Manchester United’s malaise Part I – Midfield groundhog day and RVP blues

Manchester United’s malaise Part I – Midfield groundhog day and RVP blues

Of all the indignities heaped on Manchester United over the last few months, the hardest to comprehend is an overnight theft. Forget the title – who stole our crisis? Way, way back in the mists of last week, the press revelled in United hitting rock bottom but a £37m helicopter entrance later, the narrative flipped on its head.

“For £37 million, Juan Mata seems to have delivered a lot more than a couple of tidy passes and some busy momentum”, noted Jim White in The Telegraph.

“He appears to have instantly rejuvenated the empire. The truth is, just as things were not as terminal as they appeared last week, so they are not as restored as is being spun this.”

So, are we to forget the hundreds of thousands of words, pacing circles around the same entrenched narratives explaining United’s decline that we’ve endured since early October?

United’s drab 2-0 victory over bottom club Cardiff suggested not – it’s just that Mata’s arrival has made everyone feel happy about it. Sideways passing? Great! We’ve signed Mata. Evra out of position? Look! It’s the Spanish bloke!

Way, way, way back in the mists of January 2014, I wrote a large-ish number of words explaining a number of obvious, banal – yet complex and interrelated reasons – why United had fallen from grace, largely to prove they needn’t be written in the first place.

Why? I thought you’d never ask…

1) Midfield issues

United’s central midfield problems verge on parody and it’s damning that the season’s most effective display came from Jones (a notional centre back) and Giggs (a 40 year-old converted winger). Respectively, they’re United’s purest expression of hustle and guile, eclipsing the milky pass-and-scuttle of Cleverley (Played 16, Goals 1, Assists 0) and the base shielding, but offensively impotent, Carrick (P13, G0, A0). Anderson isn’t worth a mention and it’s a miracle Fletcher is even playing after a 12-month competitive layoff, exempting him for unfair scrutiny.

The ‘misunderstood’ Kagawa has decorated but failed to dominate any of his eight appearances, respectfully failing to outshine his colleagues with a contribution of zero goals and assists. True, he’s an attacking midfielder by trade but positional rotation only seems to increase the frequency of his touches, not their impact.

Football365’s Nick Miller penned the fairest yet most damning appraisal of Kagawa’s United career after the 2-1 home defeat to Swansea.

He said: “The Japanese midfielder is clearly a good player, but one that appears to need the team built around him, and he simply isn’t good enough to justify such a construction at United.”

At the mid-season point of the 2013/14 Premier League season, United’s central midfield players Cleverley, Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs, Fellaini, Jones and Kagawa have a combined total of one goal and zero assists.

If you discount the freakishly fluent performance against a star struck and unusually timid Bayer Leverkusen, Moyes delivered his most telling critique of his midfield options when the 1-2 home defeat to United ended with Kagawa and Rooney playing as central midfielders.

The stats don’t lie.

At the mid-season point of the 2013/14 Premier League season, United’s central midfield players Cleverley, Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs, Fellaini, Jones and Kagawa have a combined total of one goal and zero assists. In 2012/13, over a full season, the same players scored 13 goals (15 including solitary strikes from Scholes and Powell) with 14 assists (15 including Scholes).

In stark contrast, at mid-season in the 2013/14 Premier League season, Manchester City have 13 goals from central midfield (Yaya Toure 10, Fernandinho 3), with 5 assists. Arsenal have 12 goals (Ramsey 8, Wilshere 2, Arteta 1, Rosicky 1) and 11 assists. Chelsea have 12 goals, with 8 assists. These stats are even more humbling for United if you include contributions from wingers, inside wingers and ‘floating’ front line players like Ozil, but for now we’re focusing on central midfield issues.

Performance stats website Squawka has no United midfielder in its top 50 players (Carrick is 53rd with 356 points, Cleverley 56th with 342) but finds place for Dembele (13th with 566), Barkley (14th with 521), Huddlestone (22, 498), Sidwell (26, 469) and Jedinak (28, 453) among more obvious performers like Toure, Gerrard, etc.

Fellaini has become totemic of Moyes’ faltering reign but it’s premature to make a scapegoat of a specialist player who’s yet to settle into a new club during turbulent times, nursing a wrist injury and winning 2.9 aerial duels per game (second to Vidic) with 88.7% passing accuracy (second to Cleverley).

It’s worth noting that United’s recent calamitous form coincides with the absence of Phil Jones, who’s been juggled in almost equal proportion between right-back (P4), centre-back (P4) and central midfield (P5). Jones adds little in terms of goals and creativity but his tackling and thrust has been a feature of games where our wingers have made more significant contributions – albeit against weaker sides. With Jones, United have a win percentage of 53% – without it drops to 33%. Win % statistics based on player omissions can be misleading within limited data sets, as 7amkickoff notes, but it’s a notable differential.

Why is the midfield so ineffective? It seems implausible that eight central players could suffer such a collective dip in form from one season to the next without an external influence. It’s convenient to assign it all to Moyes but the reality is likely a complex combination of tactics, coaching and confidence.

As we’ll discuss, the team is exhibiting an alarming dependence on crosses with poor accuracy and conversion. This is surely no accident and even the most casual observer would note that United display a worrying lack of penetration from central midfield with no threatening shots from range, or players willing to drive the ball through the lines – perhaps with the exception of Jones.

A characteristic of recent games has been United’s sterile dominance around an opponent’s penalty box, playing ineffectual sideways passes along a horizontal midfield to largely underperforming wingers. Whether Moyes had told midfielders to maintain their shape or whether they’re just too scared to commit to a risky run or through ball, United display an exasperating inability to penetrate or unsettle teams.

2) RVP’s injury hurts everyone

Robin van Persie has played in only 12 Premier League games all season where he has contributed eight goals and two assists. By the mid point of the 2012-13 season, he’d scored 16 goals with 6 assists, papering over the cracks on more than one occasion (most notably in the 3-2 comeback against Southampton on 2 Sep, 2013).

How much better would Moyes position look if Van Persie had provided the extra 9 goals and 4 assists that he’d achieved at the same stage last season? It’s far from scientific but even a snatched chance, to turn disappointing home results like 0-1 losses to Everton and Newcastle into 1-1 draws could’ve changed the tone of the season.

In truth, last season was the anomaly as Van Persie averaged 35 games a season in all competitions during his eight-year Arsenal career. Moyes’ training methods might be responsible for Van Persie’s absence but it’s only a reversion to the mean.

Outspoken Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen labelled Moyes’ pre-season training methods as ‘pre-historic’ back in July when the United manager revealed that Van Persie was being deliberately over-trained to build fitness. He repeated the claim in December, claiming United were ‘gambling’ on Van Persie’s fitness. Either way, Van Persie has missed almost half of United’s Premier League games to date. In 2012/13, he played 35 times in the league scoring 26 goals, with 53 appearances in all competitions.

In truth, last season was the anomaly as Van Persie averaged 35 games a season in all competitions during his eight-year Arsenal career. Moyes’ training methods might be responsible for Van Persie’s absence but it’s only a reversion to the mean.

In early December, rumours swirled that Van Persie was unhappy with Moyes’ training and tactics with BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson claimed that the Dutchman had requested a transfer. ‘Absolute nonsense’ was Moyes indignant response. Van Persie has never expressed public dissatisfaction with the new regime and told De Telegraaf in September.

“It’s great working with the new manager, David Moyes. He has his own style and methods and I like these,” Van Persie said.

However, such praise wasn’t forthcoming until this week’s gentle endorsement of Moyes. “He needs time like anyone else… he is trying his best and I think he will turn things around”, Van Persie told The Guardian. It’s in stark contrast to the plaudits Van Persie lavished on former coach Rene Meulensteen in February 2013.

“The way he (Meulensteen) trains is exceptional,” Van Persie said.

“He is truly one of the best coaches in the world. I have had a lot of good trainers, but it’s the way he prepares our team for games. Every match is different, so every training session in the build-up to games is unique.”

In part II tomorrow, Dan will be taking a look at the situation with Wayne Rooney, our transfer debacle last summer and the impact of Sir Alex Ferguson still being in and around the club.ll.

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About The Author

A Manchester United fan since Ron Atkinson claimed the FA Cup in 1985. Professional journalist, broadcaster and ex-PSM3 magazine editor. Writes for Edge, OPM and CVG. Football game, GTA and MGS expert. Talks games and football.