Another all-to-frequent afternoon of disappointment that entailed an unwelcome microcosm of United’s season. Sustained periods of meaningless, un-penetrative possession were interrupted by incisive, high tempo counter-attacks from the home side who ran out fairly comfortable victors in the end.
In reality, it was two poor errors from Phil Jones that cost the Reds dearly, but despite United enjoying more of the ball, Everton looked far more of a threat throughout. The game was significant for the fact that it merely confirmed that at this present moment, Moyes’ former club are a much better side than his current one.
Even the most hardened of United fans would have to admit that on balance this season, performances have left the Red Devils deserving of trailing Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Everton in the league. Add to the mix that even a farcical season for Tottenham Hotspur still leaves them above the Old Trafford outfit, and you have the recipe for the frustration that has become so evident.
These articles are usually intended to highlight the positives, but few were on display at Goodison Park, and with United’s absence from next season’s Champion’s League competition now confirmed, the club’s failings warrant greater scrutiny. Much of what was on display against Everton was nothing unique or original this season. Nevertheless, here are five things we learned from Moyes’ men’s disheartening defeat against the Toffees.
1) A Season to Forget
Victories intermittent, good performances rare and momentum seemingly non-existent, the worst fears following Ferguson’s departure have been realised. As much as United’s former manager over-achieved in his final years, Moyes’ has under-achieved. No one realistically expected the title, but seventh is inexcusable.
Excuses and mitigating circumstances are forthcoming, and this squad is certainly much better than it’s shown over the last 11 months, but it’s the manager who must ultimately take responsibility. Despite an honourable exit at the hands of Bayern Munich in Europe, the Reds crashed out of both domestic cups in rather embarrassing fashion, and the latest defeat in the league to a rejuvenated Everton side confirmed United’s absence from Europe’s elite next campaign.
For all the talk of transitions and re-buildings, it was Moyes’ counterpart, Roberto Martinez, who walked into his new club with confidence and a vision. Martinez’ declaration that he would get Everton into the Champion’s League was taken with a pinch of salt by most, but in one statement he exuded more belief and confidence than Moyes has seemingly mustered all season. It was something vividly reflected by the performances of the two sides on Sunday. One team looked driven and hungry, the other largely lost and disinterested.
The way in which United controlled possession with a lamentable lack of invention and were picked off so effortlessly on the break was a microcosm of the Old Trafford outfit’s season. A lack of urgency and creativity, coupled with frailties on the break have cost United dearly all year. The pride was swallowed long ago, the season merely drifting to inevitable disappointment since January, it’s time to forget and move on.
2) Midfield Mixed Fortunes
On a day where not much materialised from United’s perspective, there were at least a few positives on display in the Red Devils’ midfield, even if tempered by a few negatives.
Darren Fletcher illustrated his class, composure and all round ability in a performance that highlighted how much the Scot has been missed throughout his struggles with illness. Beyond the quality on the ball, there was fight and desire too, and Fletcher at least can be content that he delivered a performance worthy of Manchester United.
In contrast, his partner Michael Carrick had the sort of anonymous game that has really characterised his season. On the back of arguably his best season for the club, the midfielder has had a disappointing follow up campaign. Whilst the majority of his performances have been steady if unspectacular, the former Spurs man has failed to control and affect games in the manner that United have needed him to.
Unfortunately, a rather over-casual flick to an Everton man inside his own penalty area was indicative of his season, not just his performance against the Toffees. Carrick still has plenty to offer and his passing range and composure are unquestionable. But with additions promised in the summer, the holding midfielder will need to return to the form many know him to be capable of if he is to continue as the anchor of United’s midfield moving forwards.
Further up the field, there was more evidence of neat interplay between the front four, and whenever the likes of Kagawa and Mata link up the football always seems to excite if just for a few fleeting moments. Nevertheless, very few clear-cut chances materialised and Rooney had an afternoon to forget. Fletcher’s promising display aside, much work to be done, but that’s been the case all season, hasn’t it?
3) Frail Defensive Futures?
With Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand all seemingly heading for the exit, United’s young defenders were deployed in what may prove to be the future for the Reds. With Rafael Da Silva out injured, Chris Smalling was played out of position at full-back, with Phil Jones and Jonny Evans in the centre and an improved Alex Buttner at left-back.
The Old Trafford outfit’s defence is an area many believe needs widespread strengthening over the summer, with all four positions under scrutiny, and it is hard to argue that more quality isn’t required.
In Jonny Evans, the Reds have a more than capable centre-half who should be approaching his prime. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have both shown glimpses of great potential, with Smalling in particular invariably excellent when deployed in his natural role.
Nevertheless, an experienced leader at the back is undoubtedly needed come the summer, and the club’s lack of depth in the full-back areas is painfully obvious.
Many of the great modern sides are predicated on a system that is reliant upon attacking adventure from the full-backs, and Martinez’ Everton are a pertinent example. The wide-men tuck in, the two central midfielders invariably hold in the pivot allowing the full-backs to maraud forwards. Devoid of Rafael, at this present moment United simply don’t have the quality in the full-back areas to facilitate an effective and more expansive system.
Admittedly, United’s defence were left hopelessly exposed on the break once more on Sunday, but the lack of leadership and experience was painfully clear. For a manager who built his reputation on compact, defensively solid units, the Red Devils’ have looked woefully frail at times this season.
It is believed that Smalling, Jones, Evans and Rafael all possess the quality and potential to remain and serve the club moving forwards at the highest level, but much like the midfield, investment is needed.
4) A Victim of Talent?
Sir Alex Ferguson left the club declaring that Phil Jones had the potential to be United’s greatest ever player. The defender-come-midfielder is undoubtedly talented, but against Everton it was his two individual errors that ultimately cost his side.
An unfortunate slip led to an unwelcome rush of blood to the head as the centre-back blocked a Lukaku shot, surely destined to be saved, with his arm, and Leighton Baines dispatched the spot kick. Perhaps more troubling was Everton’s second, when Jones failed to assume responsibility, taking the easy option of stepping up when Buttner, in his eye-line, was clearly too deep as Mirallas made a run straight across his path.
Jones’ virtues are clear for most to see, but there are undoubted parallels with Chelsea’s David Luiz. Both can be erratic at times which leads to concerns as to their suitability to a role in the heart of defence. Likewise, however, their strength, power and energy render both good options in a holding midfield role.
From Jones’ perspective, much like Rooney to a certain extent, his raw talent has seen him become more of a utility player, the one always sacrificed for the good of the team, and there is an argument that a lack of consistent football in his preferred position has hindered his development at centre-back.
Nevertheless, in the long-term, centre-back should still be the former Blackburn man’s position. He lacks the distribution qualities in possession to become a world-class performer in the midfield. Mistakes were plentiful against Everton, but they should be accepted ones as the player attempts to mature into the position.
Touted as a future England and United captain, the quality and potential is almost certainly there. If given time and a good run in his favoured role at the heart of defence, there is no reason that Phil Jones can’t become a commanding figure for the club, but like most things this season, patience may be required.
5) Is Moyes’ Time Up?
David Moyes cut a forlorn figure once more at Goodison Park, and whether a consequence of the result or of the home crowd’s less than classy reception for their former manager, the man at United’s helm shot down the tunnel at the final whistle.
United had a reasonable control of the game in terms of possession, but there was no tempo to their play and certainly no penetration. More worryingly, despite Everton’s strength in the full-back areas being common knowledge, Nani and Kagawa provided little protection defensively and it was Seamus Coleman with time on the ball who picked out Kevin Mirallas for the Toffees’ second.
The sight of Steve Round holding a juvenile looking tactics booklet was as damning as the perplexed looks across the entirety of United’s coaching staff. Most telling of all, however, was yet another declaration from Moyes after the game that United had ‘played very well’.
As mentioned, there are a number of mitigating factors when conducting an inquest of United’s failings this season, but even the most ardent of Moyes’ backers are beginning to retreat into the shadows. Reports and conjecture are rife that the United manager will be relieved of his post imminently, and whilst pure speculation at this juncture, it would not be a surprising conclusion.
In fairness to David Moyes, the squad undoubtedly needs a substantial overhaul, and injuries have not helped his cause, but the question remains as to whether the Scot is the right man to be trusted financially in the summer.
Many will point to the 6-year contract signed by the United manager and the desire for long term stability, but whilst faith in a long term vision is admirable, unwarranted trust in the wrong man is foolishness. Many advocates of a long-term vision may point to Brendan Rogers at Liverpool, but the philosophy was evident from day one, if not the consistency. Moyes’ United have lacked a clear and coherent direction all season.
It is perhaps in Moyes’ perceived negative approach where his biggest obstacle has come to fruition. United are a club famed for their cavalier, attacking approach, whilst modern football has gravitated towards free-flowing, expansive and organic systems; Moyes’ United have been neither. In this regard, the contrast between Martinez’ Everton could not have been more stark on Sunday and throughout the season.
Players buy in to attacking philosophies, they are fans at heart just like the rest of us, they love the game and they love to attack. If reports are to be believed a number of United’s stars have become disillusioned with Moyes’ style, notably Robin van Persie.
Moyes walked into a dressing room of perennial champions at United with a less than convincing CV for the very top of the game, it was always going to be a difficult task to convince the players of his credentials. Unfortunately, it would appear that the manager has lost the dressing room, and when that eventuality occurs the manager’s position invariably becomes untenable.
In reality, Moyes probably does deserve more time, to build his own side in his own mould, but having seemingly left the majority of his playing staff disenchanted, the manager’s departure is obviously a more favourable scenario financially for the club’s owners.
If Moyes is to go, debate as to his successor will form an interesting sub-plot. Reports suggest that Ryan Giggs will take charge on an interim basis until the end of the season, but even then, suitable and available candidates are far from plentiful.
The names of Klopp, Van Gaal, Guardiola, Blanc, Ancelotti and even Mourinho have all been touted, but the most imperative thing is that, should Moyes go, the right man for this present time in the club’s history is appointed.
Gone should be the premonitions and requirements of a loyal, long-term solution. United have fallen heavily this season, and should Moyes go, his successor will need to hit the ground running. Ferguson’s triumphs were not a direct result of his longevity, rather his brilliance, and the Scot remained in charge for so long because he delivered success. In this regard, fans should not be opposed to a short-term fix. Often short-term improvements can facilitate long-term desires, it is about what’s best for Manchester United, and if that’s even just a year of one man to steady the ship, so be it.
It may be that Moyes has already lost his job by the time many read this, and if that is so, the Scot will leave with regrets and perhaps even a justified disgruntlement. Many may feel sympathy for the former Everton man, but there is no place for sentiment in football, no man is bigger than the club and Manchester United always have to come first.
In truth, the club have failed inexcusably this term on far too many occasions and ruthlessness can prove a virtue in this context. More time would certainly have been afforded had any glimpses of progression been forthcoming, but there is regrettably little basis on which to put forward a case that things will improve at present.
If Moyes’ fate is sealed, he can take solace in the fact that he was chosen for arguably the biggest job in the history of football, and many others would have failed to rise to the expectations. David Moyes is still a very good football manager, and perhaps in time another big opportunity will come along. But for now, it seems as though Manchester United are just too big for him.
Regardless of the decision on the manager’s future, it’s time for the club to pull together and demonstrate a determination to right the wrongs in what could prove a pivotal campaign next season.
Many of the playing staff should not feel safe, many have let themselves and the club down over the course of the season, but it is time to look forwards and time to repay the faith and support of the fans who have been magnificent throughout a troubled campaign.
Should Moyes stay, patience will be thin and imminent progression will be imperative. Either way, a rocky few months of transition awaits, but Manchester United is the pinnacle; only true champions should survive.
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