Manchester United analysis: How David Moyes was unable to respond while losing battle of the tactics to Liverpool at Old Trafford
United manager seemed dazzled by Liverpool’s midfield diamond on Sunday
It is not known whether David Moyes went home on Sunday night and buried his head under the pillow for hours, as Sir Alex Ferguson did after Manchester United lost 5-1 at Maine Road in the days when Manchester City were more of a joke than a force – September 1989 – but he must have been tempted.
It was not just that his side was completely outplayed in losing 3-0 to Liverpool at Old Trafford, Moyes was utterly out-thought by his counterpart, Brendan Rodgers. Worryingly for United, Moyes was not only outfoxed at the start of the game, he seemed unable to come up with answers to Liverpool’s dominance during it.
It was not until the final 14 minutes of the game that he made a substitution, and until then his only tactical switch had been the basic one of asking Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj to change flanks. Meanwhile United, two down at home to their bitterest rivals, were barely laying a boot on the ball.
Rodgers has deployed at least five starting formations this season, which makes Liverpool a difficult side to prepare for, but they had used a diamond midfield last time out at Southampton, with Raheem Sterling replacing Philippe Coutinho at the tip for the last 33 minutes. Sunday’s formation should not, then, have come as a complete surprise.
In theory United’s 4-2-3-1 line-up ought to have been able to expose Liverpool’s lack of width and the teenaged Sterling, up against two experienced internationals, should not have had a kick. In practice Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen, ably supported by the full-backs, prevented United making any headway on the flanks while Sterling led Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick a merry dance.
This was partly because those Liverpool players did very well, but also because of United’s inadequacies. In the centre Fellaini and Carrick appeared slow and lacking in mobility faced with Liverpool’s youthful vigour. It did not help that, with Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones reluctant to push up because of their vulnerability to the pace of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, United were stretched. In addition Mata seemed lost on one flank and Januzaj isolated on the other.
Gary Neville on Sky Sports kept stating that Moyes “needed to change it” but the manager seemed to freeze. This is odd as, at Everton, Moyes was prepared to change tactics mid-match regularly. Talking to this newspaper at the start of the season, Pat Nevin – an old friend of Moyes but an astute pundit nevertheless – said Moyes was the equal of Jose Mourinho in the way he adapted tactically during games.
Nevin added that Moyes liked versatile players for this reason, picking out Fellaini, though he could also have mentioned the likes of Phil Neville, Leon Osman or Kevin Mirallas.
Fellaini is now at United, but does not seem to have found his métier there. At Everton he expressed a preference for a holding role, but produced his best performances in an advanced position, especially when using his physique to receive long balls from deep and play in team-mates.
However, not only do United traditionally not play that way, they already have Wayne Rooney and Mata wanting to play off the front man – and Januzaj, Ashley Young and the forgotten Shinji Kagawa capable of doing so. Which leaves Fellaini playing deep and, so far this season, innocuous.
What could Moyes have changed on Sunday? The standard response when being overrun in midfield is to match up to the opposition. Rooney could have pushed up alongside Robin van Persie, creating space for Mata to go to the top of the diamond. Carrick would have sat at the base, leaving Fellaini and Januzaj (or Tom Cleverley from the bench) to face Allen and Henderson. However, the suspicion is that Mata would not have prevented Steven Gerrard dictating play, but Sterling would have stopped Carrick from doing so.
The fundamental problem for Moyes is that United’s confidence is shot to pieces, collectively and individually. For all their territorial dominance Liverpool created few clear chances prior to United being reduced to 10 men. They scored from penalties conceded by poor defending, the sort of mistakes which happen when a team is under pressure and mentally frail.
Confidence is far easier to lose than gain. Only a run of victories will restore it, but winning matches requires confidence. Exacerbating matters is that players may be lacking faith in Moyes – or at least blaming him and his staff rather than themselves.
More specifically, United lack a commanding central defender with pace to replace the waning Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. They have no dominant central midfielder, and there are too many attackers of a similar style. And, so far, it is still not clear what Moyes’ grand plan is.
The summer’s transfer dealings are now critical to the club’s revival but, without Champions League football, and with a cloud over Moyes’ future, buying the best will be difficult, especially in a World Cup year.
Rodgers has had one big advantage over Moyes this year. With no European fixtures and early exits from the domestic cups, Liverpool have played 34 matches. United play their 44th against Olympiakos tomorrow. Both men are tracksuit managers, but Rodgers has had 10 midweeks extra to impart his philosophy on the training ground and hone tactics ahead of matches. Increasingly, it seems next year this imbalance will be reversed. Then we should see Moyes’ United vision – if he is still in charge.
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