging the wide players to stay wide. His attacking full- backs therefore rarely make diagonal runs when they move up field.  The aim is to try to stretch the opposition’s central players out across the width of the pitch, but the added benefit  is that when the ball is lost, attacking full-backs have less distance to run back to regain a defensive position, the diagonal being a longer distance than a line parallel to the side of the pitch. Evra and Rafael take note.

Moyes favours two hard working midfield players as the central pivots. Generally he follows the usual convention here, with one of these players being more static, able to pick passes, whilst the other will be a shuttler who will look to press the opposition.  Since Arteta left Everton the emphasis has been on work rate rather than creativity in these areas, but it would be wrong to assume that this was by preference as Arteta was a feature of Moyes’ Everton for quite some time. For Arteta read Carrick, but it is no surprise that there is currently much speculation about who might be brought in to reinforce United’s central midfield area.

With hard working players in central midfield, Moyes has looked to other areas in recent years for creativity. Generally he has favoured wide midfield players rather than out and out wingers. This might not be so much of a change for United, as the form of United’s wide players has been poor in recent years. Nani is perhaps the closest to an attacking winger, Valencia is a defensive winger and Young is really a wide midfield player.  Where would Wilfred Zaha fit with this? Moyes’ teams work very hard on overloading in wide areas. The wide midfield player will push forward, supported by his fullback, often overlapping and the nearest pivot will also seek to get close to the ball. In so doing Moyes looks to create a 2 v 1 or a 3 v 2. His hope is that the opposition will be drawn towards the ball and his side will look to switch the emphasis of the attack immediately to the opposite side. Expect plenty of switching of the play. If players don’t move diagonally the ball probably will.

Perhaps the single biggest difference between Sir Alex and David Moyes’ use of the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 is the second striker. Moyes has usually favoured a midfield player behind his most advanced central player as the second forward; in recent years that player has been Fellaini.  Sir Alex has generally picked a deep lying forward, for example Rooney.  At United the deep lying forward is still a forward, so his movements and instincts are generally attacking. This means goals from the forward line, which is just as well as the return from United’s midfield players is relatively low.  This all seems to point to reinforcements in the midfield.

At Everton, Moyes has used a target man centre forward whose role is to hold the ball up and knock it back for the advancing midfield players, be it Fellaini or deeper or wider players. The consequences of this are that Everton’s goals return from midfield is high, but the goals return from a central striker is low.

On transitions Everton are known for attempting to get the ball into the opposition’s half as soon as possible. This has led, perhaps a little unfairly, to accusations that they are a long ball side. Rather they are a side that has looked to hit opponents on the break.  Much of their play will be channelled quickly through the deep lying forward, (Fellaini), but the emphasis is always on getting an early shot in.  At United, where opponents will sit deep and look to defend,  there is much recycling of the attack through the pivots, and the redirection of the attack across the pitch via the central players in an attempt to break down two banks of four.  We are often left wondering if United are trying to walk the ball in and whether they are ever going to shoot. Moyes’ teams will shoot at the earliest opportunity.

In summary, based upon how Moyes’ Everton approached their games, we might expect a more structured formation with less fluid play;  wide attacking, plenty of switching of the play with moves culminating in an early shot on goal.  If he does adopt a similar approach, we would expect more goals from midfield with the inclusion of an extra midfield player in place of an attacker.  Below we set out a typical recent United team shape and a speculative formation to illustrate how Moyes’ United might be subtly different.


Potential United shape under Moyes

There have been a number of criticisms of Moyes’ approach during his time at Everton.  He is known as the manager in the division who most frequently scouts the opposition.  He seeks to adapts his team’s tactical approach and tailor it to counter the opposition’s strengths. This has led to accusations that his approach is negative and that he focuses too closely on the opposition rather than his own team’s strengths. But this is a harsh criticism: all clubs scout their opposition and regularly make adaptations to their approach.  In any case his approach is similar to Sir Alex’s because United regularly changed tactically to counter opponents.  For years they have gone to Arsenal with a 4-3-3 rather than their usual shape, to great effect.  Perhaps it is just that Moyes does his scouting in person whereas other managers delegate this task.  This method of altering tactically to manage the threat of an opponent is often cited as the reason for Everton’s poor record against ‘top four’ sides, but is it not more likely that the quality of the opposition is simply better?

Another criticism of Moyes as a coach is that his teams rarely perform well across a whole season. They either start well and fade or start poorly and improve. Of course, this criticism ignores the fact that Everton have had a smaller squad than many of the Premiership’s better sides and so the core players at Everton are required to play more games. Where fatigue may have played a part in Everton fading, it should not be an issue at United, with its large squad of more evenly matched quality players.

The final criticism of Moyes is that he hasn’t won anything. This ignores the fact that success is relative. Everton are a big proud club, but of all the traditionally bigger clubs they are perhaps the one that has adapted least well to the Premier league era. They have simply been left behind and as a consequence Moyes and Everton have not had the resources to compete. Everton are victims of Heysel and Hillsborough perhaps more than their arch-rivals from across Stanley Park.

Heysel prevented the best Everton side of recent decades from competing in the old European Cup; who knows how they may have moved forward as a club if they had that opportunity in the late eighties? Goodison Park is a charming, old atmospheric ground, but with the post-Hillsborough requirement for an all-seated stadium, it is simply too small to generate the kind of revenue that could lead to a cycle of success, sponsorship, access to Premiership-era riches and further success. Moyes could not overcome this obstacle, but he achieved success in building Everton sides that were regularly able to finish in the top eight throughout his tenure. He did this through hard work, intelligent management and attention to detail. These are qualities to be valued, ones that we have benefited from at United these last 27 years.

What will all this mean? We can only speculate; who knows? Maybe the new manager will have a few surprises up his sleeve. Only time will tell.