8) Tactical rigidity
David Moyes isn’t a strict 4-4-2 disciple, like many believe, with transitions from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 commonplace. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson notes in his review of 2013’s tactical trends, a formation is merely a snapshot in time – and what matters is how you work the transitions.
Wilson said: “Formations, after all, are neural; it’s their application that gives them offensive or defensive qualities; the issue, really, is one of transitions.
Zaha aside, Moyes has been almost scrupulously fair with his team rotation and selections, almost always in tune with form and fan sentiment. Play Kagawa where he belongs, is the persistent fan cry, but when Moyes indulges us, we’ve rarely been rewarded – and no, one good half against Swansea doesn’t transform a season of flattering to deceive.
If anything, Moyes might be a little too responsive to fan sentiment and Pro Zone statistics. Rooney is so far ahead of his teammate’s goals and assists stats, it’s almost like they’ve been tasked with giving him the ball and hoping to be rewarded by mathematical probability. Ditto Januzaj in the ill-fated Chelsea match.
What we’re seeing less of is player’s gambling in the final third – no midfielders driving through the lines, no long shots with any purpose and too few predatory charges into the box. In fairness, it may be less that the team feels shackled or confused by Moyes’ tactics than suffering a collective dip in confidence, or quality. Again, it’s not that Moyes’ isn’t afraid to mix things up (he ended the Spurs game with about six forwards on the pitch).
Whether it’s tactical discipline, malaise, fear or a crisis of confidence in their own – and Moyes’ – ability, the players simply aren’t starting games with Sir Alex Ferguson’s trademark intensity and belief. It’s a negative spiral, almost like we’re waiting to concede for permission to stage a late rally. As Wilson notes, players make systems and players thrive on confidence. Moyes is either failing to inspire and/or too many of our players lack the character to stand up in adversity.
When was the last time you saw Ashley Young, Kagawa, Cleverley or Nani take a tense 0-0 by the scruff of the neck?
So, we’re a team that relies on crosses with no reliable crossers of the ball who prefers attacking down the right, with no threat from right back. It seems trite, but it explains the infatuation with Leighton Baines. If plan A fails, invest in plan A.
With the central midfield a statistical non-entity, we’ve relied solely on Rooney and our misfiring wingers. By 3 Jan 2014, we’d failed 423 crosses (i.e. crosses that failed to meet a target) from 533 attempts with an average of 26.65 a game. 44% of our attacks come from the right-wing (32% left), making us even more predictable. Of the wingers, Tony Valencia has provided two assists, Januzaj two assists (from different positions) and… that’s it. That’s nothing from Nani, Young, Kagawa or (for obvious reasons) Zaha. The previous season, the same group of wingers provided 13 assists.
In fairness, Evra has provided three assists with none from Smalling, Rafael or Jones at right back. So, we’re a team that relies on crosses with no reliable crossers of the ball who prefers attacking down the right, with no threat from right back. It seems trite, but it explains the infatuation with Leighton Baines. If plan A fails, invest in plan A.
10) Home form
United have lost five games at home by mid January and only need to lose one more to equal the 2001/02 season ‘record’ of six home defeats. In fact, we only last four times at home during four seasons from 2007/08 to 2010/11. Why is our home form so bad? Take your pick from: a lack of intensity, belief and penetration, predictable wing play and ineffective crossing, crowd pressure, player nerves, bad luck, bruised rivals queuing up to lay one on the fallen bully… it barely matters.
What’s important is that the aura of invincibility has dropped and teams expect to get a chance, not a beating.
11) Wing backs
Remember those? On occasion, Patrice Evra’s positioning would make a training cone wince while Smalling offers solidity but the offensive threat of a training cone. Everyone loves Rafael, except when he’s sliding in with two feet to make a bad situation worse. If we did play training cones, at least they wouldn’t get sent off.
The final part IV will be released tomorrow so make sure you come back to read Daniel’s closing comments on Manchester United’s malaise.