Emmanuel Adebayor scores for Tottenham in the 2-1 victory over Manchester United
Guest Author: Doron
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Like it or not, luck has always played a part in football (as fans of yesterday’s visitors, Spurs, will remind us of more than most by uttering the name, “Roy Carroll”). It doesn’t necessarily dictate the course of a season-long campaign but it can influence moments, short spells and momentum; determining the ebbs and flows of clusters of fixtures. It’s also something that isn’t siding with United and David Moyes this season.
To write a piece about luck may seem like a strange choice – diversionary and/or naïve – acting as if that’s all that’s going wrong at United this season. Of course, that isn’t the case but there’s no doubting that Moyes isn’t getting the rub of the green in a few key areas and in some cases it’s directly impacting the outcome of some games.
They happen – in games, at training or in freak non-football situations. Much of the training players do is to help reduce the risk of injuries whilst maintaining peak physical condition. United have suffered over recent years with injuries – 2009/10 saw every defender bar Evra ruled at one point and since then we’ve gone through similar spells (the infamous Park-Rafael combination comes to mind). The 2011/12 season in particular was ridiculous with United managing to top a fan-constructed injury table for the season.
The losses United have experienced this season have been brutal. Not so much in the volume of players out but the identity of the players and that they’ve missed decent chunks of the league season:
Rafael – missed 35% of league games – no natural back-up selected (Fabio seemingly miles down the pecking order) and make-shift right backs have been at fault for goals.
Vidic – missed 25% of league games – although more susceptible to pace than he’s ever been, he remains a crucial player and presence. More than anything, he’s a leader and forms part of the spine of the team along with de Gea, Carrick and Rooney/van Persie.
Jones – missed 25% of league games – more of a loss than it first seemed having stepped up a level this season both at centre back and crucially (and somewhat scarily) at centre mid.
Nani – missed 35% of league games – he may not necessarily have been selected to start games he’s missed and he’s lost the trust of many fans but like him or not, he’s one of the few game changing players we have who on his day can be unplayable. Certainly with not all our wide players firing he could have been an important option.
Carrick – missed 35% of league games – with central options limited anyway, losing him was a huge blow despite a season that’s not at all close to reaching the heights of the last one. Another key member of the experienced spine that’s been missing.
Fellaini – missed 47% of league games – a dreadful start to his career at United but one that could only be improved upon with regular games and familiarity with the role he has to play and those around him.
Van Persie – missed 45% of league games – a loss that needs no explanation.
Others have been unavailable for spells too: Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez have missed a combined 9 games whilst Kagawa, Cleverley and most of the defenders have had to miss a few.
The identity of those who’ve missed the most games though has been a huge loss. Some might point the finger at David Moyes and his team in some cases. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, has been scathing of Moyes and his supposedly archaic methods – whilst he may have a point he overlooks that other players have seemed as fit as they have in ages (Rooney for example; and even Anderson’s yet to miss a game through injury). Van Persie in particular may have been mishandled when that Newcastle game came around but there’s little else to suggest from the outside that Moyes is at fault for the glut of key players getting injured.
Defensive errors and fine margins
The extent to which a manager is culpable or responsible for a defensive brain-fart depends on who you’re asking but for me, if a player does something daft and out of character, there’s little a coach on the sidelines can do. I’ve lost track* (*not attempted to work out) of how many of the goals we’ve conceded have come as a result of a defender making an error rather than an opposition player doing something better. The coaching staff can practice defensive shape; positioning; tackling; marking; team organisation etc as much as they like but that simply doesn’t matter when Hull score a goal as a result of a couple of scuffed clearances that simply ping around the penalty area waiting for an attacking player to pounce. Individual players need to hold their hands up for their errors here – yesterday it was Valencia and to a lesser extent, Smalling (could easily praise Adebayor for clever movement rather than say Smalling lost him). Even before the Spurs’ opening goal, Evra had fallen asleep and allowed Lennon to run onto a pass inside him (much like he did at Norwich too). These are defenders of quality who’ve proven themselves in the past. Granted, the likes of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra are at the latter stages of their career now but the simple errors that all the defenders seem to be making are schoolboy mistakes, the very basics of defending that for 99% of the time they get right. This season though they seem to be more frequent and opposition teams have been clinical (as well as enjoying the best of luck that comes with deflections on shots, but that happens anyway).
At the other end, we seem to be involved in more goal-line saving scrambles, blocks and woodwork hits than in previous seasons. Take the Everton game for example – a poor performance (but one we’ve seen many times over the years and yet still ground out a win) but United should have been two up by the time Everton’s late winner went in. It was typical of that game that the winner had fortunate attached to it too – Lukaku’s cross for the goal was an unexpected shanked shot that was always going to fall favourably for an onrushing attacking player rather than a defender who’d have to turn first before getting to the ball. Certainly in the most recent three home defeats, despite sub-par performances and/or spells, each game could have very easily been a classic United ‘not playing well but still win’ if it weren’t for defensive errors and the odd man on the line or frame of the goal.
We’re probably the last club that an bemoan decisions not going our way** (**if you’re not a United fan and reading this, that is) and we certainly had a couple fall for us early on in the season, notably against Crystal Palace but big moments just haven’t gone for us this season and invariably they’ve been at times where the game is still in the balance. They range from: handballs in the penalty area (Chelsea); handballs on the line (Newcastle); horrendous tackles unpunished (West Ham); goals from non-corners (Hull); or simply Hugo Lloris getting two lives yesterday (handling outside his area in the opening minutes and the foul on Young late on). It’s not the ‘done thing’ to blame officials and it would be incredibly bitter to rant about them but it’s a factor nonetheless that Moyes can point to on occasions.
I suspect that when David Moyes took over, home form would have been the least of his concerns but luck at Old Trafford has deserted him. He’s tinkering less now than at the start and his substitutions to change games are generally fan approved changes that don’t happen when it’s already too late. United finished yesterday with a front six of Januzaj, Rooney, Kagawa, Young, Welbeck and Hernandez – he couldn’t have been more attacking with the players available.
The club are no doubt feeling the knock-on effects now of not getting what they needed in the summer transfer window. From the outside, who knows who’s at fault for that? The chasing of unrealistic targets; the poor media spin; the late bidding; the unwillingness to meet asking prices etc. It’s yet another factor that’s influenced what Moyes has/hasn’t been able to do.
Other teams have had their problems this season too, particularly on the injury front but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the opening six months for the Moyes reign couldn’t have gone much worse, with some key factors out of his control. The expected drop-off post-Ferguson has been much more drastic than expected but there’s no doubt in my mind that Moyes gets at least another 18 months to prove he’s the right man for the job. United are in a battle for fourth and getting that and maybe a domestic trophy will be good enough given our current position to go into a crucial summer of both youth integration and first team signings. Before then, hopefully the tides will turn and a few things will start to fall into place for Moyes.