David Moyes, despite winning more of his opening 30 games than any other Manchester United manager in history, has endured a difficult start to life at the club. On the face of it, his appointment seemed a sensible one. He’s an excellent manager of that there can be doubt and he will uphold United traditions which we’ve already seen in the emergence of Adnan Januzaj.
But it’s on the pitch where the major concern lies. Although it is far too early to judge Moyes, there have been a worrying number of signs especially when it comes to breaking teams down, creating chances and ultimately scoring goals. The team has looked dysfunctional, laboured and short on inspiration at times. Are we seeing just how limited Moyes is from a tactical viewpoint? Is his inflexibility hurting United?
Moyes’ teams have three main characteristics: high pressing, offensive full-backs and crossing. Lots of crossing. This season, United rank bottom of the entire league for percentage of attacks down the middle. Just a quarter of our attacking play has come through the middle while in contrast, a staggering 44% of attacks have come down the right, the most in the league.
Now, this can be excused given United’s weakness in central areas particularly considering the alarming lack of midfield creativity. However, it’s when you look at Everton in previous seasons that you realise how little Moyes likes to play through the middle. In the past three seasons, Everton have ranked 14th, 20th and 18th for central attacks and last season, Everton’s reliance on Leighton Baines was clear with 42% of their forward play coming down the left. Does Moyes know any other way of playing?
As these heatmaps show, United had a much bigger variety in terms of movement under Sir Alex Ferguson last year (top) than they have under Moyes this year (bottom).
What makes it worse is the quality of the crossing, in particular from Antonio Valencia. This season, United have attempted more crosses than any other team but rank 17th for crossing accuracy. We have had over 450 failed crosses. Combine that with the amount of attacks that rely on good crossing to create goalscoring chances and you have a problem. It’s little wonder that United have struggled to score from open play. If you’re not attacking down the middle and you can’t cross well, where do the goals come from?
Of course, these are just statistics and it would be unfair to judge Moyes purely on this but it does highlight what we’ve already seen – that United this season do not know how to break teams down aside from crossing. The pattern has been familiar all season: slow build-up, passing from side-to-side, get the ball to the winger/full-back, put in a cross and hope to force a chance.
When it works, it looks good. Januzaj created both opportunities with crosses against Swansea last weekend but it doesn’t work enough.
The lack of quality through the middle of the pitch goes some way to explaining Moyes’ reluctance to change his ways but at Manchester United you need more than one way of scoring goals. You need variety in your attacking play, it needs to be less predictable and more vibrant.
The other major worry is the lack of counter-attacking football which is everything United is about. Nothing beats seeing United break at blistering pace from one end to the other yet we haven’t seen enough of that this season which is no surprise given Moyes often keeps every player back when defending a corner. He needs to change but the question is whether the club will change Moyes or whether Moyes will change the club?
We’ll learn a lot more once Moyes gets three or four of his own players in and perhaps two quality central midfielders would drastically alter the statistics but there is certainly cause for concern when you look at the history books.