The latest home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur has seemingly been the final straw for many. The somewhat embarrassing, yet, unfortunately predictable social media onslaught has ensued and if that is anything to go by Manchester United Football Club may as well inform the New York Stock Exchange that it will be winding up. Utter nonsense.
In reality, the crushing nature of the defeat was heightened by what had been a mildly resurgent United on a run of 6 straight wins and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Although not playing particularly well, United have unquestionably been showing at least minor signs of progression in recent weeks. The expectation of winning every game had certainly crept back in and no defeats are more painful than those where losing was barely remotely contemplated.
Not arrogant, just better; there was undoubtedly a strong belief from most that United would beat a transitional Spurs side in the middle of an injury crisis. In years gone by having belief that United would win every game was not arrogance, United were that good. But perhaps now the time has come for the realisation that the current United crop aren’t of the standards required and to believe otherwise through naivety, denial or simply blind loyalty is misplaced confidence.
The problems are much deeper than the loss to Spurs. Indeed, the 4th home league defeat of the season was simply a product of the issues at hand for David Moyes. It is not as though Tottenham came to Old Trafford with an inspiring, revolutionary tactical plan. Worryingly, it was that they implemented their design far better than United. To sit back and play on the counter attack is almost a right of passage at Old Trafford for the opposing team, it was nothing unexpected. Equally as predictable but infinitely more concerning is the fact that yet again both goals came from United’s left hand side. It is a product of a system used more often than not this season where the man deployed wide left has an inclination to drift inside, leaving an already struggling left back in Patrice Evra horribly exposed.
The system itself is nothing new, Ronaldo would often drift and roam from the left but he was a special talent. For all of Januzaj’s positives this season defensive awareness, although improving, has not been one of them. Allowing Lennon freedom, a player with a good history against Evra, was a tactical error and one that should not have been made. But there are bigger issues at hand than tactical misdemeanours.
At present; as so many have pointed out, the squad is simply not good enough. If all are fit, United can undoubtedly field a first 11 capable in most areas of mixing it right at the top. Key injuries at key times have certainly taken their toll. Indeed, United have won 6 and drawn 2 of the games that Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have been able to play together this season. But football, as it has been for some time, is a squad game and United’s under-belly is seriously lacking. 6 games in 17 days over the festive period is a gruelling schedule for any club and one that, Spurs aside, United coped with admirably. Unfortunately, the game at Old Trafford against Tottenham was seemingly one fixture too many.
Rooney was clearly not fit and was once again, despite being the club’s best attacking threat, sacrificed to a midfield role. It was a further painful illustration of United’s lack of quality and depth in the centre of the park. 20 minutes at the start of the game and the last 15 minutes aside, United lacked invention and looked tired and leggy. Had they been more careful in possession, Tottenham could certainly have scored a couple more on the break in the latter stages.
Equally as troubling as on the left were United’s issues on the right. With the club’s only natural right back, Rafael da Silva, missing through injury two defensive lapses of concentration from players out of position cost United dearly. Moreover, United’s only current wide player of any quality, Antonio Valencia, is seemingly half the player without the attacking support of a marauding full-back.
It is the first time in decades that United have been devoid of world-class talent in the wide areas and an obvious problem for a club with width so entrenched in their ideology. Januzaj has shown glimpses of brilliance and his fight and endeavour in the game should not be forgotten. He will mature into another fantastic academy product but he will unquestionably be better suited to a number 10 role as opposed to out wide. Furthermore, the reliance of a club as big as Manchester United on an 18-year-old to provide a creative spark is highly worrying.
The squad, then, is in drastic need of reconstruction. Moyes’ predecessor knew this and intimated as much in his recent book, even asserting that he did not have the energy to build another great United side. The problems are not of Moyes’ making but he is the man tasked with finding the solutions. Moyes may have inherited the champions, but the current United are a very good team propped up by a very average squad. Towards the end of Ferguson’s tenure, injury permitting there was always a relatively settled side for the truly big games. The squad players were always tasked with helping United through what on paper appeared to be the slightly easier fixtures, games in which the winning mentality and Ferguson’s brilliance would often drag United through.
Unfortunately, this season injuries have enforced a lot of the squad members to form the core of Moyes’ side more often than not. It is a big question whether a player is good enough for Manchester United and the answer is not simple. United’s academy is the envy of most football clubs. It is something for United fans to be truly proud of and the opportunities afforded to young fresh talent is a hallmark of the club. Not all academy products will reach the heights of the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Beckham, but that does not automatically negate their worth to the Old Trafford outfit.
Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, for example, have come in for a lot of criticism but both have noticeably stepped up in recent times. Are they good enough for Manchester United?
For the first team? Arguably not; but certainly as squad players. All of Ferguson’s great sides were littered with the likes of Wes Brown, Phil Neville and John O’Shea to step in when required. None of these were ever considered stone-wall starters for the club, but they all played a massive part in its success. Injuries and a heavy fixture list of late have necessitated the over-use of a poor squad that has struggled to cope. A lot of the current United side would struggle to get anywhere near the starting line-up of most other European giants, but their worth as squad players should not be underestimated both in terms of the quality of their football, and in regard to the philosophy of the club.
It is a proud tradition that United produce and nurture their own talent, one that should never be disregarded too readily. Would fans really prefer to bring in a host of new faces and simply “buy” our way to titles under Moyes? There are many who loathe and ridicule the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City for “buying” their way to the top. Unfortunately, however, modern football dictates that to be successful a certain amount of money needs to be spent, as so reluctantly demonstrated by Arsenal’s recent £42m acquisition of Mesut Ozil. But there is nothing wrong with spending money, it is arguably a necessity, but the philosophy and history of a club should always be protected. The likes of Chelsea and Manchester City will certainly draw a lot more respect from opposing fans if after an initial injection of huge investment, they now focus on developing their own talent.
That is the United way, to blend together a plethora of youth and experience and mould them into an exciting, attacking side. The re-building process will take a lot of time and a lot of patience. But as the man hand-picked by Sir Alex, Moyes should be supported and trusted to do it. There is no question, however, that he will need a lot of time and support from the boardroom. Maintaining a philosophy is admirable, but a failure to couple that with investment when so obviously required is foolishness, just ask Arsenal fans in the last 9 years.
New players are certainly needed. But the knowledge that additions are needed is one thing, attracting and acquiring the right players is another. A post-Ferguson United sitting in 7th in January are definitely not the attractive proposition they may once have been. Another overlooked issue is perhaps Moyes’ perceived functional, but ultimately negative tactics. It is often forgotten that, at heart, football players are football fans like the rest of us. The majority of fans love free-flowing, attacking football. It is why many players dream of being coached by contemporary, attractive conductors like Guardiola, Klopp and even Wenger, and why so many have admired Moyes’ former club so far this season.
It has prompted many to the rash judgement that United should have appointed Martinez, not Moyes. In time this assertion may prove correct, but it is pure idiocy to make that decision now. Martinez has expanded on the great work done at a club built by David Moyes over a decade. It was for that patient, resourceful approach that he was chosen as the best fit for Manchester United. Moyes should be judged in a few years, not now.
Nevertheless, 6 months is enough time and changes need to be made in United’s approach. It is the heart and joy of football for most to propel forwards at any opportunity. Players buy in to attacking philosophies quite simply because they are more enjoyable. It is a knock on effect that teams will work harder defensively as a result, to “earn their right” to play. United need to revert to their own brand of brave, cavalier, attacking football that has brought such success over the years. One only has to look to United’s conquerors Spurs to see their rapid rejuvenation having removed the shackles implemented by Andre Villas Boas.
A more attacking approach affording the creative, attacking players the opportunity to express themselves would allow Moyes to endear himself to all associated with the club. It would re-kindle the fire that has made United the place to be for the last 20 years. If Manchester United continue to be Manchester United, any player in world football would be honoured to even be linked with a move to Old Trafford. Patience, however, is required. January is not the best time to buy and some of the more greedy fans may have to temper their expectations. Winning the league in Moyes’ first season on the back of a disastrous summer transfer window in which United failed where so many of their rivals succeeded was never realistic.
It is time to bring new players in but not at the expense of the club’s ideology. The re-building of a club the size of Manchester United takes time. United experienced barren years between 2003-2006 whilst the club moulded a new side which went on to win an historic Premier League and Champions League double in 2008. The new manager deserves a similar amount of trust and patience to that afforded to his predecessor for what is an unenviable task.
Is it time to Panic? Absolutely not; because those who thought success would be instantly forthcoming under Moyes are almost as foolish as those who believe Manchester United will never rise again.
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