Following yet another disappointing day at the office for David Moyes, Manchester United are all but out of the race for Champions League qualification.
The champions are a far cry from the side that lifted a record-breaking 20th league title last May and have a genuine battle on their hands if they want to avoid falling to the same decline that fierce rivals Liverpool—who condemned the Red Devils to a ninth Premier League defeat this term with that dominant 3-0 victory on Sunday—succumbed to during the Ferguson years.
United's troubles off the pitch have been as eagerly documented as the problems on it. However, sticking to matters on the field, here are some of the key factors behind their steady slump.
Moyes Lacking the Right Solution
Sunday's defeat to Liverpool was just the latest example of Manchester Untied struggling down the right wing.
For a decade, Ferguson could rely on the partnership of Gary Neville and David Beckham as his trusty selection on the right flank. After that, Cristiano Ronaldo came in and set Old Trafford alight with a wealth of attacking talent. In recent years, though, the Red Devils have definitely lacked a certain spark down the right flank, and this season, that particular weakness has been highlighted on several occasions.
Moyes has struggled to nail down a regular right-sided partnership with the likes of Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Juan Mata all failing at some stage. Against Liverpool, United opted for the pairing of Rafael and Adnan Januzaj—the youthful duo crumbled.
While Rafael actually defended well at times, he still showed his vulnerability for a rash decision at critical moments. Just minutes after picking up a booking for a needless challenge on Gerrard, the Brazilian defender then gave away a penalty—allowing the Liverpool skipper to open the scoring from 12 yards.
Perhaps more worrying was the performance of Januzaj. The 19-year-old winger, who has been tipped as one of the most exciting prospects in world football, cut a frustrated figure for long spells during his 76 minutes on the pitch. He failed to make a single key pass during the match and made just one successful dribble before being replaced by Welbeck; the youngster also failed to produce a single accurate cross.
On this showing at least, Januzaj is far from the desired standard at Old Trafford, and it is quite worrying that he is already so highly regarded by the champions. In particular, the match against Fulham—another match in which United notoriously struggled with their crossing accuracy—showed just how heavily Moyes relies on the winger, and it doesn't appear that the 19-year-old is quote ready for that responsibility. He's physically weak, lacks a killer cross and is generally unable to utilise his natural pace to full effect.
However, it's hard to see where else Moyes can turn from the current batch of players, and the No. 7 role has to be a priority next summer. If United can additionally acquire a world-class right-back, then that'll be a much-welcomed bonus.
The Theatre of Screams
One of the obvious Manchester United downfalls is their simply horrific form at Old Trafford, and, as he sits opposite the stand which carries the name of his illustrious predecessor, David Moyes must be wondering how he can ever escape the shadow of English football's greatest-ever manager.
The Theatre of Dreams has become a house of horrors, filled with nightmares at almost every turn. Once a fortress to fear, the home of the champions has been a successful hunting ground for a number of Premier League opponents.
During their inaugural season without Ferguson, the Red Devils have claimed just six wins from 14 league encounters at home. Under Moyes, United have clearly lost the fear factor, and no Premier League boss will fear the trip to Old Trafford anymore.
Additionally, the champions appear to have lost that ability to win games late on and actually seem more likely to drop points than earn them during the closing stages. While David De Gea has unquestionably grown into the role of United's No. 1, the defenders in front of him look nervous and are always susceptible to conceding.
Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra have all seen far better days. Meanwhile, the younger players hardly look like they'll emerge as a rearguard capable of building a successful team upon and the defensive woes are a genuine reason for panic at Old Trafford.
Due to those defensive frailties, teams no longer feel that they are out of the contest. Opponents are now more inclined to believe they've got a chance, and therefore fight to the end—which inevitably leads to more success for travelling clubs, much to the despair of the Red Devils faithful.
United Have Lost Control
Perhaps the biggest issue for Moyes' side is the lack of dominance in the middle of the park.
For all the importance of goals and clean sheets, the middle of the park is where long-term success if built. While Manchester United have always been commended for their superiority on the flanks, strong central midfield has been a constant focus throughout the club's most successful period. Unfortunately, this season, Moyes has yet to find the right combination when it comes to dominating the middle areas.
Replacing the magician of Paul Scholes was never going to be an easy feat, but Moyes cannot complain about the lack of passing talent among his squad. Mata, Cleverley, Fletcher, Fellaini, Shinji Kagawa and Michael Carrick all boast passing accuracies in excess of 85 percent this season.
Likewise, United's average possession of 55 percent stands alongside Manchester City (58 percent), Chelsea (54 percent), Liverpool (54 percent) and Arsenal (57 percent), so retaining the ball is not a worry for Moyes. However, what will have the alarm bells ringing is the Red Devils' failure to control the game with it.
Who is to blame for Manchester United's decline?
Despite boasting the striking partnership of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, as well as having Welbeck and Javier Hernandez ready to deputise, the champions have registered a substandard 46 goals this term. That rate of 1.58 goals per game is a shambles in compassion to last season's ratio of 2.26 and highlights just how much United have struggled for creativity, which is scary for a squad that boasts Mata, Kagawa and Rooney among its ranks.
In past years, United would wear down their opponents thanks to that midfield dominance and would then take advantage of the tired legs late on. This year, though, United have scored just 18 goals in the final 30 minutes—a statistic that serves as a perfect barometer of how the champions are no longer asserting their superiority over the duration of a full match.
Manchester United's shortcomings can be attributed to many, many different reasons. Nevertheless, the midfield woes is definitely the crux of their problems. Moyes certainly has the resources to succeed at Old Trafford; whether he can find the winning formula remains to be seen.
Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com
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