Promising signs of life as United spring into action
It's too early to say whether the last seven days will prove to be a turning point in a what has been an otherwise dismal inaugural campaign for David Moyes at Manchester United, but the Scotsman's future could be defined by the events that unfolded during last week.
March 26th, 2014
United’s 3-0 win against Olympiakos showed that there was more to this side than the beleaguered team that so often this season had not gone down swinging, surrendering rather fighting, retreating in its shell rather than launching itself ahead with belligerence.
However, Saturday’s win at West Ham was perhaps even more indicative, for it seemed to highlight the path Moyes must now follow if his team are to be successful. A path which travels from Juan Mata’s feet through Wayne Rooney’s legs, and one which had for so long been obscured from view, partly because of Moyes’ stubbornness and partly because a series of circumstances had forced him to make do with what resources he had available.
The Spaniard’s arrival in January was greeted with anticipation at Old Trafford, but the two-time player of the season at Chelsea failed to reproduce the form that had characterised his spell in London. Instead of grabbing games by the scruff of their necks, Mata was a passenger. While at Stamford Bridge his flame had burned, under Moyes it barely flickered, offering a sinister reminder of the travails Shinji Kagawa has experienced since swapping Dortmund for Manchester.
It is no coincidence that Mata’s best game in a United shirt arrived when he was deployed in his favourite role behind the striker, rather than exiled on the wing to accommodate Rooney behind Robin Van Persie, nor is it a coincidence that Mata’s presence in the number 10 role allowed United with a fluidity previously unseen this season.
Mata’s vision and ability to pick a pass coupled with Rooney’s movement gifted United a whole new dimension in their attacking third, to the point where even Shinji Kagawa, largely a forgotten man in his first two seasons at the club, looked to enjoy the proceedings.
So often this season United have trudged along rather than gallop on the counter-attack, their stutters going forward made even more evident by the lack of adequate wingers and by a ponderous midfield, where only Ryan Giggs and, occasionally, Michael Carrick dare to pass the ball forward.
With Mata conducting the orchestra, though, things had an altogether different taste on Saturday, as United stormed forward with sharp, dynamic passes and got in behind West Ham’s defence countless times, as Rooney, Mata and Kagawa swapped positions in a way United fans had only dreamed about this season.
Despite the questions raised over his fitness, Rooney remains a deceptively quick player and Mata’s presence in the number 10 role allows Rooney more time on the ball than he’d have when deployed behind the main striker, thus placing him under less pressure of delivering the sort of killer pass his first touch not always is ready to provide.
Mata, on the other hand, has much nimbler feet than Rooney and a largely superior first touch when under pressure and though he lacks the physical strength of his team-mate, he makes up for it with an excellent sense of balance and vision.
David Moyes has often been criticised this season – arguably rightly so, more often than not – for adopting an archaic approach, while at the same time desperately trying to squeeze in all his attacking players on the pitch at the same time, in an ill-conceived attempt to balance United’s midfield deficiencies with an array of attacking players.
It didn’t work. It couldn’t work, for quality alone isn’t enough, unless the players are played to their strengths. A rugby team might have the most wonderfully gifted centres and wingers, but even they will fail if not adequately supported by the front and second rows – and the same applies to a football club.
Robin Van Persie remains a wonderful asset and a player who Moyes would do well to hold on to, but in the immediate future at least, the Dutchman might not feature as prominently on United’s path as he’s done since joining the club 18 months ago. The United manager should embrace the opportunity of building his own system, while appreciating the luxury of having such a variety of choices.