Time for Man United's Moyes to start showing signs of progress

Wednesday October 30th, 2013

Manchester United is currently a disappointing eighth in the table in David Moyes' first year at the helm.
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images

Certain debates in soccer rapidly turn into meta-debates, as people stop discussing the point at hand and instead rehearse familiar arguments about the terms of the debate. The England national team is one: Anybody who has ever written anything about a recent game knows that within minutes the comments section will be full of predictable rants, most trying to take some half-baked historical theme and turn it into a panacea. That's the problem with subjects on which everybody has an opinion: People usually stick to the same one and then repeat it.

It's reached the point at which as soon as you say a player has played well, you're accused of overhyping him and raising unrealistic expectations. Or criticize England and you're told you're demanding the impossible, that England is rubbish and has been for sixty years. So you end up trying to couch every assessment in a way that makes it clear you don't think Andros Townsend is the messiah and you don't demand England should win every game 8-0.

The issue of David Moyes -- under whom Manchester United lies eighth in the table, eight points behind the leaders, Arsenal -- isn't quite at that level, but it's getting there. There are those who urge patience at all costs, pointing out that Alex Ferguson was in his seventh season when he finally won his first league title (and they could add that in this age in which the average tenure of a league manager is just over a year, Herbert Chapman, Don Revie and Brian Clough - at both Derby and Nottingham Forest -- started poorly enough that they would probably all have been dismissed before having the chance to create their epoch-defining teams). And there are those who insist that Moyes is out of his depth and must be put out of his misery before he has time to do further damage.

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It was back in 2007, defending his former assistant Steve McClaren as he was savaged over England's struggles and eventual failure to qualify for Euro 2008, that Ferguson noted the terrible self-righteousness of the modern fan, so used to reality shows in which unpopular or weak contestants could be voted off that they demanded to apply the same logic to real life. Nobody, the gist of his argument ran, was ever given the chance to learn on the job any more.

This, really, is the crux of it. It's not about first principles of patience or instant success; it's about whether the United board believes Moyes has identified what is going wrong and is confident he has found a way to fix it.

The comparison with Ferguson's early years doesn't really stand up. Ferguson inherited a talented but ill-disciplined squad with a major drinking issue. It was capable of winning the odd cup but not of sustaining its form through a league campaign. In the prior season, United won its first 10 matches before capitulating, extending its run without a league title to 19 years. Ferguson had to dismantle that side and build a new one.

Opinion varies over the strength of the squad Moyes inherited, but it is a team used to success and one that clearly requires nothing like the rebuilding the 1986 side did. Still, it probably would have been useful to add more than just Marouane Fellaini in the summer, if only so that the entire squad isn't thinking, "This isn't how we used to do things." At the same time, it's hard from the outside not to wonder whether the replacement of senior coaching figures such as Rene Meulensteen and Eric Steele with Moyes's own people didn't risk abandoning what might have been a useful bridge to the past.

Fellaini may yet prove a useful addition to the side, although he has looked weirdly sluggish so far, but the whole of United's summer business -- the doomed pursuits of Cesc Fabregas and Leighton Baines, the strange business of Ander Herrera, the Wayne Rooney wrangle, paying a needless £3m extra for Fellaini by delaying the signing until after a buy-out clause in his contract had expired -- seemed only to emphasize the inexperience at the top at United, not just in Moyes but in the new chief executive Ed Woodward.

That in turn has added to the sense that United is vulnerable. Teams now attack it at home. Nobody now goes to Old Trafford hoping merely that the defeat won't be too severe. That, in turn, has highlighted the weakness at United's center -- a failing that has been there for some time now and that the signing of Fellaini has yet to plug. United has conceded 12 goals in nine games so far in the league, more than any other team in the top half of the table. It was weirdly open in both home Champions League matches against Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, games that otherwise probably represented its best performances this season.

In that, United is struggling as it did in the first half of last season, in which it conceded 29 goals in 19 games. It let in only 14 in the final 19. Moyes must somehow find a similar way of tightening up -- even if that means asking Wayne Rooney to play a little deeper. And there's a paradox there, for one of the worries about Moyes was that he would be overly negative. There is a danger that in trying to avoid that charge, he has left United with too little cover.

Not that United is scoring freely: just 14 goals in nine league games. As Miguel Delaney has pointed out, United this season has continued a trend from last season of completing fewer passes in a central attacking area, which explains in part the reliance on crosses from Patrice Evra, who has made more key passes per game than any other player who has started more than half the matches so far.

Is that a Moyes issue -- after all, Baines was one of his key attacking threats at Everton -- or one that was already there and masked by the excellence of Robin van Persie? The answer will only come when Moyes has had time to work on it. So far, the fairest conclusion is probably that he has yet to deal with flaws that were already there and that those flaws have been magnified by the absence of Ferguson.

The positive news for United fans is that Moyes sides tend to improve in the second half of the season. In the last five years, Everton picked up more points in the first 19 games only once, and averaged 32.4 points in the second half of the season compared to 26 in the first. There was talk his fitness work in the summer may have upset certain players -- notably Robin van Persie, whose injury problems had the Dutch coach Raimond Verheijen decrying Moyes's antediluvian approach -- but the benefits may still be seen.

Problems remain, but so do possible solutions. The transition from Ferguson was never going to be easy, but the question is how soon Moyes needs to start showing he is tackling those issues.

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