The Blog

Running Scared

How much would David Moyes pay for a football club brimming with the same confidence, the same arrogance in fact, that Manchester United have exuded for the majority of the last 20 years? Confident fans, a confident board room and most importantly, a confident group of players.


How much would David Moyes pay for a football club brimming with the same confidence, the same arrogance in fact, that Manchester United have exuded for the majority of the last 20 years? Confident fans, a confident board room and most importantly, a confident group of players.

Moyes displayed some of the qualities that projected him into the Old Trafford after Wednesday's defeat on penalties to Sunderland. The honesty and integrity of the man were evident as he admitted to the media after the game that they wouldn't have deserved a passage through to the final had they prevailed, and that they simply didn't play well.

I have to admit my overriding emotion when I see Moyes on camera at present is sympathy. I'm not sure he was too surprised when David De Gea allowed David Bardsley's tame shot to slip beyond his grasp into the net to give Sunderland the aggregate lead with just 2 mins of extra time remaining. De Gea has been one of the few positive stories for United this season, and after a shaky start under Sir Alex, he has established himself as just about the best keeper in the league. Regardless, if he was to make a mistake, it was always going to come at a time when it would sting Moyes the most. That's just the way it's gone this season.

It's fair to say that Moyes inherited a squad that was on the slide. It's also fair to say that he's been dealt some tough cards and has had pretty much no luck whatsoever. His best two players are out injured. Two of his best technical players Ferdinand and Giggs are struggling for fitness. You can also point to the apparent lack of support he's had in the transfer market to provide reasons for their poor season thus far. The problem for Moyes though is that hard luck stories will only buy him so much time and neither my sympathy, nor anyone else's, will save Moyes as the heat continues to get turned up on him.

I've never seen a Manchester United team look as fearful as the side that played on Wednesday night. Forget the fact that they only managed to score one out of five penalties in the shoot out - though that clearly gives you an idea of where the players are at mentally. United look like a team who take to the pitch hoping not to make mistakes, not one hoping to make things happen.

But even if they had Rooney and Van Persie available, I don't think United have a team capable of playing positive attacking football.

I call it simply "slow ball" - if a side cannot pass the ball quickly through the first two thirds of the pitch, they become reliant on either luck or percentages. Their movement off the ball, understanding as an offensive unit and lack of quality ball playing options in the back line and midfield mean they play predictable, one dimensional football. When Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Man City take 2 touches, United seem to take 4. When those other top teams have 3 options in the final third as they look to advance, United have 1 maybe 2. The likes of Smalling, Vidic, Fletcher, Jones, Evans, Evra, and Carrick - yes, I said it, Carrick - do not have the technique to play quicker, more fluid football. That's not to say that they are all bad players, just that if you have too many of them on the pitch the transfer of the ball as you look to play forward is likely to be slow and predictable. Their only option is to play the percentages, try to play forward even though the chances of retaining possession are low, and hope that by being in an advanced area, the ball might fall kindly for them.

I'm not saying they are only capable of playing direct, long ball football - their performance in the first half against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was encouraging - but in comparison to United teams of recent years and their rivals for Champions' League spots this year, they have regressed massively and have limited options tactically when Moyes sets the team up. It's not fluent and it shows just how fearful Moyes and the players are of making mistakes. By throwing caution to the wind and playing more technically gifted players like Januzaj, Kagawa, Giggs - if fit - Young and Cleverley in deeper positions, he would risk compromising some solidity and a harder working ethic when not in possession.

The balance of ball players against "grafters" in a starting 11 has changed as the game has evolved at the top level. I would argue that the top sides can only accommodate 2, possibly 3 "holding" footballers in their side. Moyes seems to play at least 4, if not more. The best centre back partnerships for me have one very defensive player, like a John Terry, Vincent Kompany or a Nemanja Vidic, and one ball playing centre half, like a Rio Ferdinand, Ricardo Carvalho or a Bobby Moore. The same applies in midfield for me, despite the emergence of the double pivot or two holding central midfielders in the modern game. The best sides have a more attacking balance, with attacking full backs and a front 4 or 5 who are all predominantly attacking in their outlook and mindset.

United's lack of confidence is almost cringeworthy. Players keep making mistakes and losing concentration - the signs of psychological stress are clear. As much as I like Moyes and sympathise with his position, it's down to him to change that.

The appointment of Tim Sherwood at Tottenham highlights the issue for me - and the similarity between Moyes and Villas-Boas' approaches are very clear to me. Sherwood's relaxed approach and "just go play" mentality may not be as simple as it looks but the impact it has had on the players at White Hart Lane is clear - some considerable weight has been lifted from the players' shoulders.

I like Smalling - I think through the adversity he continues to show resolve, excellent defensive qualities and leadership skills. I also think both Fletcher and Carrick are excellent holding midfielders - but only one should play IMO. De Gea is a top, top goalkeeper. Rafael, for all his defensive failings and lack of mental application, is a gifted attacking full back. Rooney and RVP, when they're back, speak for themselves in terms of quality. Welbeck is an outstanding modern attacker for me who complements Rooney particularly well. Januzaj is emerging as a real talent and I think he'll be a superstar.

And now they have Juan Mata.

I think there's a top 4 side to be made out of that lot, even if one of either RVP or Rooney leaves.

Can Moyes change the mindset completely? Will he throw caution to the wind and adapt his predominant style of play? I don't know, but I don't think he has many options left.

After all, I'd love Moyes to prove to the world that a dour, ginger haired former centre half can manage at the very top level.