Moyes firmly in Ferguson's shadow as shaky Man Utd wins CL group

Tuesday December 10th, 2013

Manchester United manager David Moyes salutes the fans after Tuesday's 1-0 Champions League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk.
Press Association/AP

The strangest thing about Manchester United this season has been the disparity between its European and its domestic form. A 1-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk -- shaky as United was in the first half -- ensured David Moyes's side topped its Champions League group, but all that victory did was temporarily ease the pressure.

And that, to an extent, is Moyes's problem at the moment: the story, as was always likely, has become that of his struggle to replace Sir Alex Ferguson and every result, every performance, every utterance now is refracted through the prism of that narrative.

The league situation is undeniably bleak. United has gone four games without a win and, 13 points adrift of the leaders Arsenal, a title challenge, if not impossible, is at least distinctly unlikely and the more relevant gap seems the seven points that separates the club from fourth and Champions League qualification. That Everton is thriving under Roberto Martinez only casts Moyes' struggles into sharper relief.

For many, United's problems are the result of chronic underinvestment in playing personnel since the Glazer family took over the club in 2005. Andy Green, the Manchester United fan and investment analyst who blogs on United under the name Andersred, calculates that in eight years the Glazers takeover has cost United £680 million in interest, fees, bank charges and repayments on the debt taken on as part of the leveraged buyout.

The impact on player acquisitions was clear even before the dithering of this summer, something for which as much blame has to go to the new chief executive Ed Woodward as it does Moyes. Most obviously, there is the weakness in central midfield, where United has lacked a top-class dynamic midfielder since Darren Fletcher went down with colitis three seasons ago -- and arguably even before that, given Fletcher for much of his career was seen as little more as workmanlike. Marouane Fellaini was presumably brought in to fill that void, yet his signing was one of the mysteries of the summer.

Why, exactly, did United not sign him before the end of July, when he would have been subject to a buyout clause that forced Everton to release him for £22 million? Instead it waited until Aug. 31 and ended up paying £27.5 million. That has widely been regarded as evidence of Woodward's bungling, but could it not be that Moyes, who was notorious at Everton for the level of detail of his research, for his refusal to sign a player unless he was absolutely certain, wasn't quite convinced and only returned to him when other options -- Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera -- fell through.

After all, for much of his last two seasons at Everton, Fellaini played as an attacking midfielder, operating just behind a center forward, and not as the sort of dynamic midfielder United so clearly need.

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For all the validity of the argument about the lack of investment, though, this remains essentially the same side that win the league by 11 points last season. Many of the eulogies to Ferguson spoke in glowing terms of the youthful squad he had bequeathed his successor, and, while they may have been overblown, good players have not become bad overnight.

A reaction after the departure of the great leader was always to be expected, and it was always going to take Moyes a little time to settle in to a job very different from the one he had left, but still, few expected things to be this bad.

Comparing last season to this statistically, United are slightly more direct, but the more striking difference is that heat maps show it is not occupying central attacking areas -- that is, the space just outside the opponent's penalty area -- as it was, either bypassing it or playing down the flanks. That's neither a positive nor a negative necessarily -- just a different way of playing, but it does suggest how the weakness of United's midfield is manifesting: without control of central areas it is forced to the flanks.

But the biggest change, of course, is that Ferguson isn't there. When Rio Ferdinand suggested that one of the problems this season has been that Moyes only tells the players who is in the team on the day of games rather than a day before, what was significant was less the issue of whether players need 24 hours to prepare mentally than the fact Ferdinand said anything at all.

That's exactly the sort of public grumbling Ferguson suppressed, the sort of low-grade dissent that can accumulate and undermine clubs. The fear factor has gone, not only among United's own players but among opponents. Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen perhaps still believe in the mythic United: both were essentially supine against United, but Premier League teams sense United is vulnerable and now attack it. Even at Old Trafford.

The club's 5-0 win in Leverkusen was an extraordinary result, given Bayer is second in the Bundesliga, but it paid for sitting deep, looking to absorb United pressure; the teams that have succeeded against it -- West Brom, Southampton, Everton, Newcastle -- have all taken the game to United.

Shakhtar, likewise, unsettled United towards the end of the first half when it pressed high, but this time the breaks went United's way. United wasn't brilliant against Shakhtar, just as it wasn't terrible against either Newcastle or Everton: it's just that this time a loose ball fell to Phil Jones in the box, while Taison and Douglas Costa missed decent opportunities.

Had Ashley Young converted either of his first-half chances, this could even have been portrayed as a comfortable win. But then had Patrice Evra scored rather than hitting the post against Newcastle, or a penalty been awarded when the ball cannoned onto Vurnon Anita's hand, that game also might have turned out differently.

But that United is reliant on such margins is itself indicative of a fall: in Ferguson's time it could usually survive a little ill-fortune. Some good luck might restore confidence and give United the sharpness it's lacking, might even make Moyes more decisive, but at the moment the problems run deeper than that. The force of Ferguson's personality helped paper over the cracks; Moyes simply doesn't yet have the aura.

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