On the back of successive home defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea—in the Premier League and FA Cup, respectively—Manchester United’s defeat at Sunderland in the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final ensured that David Moyes’ woes continued in 2014.
It’s been a dreadful start to the year for Moyes and United.
The performance from the reigning Premier League champions, against a side who sit bottom of the table midway through the current campaign, illustrated the problems inherent within the United squad. In this defeat, however, Moyes’ tactics were equally concerning.
Here, we’ll take an in-depth look at why United lost the game.
Tactics: Moyes’ Conservatism Cost United the Game
This season, much of the talk surrounding United’s indifferent form has concentrated on the ageing players Moyes has at his disposal. Moyes must take the blame for this defeat, though.
Lining up in a 4-5-1 against the league’s basement club told a sorry tale.
It wasn’t until Adnan Januzaj swapped positions with Ryan Giggs that United posed an attacking threat, and the Belgian starlet operated in a more traditional No. 10 role from the 23rd minute onward. That switch gave United a central threat, but Januzaj proved to be the sole creator throughout the game.
It begs the question: Why didn’t Moyes make some creative substitutions?
In a game where United were bereft of inventiveness, Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha were forced to watch from the bench. Granted, Kagawa’s form has been uninspiring this season, but it was the perfect chance to give Zaha a taste of the action. Especially when Sunderland took the lead—and defended deeper as a result—it would have made sense to test the pacey winger against the opposition’s tiring full-backs.
But Moyes refrained, choosing to introduce Javier Hernandez with just five minutes to go.
And that was the problem, because United never looked like fighting their way back into the game. United teams of old would mount a relentless, unforgiving charge that usually ended in an equaliser or a winning goal.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Moyes and United appeared content with taking a 2-1 defeat back to Old Trafford.
Statistics: United’s Midfield and Attacking Problems Come to the Fore
Deficiencies within United’s current squad will continue to be discussed among the footballing community, but it’s only when you reflect on the statistics of Tuesday’s game that the problems really come to light.
Of the midfield and attacking players, Michael Carrick had 118 touches of the ball—55 more than his nearest teammate, Antonio Valencia. It’s no secret that Carrick has long been United’s main instigator, but there was simply nobody for him to pass to in an attacking position.
And it showed.
Carrick, who is still not fully fit, is one of the world’s best at initiating attacks. He may not provide many assists, but his ability to set the tempo of games and dictate the play is unrivalled. So it’s not surprising that he is ineffective when he doesn’t have support. Tom Cleverley, who had a poor game, recorded a lowly 62 touches in the centre of midfield. That’s not good enough in a side that tends to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
But even when the midfielders had possession, it was once again Carrick who assumed responsibility in distributing the ball. He made 107 passes in the game—while Cleverley, Giggs and Valencia managed 117 collectively.
The introduction of Kagawa or Zaha would have, at the very least, given Carrick the opportunity to move the ball further up the pitch.
As it was, he had very little in the way of options. The continued absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie doesn’t help, of course, but United need to allow the likes of Kagawa, Zaha and Januzaj to receive the ball from Carrick in attacking areas of the pitch.
Ultimately, United’s attacks were meagre at best. There was only one player who tried to make the difference.
Player Watch: Adnan Januzaj
In the midst of United’s gloomy display at the Stadium of Light, Januzaj provided the spark.
The Belgian starlet began on the left-hand side, before switching roles with Ryan Giggs and moving in behind Danny Welbeck. United immediately looked more dangerous, kept possession and slowly took control of the game.
That was all because of a precociously talented 18-year-old.
Januzaj mustered seven shots on goal, more than twice as many as United’s next best, Danny Welbeck, who managed three attempts. Januzaj was forced to become the focal point of United’s attack but, unfortunately, lacked the support to turn the game around.
Henry Winter of The Telegraph summed things up perfectly.
As B/R’s Rob Dawson explains, United’s reliance on Januzaj “is both encouraging and damning.”
For now, it’s great to see the vibrancy and imagination in his game. But if Moyes continues to rely on Januzaj to provide the spark, as he did against Sunderland, then the youngster could burn out before the season’s end.
That would be disastrous for his long-term development.
Review: What Defeat Means for United
Tuesday’s defeat to Sunderland highlighted that United must change their approach.
A 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 lineup, or any variant of that formation, should be replaced by a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid. It will ensure that United are on the front foot in games that they really should be winning comfortably.
In the narrow 1-0 victory over Norwich, Hernandez was isolated up front. Welbeck suffered the same problem when Moyes opted for a five-man midfield against Sunderland. Therefore, an attacking trio playing behind a striker would go a long way to ensuring that United attack as one coherent unit.
It would also benefit some of United’s fringe players, such as Kagawa and Zaha. Those two, plus Januzaj, would inject some much-needed creativity if given the chance to do so. And that’s worth mentioning, because United’s turbulent week has highlighted that a change of personnel is also required.
Valencia is not offering enough in attack, and he should be benched in favour of a Zaha or Januzaj on the right-hand side. Likewise, Cleverley should be dropped, but injuries probably won’t allow that to happen. If Darren Fletcher is able to play against Swansea, then he should be handed a starting role in Cleverley’s stead.
Looking Ahead: What’s Next for United?
Moyes and his players must recover quickly for Saturday’s visit of Swansea in the Premier League.
Having lost to the Swans last weekend, it will be a real test of character. And there’s a lot riding on the game, because United can’t afford to fall further behind in the race for a top-four finish.
It’s a must-win game.
But as important as the result will be, United have to put in a performance. Moyes and the players have been tentative, unadventurous and devoid of ideas in recent games. That must change soon. It’s unlikely to happen over the course of one game, but Saturday’s fixture calls for a change of personnel and tactics.
Unless stated, all statistics were obtained from WhoScored.com.