If the answer is Tom Cleverley, what is the question?
Ashley Young, the bete noir of dignity and decency, was inexplicably chosen to start the match. Young performed to his usual reliable big game standard, and produced a showing so anodyne and anonymous that it was a wonder Moyes was able to pick him out to be substituted. That substitution brings its own concerns.
Firstly, it was the only substitution of the game he made, and he made it in the 51st minute. United were already in need of changes at half-time. Now, the decision may have been made to already swap Tom Cleverley for Young before the third goal was conceded, but if the answer was Tom Cleverley, then it’s utterly perplexing as to what the question might be. It certainly isn’t, ‘How do you inspire Manchester United during a comprehensive humping?’ Now, the Cleverley substitution did improve United’s lot. It reinforced their midfield, but it’s like changing a flat tyre when the whole car is on fire.
Moyes started cautiously and to do so away from home, against league rivals and so soon in the league, is a completely reasonable approach to adopt. Alex Ferguson can point to years of prudence in his latter years, and more often than not he adapted his squad, team and substitutions to succeed. But Ferguson is a genius, Moyes is not. Worse than that, he didn’t seem to even have been logical. To defend against a sophisticated side, which City are, the occasion does not call for Roy Hodgson’s Two Banks Of Four. It calls for two holding players to break up play, intercept through balls and track midfield runs. It calls for wingers able to cover for the full-backs and provide options to break. It calls for a number 10 to press deeper opposing players, or to fill holes in the midfield. Danny Welbeck has impressed on the left wing, providing assuredness and control in the biggest games, but he is still too meek or inexperienced to influence a game such as this, through the centre. Javier Hernandez, such as in the game against Chelsea last year, is not similarly cowed, however slight he is. Moyes got it wrong, but it was the fundamental nature of the mistakes that is so problematic. Moyes needs to learn on the job, given his relative lack of experience, it might be too great a task.
There were more errors in team selection. Chris Smalling is a competent player, but he’s a centre-back, not a full back. His lack of technical skills invited trouble as City played a pressing game, and stopped any attacking support for the out-of-form Antonio Valencia. It placed pressure on the pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, just at the time they needed a breather. The pair of them, suffering if not immediately but latently from injuries, had played three games in eight days. There has been a lot discussed about the increase in the intensity of Moyes’ training method - see Robin van Persie’s injury, and the terrible effect it had on their hopes yesterday (you’re never out of the game with the league’s best striker in your team) - but to practise it in a squad of thirty-somethings is an unsupportable mixture of hubris and naivety.
The lack of rotation is a real problem. Ferguson had managed a creaking and unbalanced squad expertly for the past four years, bringing four Premier Leagues and often matching it with a strong Champions League challenge. Against Bayer Leverkusen, an exercising match in midweek before the City game, he removed Kagawa, Fellaini and Rooney. Kagawa is still tiring quickly, so that’s a reasonable change to make, but it meant that he had ensured that players in their thirties: Michael Carrick (mute on Sunday), Van Persie (injured, perhaps linked to this lack of rest), Ferdinand and Vidic (overrun) and Patrice Evra (whose body rarely keeps up with his brain for the last part of a match), had no extra time to prepare. And surely, if he had seen the success that United had with an energetic pressing game against Leverkusen, he had selected the best available side for it. Valencia is the hardest working winger they have, whatever his form, and yet he wasn’t asked to press City’s defence.
These are just the errors made in the City match alone. There are other causes for fans and the club to worry about the future. Moyes believed Leighton Baines was worth unsettling Evra, vital to the club’s spirit, and happy to earmark an inexplicable £15 million for a 29-year-old with a homesickness problem. He believed it was so necessary to highlight his lack of trust that he made a last-minute grab for Fabio Coentrao, and that’s not even mentioning the staggering globo-ricket of the entire transfer strategy that collapsed around him.
David Moyes, right now, is out of his depth. That doesn’t mean he’ll always be floundering, or even that he won’t end up winning the league this year. But tomorrow his side play Liverpool, who’ve already beaten them this year, and this time Luis Suarez is back. If he wants to start winning again, now is the time to learn.
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