Much like United’s season, the game was over before half-time.
I think I said all that needed to be said about the Everton defeat here. But for formality’s sake, here’s a brief summary of the game – a game which, sadly, was a pathetic microcosm of United’s entire season. Another game against a top-six team, another loss in what has become a depressingly predictable pattern for David Moyes’s Manchester United. With rumours of Moyes’s imminent sacking seemingly everywhere this evening, we reviewed some of the troubles that were evident against his former club.
Danny wants out
Before the game, we heard news that Danny Welbeck – a lifelong United fan, and arguably the most popular current United player among supporters – is unhappy at the club and has been thinking of leaving. Despite the patience and intensity of support that David Moyes has had from United fans thus far, there is no chance he’d ever win out from this situation. The fact that Danny – who is literally living the dream by playing at the club – had become unhappy is a damning indication of how appallingly the Moyes era has gone.
Tactical rigidity, tactical impotence
Throughout his pre-United management career, Moyes has always been touted as a keen, meticulous tactician – an exponent of reactive football, in the more positive sense of the word. Since coming to United, however, there have been very, very few occasions where he’s changed the team shape or strategy to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. Rather than assessing his players and devising the systems best attuned to their strengths, almost every game has seen him stick with a rigid 4-4-1-1 template, and an attempt to shoehorn the massively diverse talents at the club into his pre-determined comfort zone. Even on those rare occasions where he has made tactical alterations – the 4-5-1 against City at Old Trafford springs to mind – the players have looked untutored, completely lost as to their instructions, and therefore few of his alterations have wrought performances or results of the required standard. Within games, he appears utterly clueless as to how to change anything, and frequently seems to be paralysed when action should be taken. Substitutions frequently come at least fifteen minutes later than they probably should. When they do come, they are either like-for-like, with no tactical variety introduced, or worse, actively detrimental to the team shape – he has a fondness for the striker-for-central-midfielder swap, often leading to a counterproductive loss of control. By way of comparison with the standard expected:
- Ferguson: compelled comebacks and strong finishes from his players through excellent physical conditioning, and unarguably the greatest in all of professional sport at instilling mental strength into his players;
- Mourinho – a very fine motivator of men, and the very best at game-changing substitutions, whether they be minor tweaks to exploit an advantage – e.g. bringing on Modric after Nani’s red card last year – or a halftime overhaul to claw his team back into it, e.g. one of his many successful triple-substitutions over the years;
- Brendan Rodgers* this season: Liverpool’s unexpected but forceful run to the top has come via a well-drilled set of tactical variations that wring maximum potential from their best players, while giving them the freedom to express themselves on the pitch. Whereas United’s players look caged and uncertain, Liverpool’s squad has looked increasingly convinced of Rodgers’ wisdom and convincing in their push for the Premier League trophy (ugh).
Allied to some of the worst in-game body language I have ever seen from a coach in any sport, Moyes’s deficiencies regarding tactical setup and in-game management count as arguably his worst and most surprising failures. Again against Everton yesterday, he did precious little to try and change the game, even though United trailed by two goals for over forty-five minutes.
Here are some (mostly unedited) notes I made while the game was live:
- Sterile domination by United. Less possession for Everton but far, far more dangerous. United are bossing possession only because it suits Everton. Home side have been much more threatening on the break than United have been with the ball. Fullbacks too high and nowhere near their men when Everton break, United look extraordinarily open every single time they come forward.
- Compact in defence Everton, fullbacks very adventurous coming forward. Coleman standing out. United suffering with Jones and Smalling the wrong way around. Moyes still hasn’t realised how damaging Smalling usually is to our attacking play, when deployed at right back.
- Two reminders that United need a right-back: 1. Seamus Coleman zipping forward for Everton, 2. Chris Smalling miscontrolling a routine ball. Not having a dig at Smalling, it’s just grossly unfair to everyone that he gets stuck over there at right back so often.
- Really intelligent central midfield play by Barry and McCarthy. One up, one back to deal with Kagawa and Mata. Sitting deep and hitting on the break, using their superior pace through the middle (Barkley, McCarthy, Lukaku) to threaten consistently in transition.
- Kagawa’s defensive deficiency really exposed Büttner, who is clueless as to how to hold the offside trap.
- Michael Carrick’s startling regression – remember when he was caressing passes into the path of every United attacker around last season? Where’s he gone?
- Rooney – utterly inept; almost never plays well against Everton or Liverpool. Surely David Moyes must have remembered this from his Everton days?
Absurd post-match words
Moyes’s comments after the game, not for the first time, made me feel sincerely concerned about the state of his mental health. Saying – but surely not believing - that United had “played well” and that they had to “…try and get rid of the bad things and do better with the things we should have done,” he appeared, once again, as if he was in a daze, a trance conjured by the surreal situation in which he finds himself, and the attendant stupefaction that has enveloped him. As the season has progressed (or regressed, really), his face and general demeanour have come to alternate between two dly worrying states: helpless bewilderment during games; hollow dismissiveness in his media engagements.
Both home and away against Everton, we observed two things:
1) Roberto Martinez has taken over from the good work that David Moyes did at that club, and has improved them, playing more adventurous fan-friendly football while retaining much of the steel and defensive solidity that characterised the previous regime. He has improved and become emboldened compared to his previous job – as yesterday’s match showed, there is a willingness to cede possession when it is tactically suitable, and the defensive calamity that plagued his Wigan side is nowhere in evidence here.
2) David Moyes has signally failed at Manchester United. Though not for a lack of trying – and despite the apparent improvements he has made to the club’s scouting and analysis capabilities – there have been no tangible signs of progress and several deeply damaging signs of regression. His failings at Everton – slow, dull, retrograde football; an inability to defeat the top sides – have been transferred and magnified at Manchester United. His apparent strong points – defensive solidity, power from set pieces, combination play between fullbacks and wingers, bespoke tactics to nullify opponents - all are now consigned to memory, and not one of those has been displayed with any conviction since August 2013.
While the club and supporters have shown admirable support for Moyes in recent months, there comes a time when such support is done purely for show - look at us, we’re not like those other, modern, successful clubs - and in fact becomes damaging to the very club whose interests concern us. It must not be allowed to go on. He has to go.
*As galling as it is to see Liverpool at the top of the league, credit must be given where it is due. Even now, you would not look at their squad and think it was capable of winning the thing; objectively, Rodgers has done an extraordinary job, despite his David Brent approach to language and hilarious self-regard. Unfortunately for us, his side are playing thrilling, rapid, purposeful, winning football, and look several eons ahead of United – a point hammered home the last time they visited Old Trafford.