The patience that Sir Alex Ferguson requested from his acolytes in May is wearing thin. Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat to Spurs was David Moyes’ fourth home loss in the league this season and the sound of United fans leaping to his defence is conspicuous by its absence. Here’s why:
- Moyes sent his side out in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape, a formation that he first used this season in the 2-0 away victory to Stoke in the Capital One Cup. In that game, Phil Jones was used in the anchorman position, with Cleverley and Anderson in front. Cleverley had his best game of the season, benefiting from the greater attacking freedom afforded to him by not making up part of the usual double pivot that United tend to utilise. Moyes used this shape again in the next game, a 3-1 league win over West Ham, with Rooney in for Anderson. Rooney had a marvelous game in midfield, playing 14 successful long passes to the flanks, and chipping in with two assists. United then reverted back to their usual 4-2-3-1 shape for the two victories over Hull and Norwich. The question is – why would Moyes go with the 4-1-4-1 for a home fixture against Tim Sherwood’s Spurs? It’s common knowledge that Tim has been fielding his side in a basic 4-4-2 and that they have looked vulnerable between defence and midfield. The amount of space that Adam Lallana got between the lines in their rather fortunate victory over Southampton was evidence of that. Would it not, then, have made sense to field Wayne Rooney as a number 10 to take advantage of this lack of compactness? Instead, he fielded Carrick as an anchorman, with Cleverley ahead to the right, and Rooney ahead to the left. Rooney was tasked with Carrick’s usual role of playing long passes to Valencia on the right flank. Meanwhile, Carrick was the free man on the pitch, playing a limited role behind, in acres of space, feeding the full backs. If you flip the triangle, Wayne Rooney becomes the free man.
- Compounding the formation issue was the fact that United were funneling everything down the right flank. This is a common tactic for United, as indeed it was under Ferguson. It was overwhelmingly so against Spurs however:
The two most common passing combinations in the game were Smalling (playing at right back) to Valencia (21) and Cleverley to Valencia (13). When you consider that Smalling was removed on the hour mark, this pretty much drives home how lop-sided United’s strategy was in the first half. Valencia had 13 crossing opportunities in the first half, only one of which found a red shirt – a speculative overhead attempt from Welbeck on the stroke of half time.
His delivery was shocking more often than not, but that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that United barely had a presence in the box apart from Welbeck. They were not adequately supporting their number 9 due to the shape that they elected to start with.
- At half-time, with the score at 0-1, Moyes acknowledged his error, and reverted to type. He went 4-2-3-1 with Rooney off Welbeck and Carrick and Cleverley holding behind. This configuration only lasted a mere 15 minutes however. On the hour mark, Moyes made two disastrous substitutions. He withdrew Carrick, putting Rooney BACK in midfield, and introduced the seriously off-colour Hernandez up front. He also withdrew Smalling from right back (who was culpable for the Spurs goal), moving Valencia back to take his place. Kagawa came on on the left with Januzaj taking up Valencia’s previous role as the focal point of the attack on the right. Both subs were baffling. United had been vulnerable to counter attacks during Carrick’s recent prolonged injury absence. Spurs had already shown themselves to be a threat on the counter in this game. Valencia has been extremely poor when asked to play at right back this season, costing United the late Oviedo goal that led to their second home defeat of the season against Everton. Both subs would lead directly to Spurs’ second goal. Lennon ran off Rooney in midfield on the break, received a pass from Soldado, delivered a deflected cross across the area to an oncoming Christian Eriksen, who ghosted in behind a sleeping Antonio Valencia to head Spurs into an unassailable lead.
United would get a goal back immediately afterwards, through an exquisite pass from Januzaj and an impressive finish from Danny Welbeck. There were a couple of Vidic half chances late on from set-pieces, but the equaliser never really looked like materialising. Hernandez was certainly the wrong man at the wrong time, losing the ball through poor touches 4 times in his 30 minutes on the pitch. United should indeed have had a penalty for the challenge from Hugo Lloris on Ashley Young, but given the success that the latter has had through simulation in recent times, it seems rather embarrassing to complain about that as vociferously as Moyes did in his post match interview.
His anger spoke volumes. He knows he’s out of his depth. On a day when Manuel Pellegrini made two clever substitutions to kill the game against Swansea, and over a Christmas period where José Mourinho once again showed his guile and intelligence, United are left considering what they could have had.