United never looked like getting back into the game after conceding.
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Another home game, another 1-0 defeat for Manchester United, this time at the hands of Newcastle United. Last Sunday at Spurs, the side entered the week full of confidence after thrashing Bayer Leverkusen and having recently taken down table-topping Arsenal at Old Trafford. It’s safe to say that, after a draw against Spurs and two deserved home beatings by Everton and Newcastle, Mr. Moyes, the players and United fans worldwide won’t be bursting with optimism as they trudge in to work on Monday.
Twelve games in, United’s start to the Premier League campaign was underwhelming but largely explicable – with a new manager, tough opening fixtures and injuries to key players all taken into account. Since then, however, things have worsened dramatically. It’s become a crisis, – a large, signposted crisis. We’ll look briefly at what went wrong on Saturday, as well as some of the issues that need fixing if United are to come back stronger, as we always know them to do.
A forgettable first half, a dreadful second
It was really a very dull first half, in all honesty. Neither side had much adventure about them – you would expect that from Newcastle, as they were the visitors – but in contrast to the first half of the midweek Everton game, United could not even fall back on a decent performance to paper over the frustrating lack of goalmouth action. In the second half, Newcastle got their goal, and United scarcely offered any credible resistance. They’ve only scored eight goals in eight home matches – only three (!!!) from open play – and the idea of Old Trafford as a ‘fortress’ has quickly been dispensed with. While the team is still occasionally good at football, the veneer of intimidation – which scared so many visiting teams into their shells, leaving United to swat them aside – has been lifted with the retirement of its most frequent custodian.
If you’re a masochist and want some more details about the performance, here are some of the dull observations I wrote, in a dull fashion, while watching a dull and frustrating football match:
“Midfield started OK, getting into decent attacking positions early on and spreading the ball to the wide players. Nothing hugely flashy, as you’d expect from two technically-limited midfield players, but at least some admirable displays of effort. Newcastle’s midfield three eventually grew into the game, and after halftime they shut down any forward momentum from United with alarming ease.”
“Lots of passing around the back, as Newcastle started off pressuring the midfield in their own half. United showing patience rather than immediately hitting a long ball under pressure. Not much ambition to the passing, unfortunately.” [Note: this patience was not in evidence after Newcastle scored. From that point on, United launched increasingly hopeless passes skyward in the direction of the towering behemoth known as… Javier Hernandez.]
“Januzaj led some excellent attacks in the first half. Sloppy passes out from the back led to the best situations for Newcastle, who did little of their own invention. They were clearly set up to counterattack with the pace of Rémy being their chief threat. Newcastle’s evil midfield duo of Cabaye and Tiote, who butchered United in early 2012, gave away a huge amount of fouls which gave the Reds their best looks at goal. Unfortunately, United’s set pieces were mostly tame, and well dealt with by the Geordies’ centre-back pairing of Williamson and Coloccini.”
With that happy business out of the way, I’ll try to sum up some of the mounting problems that United have faced this week, and throughout the season.
Many of the issues that were apparent in Fergie’s final few campaigns – weak midfield play, static players providing few viable passing options – were massively prevalent again on Saturday. Not for the first time, Mr. Moyes made some ‘positive’ subs after going behind, which maybe pleased some fans but had no real influence on the game. Throwing on attacking players only makes sense if you’re already dominating and need to finish off the chances already created. It wasn’t obvious that this was the case when Zaha, Anderson and Valencia ran on. Of course he’s still getting to know his squad, but thus far Moyes’s subs have frequently done nothing to affect the team positively, and have often made things worse. Less encouragingly, it seems that he’s afraid to make any alterations to the team’s stodgy, porous shape, leaving United looking very predictable in crucial situations.With Michael Carrick injured, Wayne Rooney suspended and Robin van Persie not looking match-fit yet, there was a serious shortage of inspiration in the side. The situation wasn’t helped by a home crowd that was occasionally supportive but largely inaudible, and counted some moronic traffic-beaters among their ranks. Newcastle scored in the 61st minute – an unfortunate clearance from Evra bounced kindly for Moussa Sissoko, who crossed for Cabaye to sidefoot the ball in off Vidic’s flailing leg.
But let’s not pretend that United never gave lifeless home displays like this under Sir Alex Ferguson. In the final four years of his reign, United were frequently somnolent in their approach play and neglectful in protecting their goal at Old Trafford – countless scrappy, nervy, narrow wins against the likes of Norwich, Bolton, Hull and Sunderland in recent years will attest to this. The crucial thing, however, is that for all the wretchedness of those performances, United still managed to win these home games more often than not. It’s still extremely early in Mr. Moyes’s reign, and he should be given the requisite time to try to pull the club out of such a mess, but such performances – moreover, such results – suggest a lack of motivational skill on his part and an embarrassing lack of fight from the players, whose lame response to adversity can’t all be blamed on the manager. The Everton loss – where United were competitive for 70 minutes but barely had a kick in the final 20, conceding a crucial late goal again – showed another former strength being turned into a weakness. Previously famed for closing out tight games strongly, United have been alarmingly weak in allowing opponents late goals to change the outcome of a game – Shakhtar, Cardiff, Southampton and Everton have all exploited this in recent weeks.
What’s worrying is how easily Newcastle won on Saturday. They were not excellent, unless that word has become so completely debased that it now means merely ‘competent.’ They simply executed a simple gameplan, repelling what needed to be repelled, and attacking when the opportunity presented itself. That United were so acquiescent to their plans is much more of a mystery. In both the West Brom and Newcastle defeats, United had roughly thirty minutes to salvage the situation from a losing position. In both games, United hardly fashioned a chance, far less a goal, after going behind. This stands in stark contrast to the immediate past where, through bloody determination, the side bludgeoned and battered teams for having the temerity to take the lead, with thrilling comebacks one of the defining features of Fergie’s United. The playing staff has barely changed, so fingers will inevitably be pointed at the coaching and managerial team. But the squad, featuring players with thousands of appearances between them, cannot be completely excused.
Mr. Moyes can be questioned for playing an unfit Van Persie for 90 minutes, but surely he could have expected better of Chicharito, of Nani, of Cleverley, of Evra? While United have missed some of their best players recently – including Robin for the four games prior to Newcastle, Carrick until the end of December, Rafael from the Fulham game until Wednesday – the consistently poor league performances speak volumes about the squad’s brittleness at the moment. Shorn of Ferguson’s miraculous ability to coax brilliance from lesser talents, it appears to be a team of players who mostly ‘will be’ or ‘have been’ world-class, but one that lacks players who currently are of world-class pedigree. We can no longer point to the fixture list and look for ‘winnable’ games, as United have lost or drawn many of those already. All we can do is hope that Mr. Moyes gets things right in January and beyond regarding signings and lettings-go, establish more of an identity to the side – perhaps one that can consistently apply the grit and opportunism showed against Arsenal – and that this provides a platform for a turnaround in the team’s fortunes.
This latest home defeat to Newcastle simply added to the mountain of woes that’s plagued United in recent weeks. You won’t read a word about ‘sacking’ from me, and patience has to be granted – United will do well to avoid the childish merry-go-round that happens at other clubs. There is no point being called ‘supporters’ if we can’t support the team in its low moments. We’ve had so few genuinely low moments, and so many unbeatably high points in the last thirty years that this will be a new experience for many of us. That said, we can certainly expect better than what we have seen this season so far – United have been a one-man-team in attack, weak in midfield and forgiving at the back, while Mr. Moyes has been dreadful with the media and tragic in the transfer market. The thirteen-match unbeaten streak before the Everton defeat wasn’t all it was made out to be – full of draws that should’ve been wins, and some wins scarcely deserving of the name – but it was not nothing, either. Surely this team is capable of better than what we’ve seen so far this season, and – short of a genius plan in the comments section – we will have to be patient and wait for the
inevitable turnaround, starting with Shakhtar at home on Tuesday.