Moyes gets it right
Manchester United went back to basics against Arsenal on Sunday, eschewing their traditional "attack at all costs" philosophy for a more measured and thoughtful approach based on a solid defensive performance.
David Moyes’ priority was to stifle the talented Arsenal midfield, cutting off the supply line to the front players, then rely on quick counter-attacks and set pieces, heavily reliant on the burgeoning partnership of Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
The opposition in question have showed this year that, when it comes to quick passing and possession, they are probably second to none in the Premier League, and it would have been folly to have tried to take them on at their own game.
Moyes realised that his team were unlikely to outpass the Londoners but figured they could outmuscle them and break up the fluidity that has torn lesser teams apart this season.
The more pragmatic approach that the Reds adopted paid dividends and showed that the new incumbent of the hot seat at Old Trafford is not afraid to adapt his tactics to the opposition he faces.
He resisted the temptation to include his new "wonderboy" Adnan Januzaj and opted instead for solidity and strength, retaining the option of bringing the teenager on as a late impact player if required.
As it turned out, Januzaj kept the bench warm for the full 90 minutes but can probably expect to be included against less auspicious opposition in weeks to come.
It is, of course, early days in the Moyes dynasty and it has been fairly clear to most that this United squad, whilst possessing players of undoubted talent, is not yet one which can just turn up and blow the opposition away.
Some work needs to be done in the January window, but before then United need to put themselves in a position to be within striking distance of the other top teams in contention for this year’s title.
This performance was a giant step in that direction.
The defensive performance on Sunday, even allowing for Arsenal’s somewhat toothless attack on the day, was possibly the best for many seasons.
David De Gea has looked increasingly composed in goal of late and did nothing wrong again on this occasion; punching out well a couple of times when under pressure and dealing with an awkward skidding, deflected shot in the second half.
Chris Smalling had possibly his best game so far at right-back; a position that perhaps will not be his final destination but one in which, at the moment, he is serving both United and England well.
The central axis of Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans looked calm and unruffled, and when Vidic had to leave with a head injury halfway through the match, Phil Jones carried on the good work, dropping back from an effective destroying role in midfield to help snuff out everything Arsenal had to offer.
Patrice Evra also looked composed and, as ever, offered an extra threat with his raking runs up the left wing where he combined well with Shinji Kagawa and was always looking to whip the ball in dangerously for Rooney and Van Persie to attack.
In midfield, Jones was immense, Michael Carrick assured and Antonio Valencia showed signs that he is making progress towards the scintillating form of some 18 months ago.
Being hypercritical, perhaps Kagawa looked a little lightweight at times and he was sacrificed for Ryan Giggs to add a bit more steel and energy for the last 15 minutes or so.
"Attack, Attack, Attack" was the plea from the Old Trafford faithful, but this was a match where, for once, guile and sticking to the game plan was paramount.
The result was everything on Sunday.
In losing, United would have found themselves 11 points adrift of the leaders. Victory saw them claw back that gap to just five points and, psychologically, with a two-week international break now ahead—and most of the other title contenders dropping points—this win was a massive confidence booster.
As for Arsenal, they seemed too easily disrupted by United’s combative approach in midfield and their forwards squandered the few chances they had, which mainly emanated from a series of tantalising crosses from Bacary Sagna.
Did their recent poor record at Old Trafford play on their minds or is that underplaying United’s achievement in being the first team to beat the Gunners in the league since the first day of the season?
The answer is probably a bit of both, but let’s not take any credit away from a wholly professional display from Moyes' boys.
Arsenal will undoubtedly be a different proposition at the Emirates but, if nothing else, this match showed that possession is not, in itself, a lot of use without an end product.
United found that themselves last week in the rather depressing performance against Real Sociedad, characterised by an apparent lack of dynamism and ambition.
The tactics for that match showed far too much respect for the opposition and it was really only an acceptable result because the other match in the group also finished goalless.
So Moyes, unbeaten in nine games now, can take some solace in his charges’ momentum and must take enormous credit for getting this one dead right.