When I was younger, the knowledge that my team’s next fixture was away to Manchester United instilled in me a real sense of fear. ‘No one ever beats them at home’ was the repeating thought that reverberated in my brain. And that – by and large – was true. For most teams, visiting Old Trafford during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign would more often than not mean 90 minutes of your team desperately trying not to concede as they were torn apart by a rampaging, ravaging and rambunctious side.
United drew with Southampton on Saturday and following yet another disappointing result for United, Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino spoke to the BBC, and when asked whether he felt that teams were going to Old Trafford with more belief than in previous years, he simply replied that Southampton had “prepared the match thinking that we could win the match”.
Pochettino’s comments represent a sea change in the way that Man Utd are perceived. In the past they were a team to be feared. These days, a team like Southampton can go to Old Trafford and aim for the win. Quite simply, Man Utd have lost their aura, and this is likely to make the rest of the season that much harder for them.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the way Manchester United have frequently been set up this season almost exudes negativity. Rather than using the game against Southampton to showcase the fact that they are still a team to be feared, Moyes’ team selection included two defensive midfielders in the middle of the park; meaning that they were never going to dominate the final third. Michael Carrick – excellent player though he is – does all of his best work in front of the back four, and Marouane Fellaini; Moyes’ expensive deadline day purchase also is more at home further back. Ultimately, fielding the two of them together limits United’s ability to attack through the middle, forcing Wayne Rooney to come deep and collect the ball; in turn negating the Englishman’s ability in and around the penalty box.
But the million-dollar question is why Moyes continue to make these negative decisions. Part of the reason is that United endured a totally unsatisfactory transfer window and ultimately failed to get the required players in and this has led to him having to field Fellaini and Carrick together. It seems unlikely that Fellaini was a United target at the beginning of the summer, as why would they not have bought him when his release clause was still active and was therefore cheaper? What is more likely is that Fellaini was a panic buy after the failure to attract a whole host of other midfielders including Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alacantara.
The other part of the reason is that Moyes is not used to attacking teams. He received many plaudits for his work at Everton, and while it is not our goal to dismiss those plaudits as invalid or irrelevant, it must be noted that there is a big difference in managing Everton and managing Man Utd. Ultimately, the Scot played a pretty negative brand of football at the Merseyside club, and is now far used to playing reactive football as opposed to proactive football.
Everton would generally play one striker up front, and rely on counter attacks to score their goals. This would work as teams felt that they could attack Everton and would subsequently push their players further forward with Everton then exploiting this on the break. Teams don’t play like that against Man Utd, and consequently United don’t benefit from the same sort of space that Everton enjoyed under Moyes. When they were at their best under Ferguson, United were proactive, and asked searching questions of the opposition, and unfortunately for the Red Devils, this is something we’re just not seeing this season.
Moyes’ substitution strategy again serves to illustrate the fact that ultimately the Scot’s negativity is having a profoundly unhelpful impact on the fortunes of the Champions. United held a slender lead at Old Trafford on Saturday, and rather than look to kill the game off with another goal, Moyes substituted first Nani for the pedestrian Ryan Giggs and then the creative Wayne Rooney for the defensive Chris Smalling. Both these moves were essentially attacking players for defensive players, and what is clear is that Moyes was looking to hold onto the 1-0 lead rather than trying to score another to put the game beyond any doubt. But as any football fan will tell you, you’re never safe at 1-0, and it was a move of cowardice that took Nani and Rooney off.
If Moyes hadn’t taken Rooney and Nani off, United may perhaps have been able to continue to assert their authority – they certainly would have had more chance of grabbing the final goal. As it was, Adam Lallana popped up in the 89th minute and condemned United to another poor result.
Man Utd are currently in mid table, and on the basis of their performances this season, that’s absolutely where they deserve to be. At present, it seems that Moyes is not capable of shifting his philosophy and has not yet realised that he is now at a big club that is expected to win the majority of their games. Last year’s champions are now 8 points adrift, and it already looks very unlikely that they’ll be challenging for the title this season. Many believe that Moyes needs to be given as much time as he requires, but there’s a very real possibility that this could result in United’s star fading in a more permanent way than it has so far.
United need a big result to show the world that they are still tough to beat. They need to try and re-instil that sense of imperviousness, as Man United without an aura is basically just an average football club, with two or three very good players and a mid table manager.