The Areas Manchester United Must Fix Now to Secure a Top-Four Finish

Rob Blanchette@@_Rob_BFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

Manchester United's Michael Carrick, bottom centre left, celebrates with jubilant teammates after scoring against Fulham during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

It is incredulous to think about how far Manchester United have slipped in just six months.

The club has gone from trophy-stocked to laughingstock in all but a few calamitous weeks, with the clouds and vultures gathering over Old Trafford in equal measures.

United now lie 11th in the Premier League form guide, below the likes of West Ham, Crystal Palace and Sunderland.

One win less, and the Red Devils would sit in the relegation zone with Fulham and Cardiff City

So how on Earth are United to penetrate the top four and snatch a Champions League place that seems less likely than the two goals they scored in the dying seconds of the 1999 European Cup final against Bayern Munich?

If you pay £37 million for someone, play him correctly

Jon Super/Associated Press

With United hemorrhaging five of their last six points like a wound that will not stop bleeding, you have to beg the question why has David Moyes purchased one of the best attacking midfielders in world football, and started him out wide?

Juan Mata was bought to add invention into United's central core and instead he is being asked to participate in Moyes' functional approach to tactics. 

The first goal that Fulham scored on Sunday was testament to Mata's misuse with the player defending on the edge of his own area, level with Darren Fletcher. 

Is this why Moyes acquired him from Chelsea? To play a role that Jose Mourinho believed he could not play?

Jon Super/Associated Press

The short answer is no. 

Moyes needs to play Mata in the position which saw him win Chelsea Player of the Season two years running. 

And Moyes needs to play Mata in the position that saw him score 12 times last season, as well as assisting on 12 occasions in 31 domestic league starts, per WhoScored.

If Moyes can get the club's largest-ever purchase to start dictating games with a supporting cast of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, there is still an outside chance that a miracle could happen.

Reviewing United's remaining fixtures it looks unlikely that given their form, they will prevail. However, it is not impossible, though completely improbable.

But when has that stopped United before? Mata is key to Moyes having any kind of punctured success this term.

However, if the manager wants his Spanish star to track back and cover Rafael, any chances of success will fade into smoke and mythology. 

The defence from hell

Jon Super/Associated Press

No one could predict how quickly Man Utd's defence would capitulate after the exit of Sir Alex Ferguson. 

Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand have been all-conquering Goliaths for United for many years, seeing off some of the best attackers on the planet.

But their time is now over.

Sunday's game against Fulham just reinforced what most already knew. Vidic's pace has gone and Evra's common sense has evaporated into thin air.

Moyes was never going to rely on this brood of experienced pros for very long, but he would have hoped for much better performances from them this season. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19:   Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United argues with Referee Phil Dowd prior to receiving a red card for bringing down Eden Hazard of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamf
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

They have offered no leadership on the pitch and have allowed United to drift into unsafe waters, where the tide can pull you under within the blink of an eye.

Moyes can only rely on Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling now. With Rafael's form also in pieces, the Scotsman simply does not have any flexibility in selection. 

The key is somehow keeping his three younger centre-backs fit, and that means wrapping them in cotton-wool.

Yes, there will be restrictions by holding them back, but with United's current injury record these players need to be available for matches.

The midfield has been discussed so much in recent years, but it is in United's defence where Moyes will have to spend big in the summer. 

For now, that is not an option. Protecting the back four is of paramount importance and the option of using two sitting midfielders is very much a wise one.

If United can stop the goals going in, then their illustrious attack might start to find ways to win football matches again.

4-4-2 is dead 

Jon Super/Associated Press

The first thing fans of English football's favourite formation will tell you is that 4-4-2 is indeed not dead at all. 

And with that they will point their fingers in the direction of the Champions-elect who play in sky blue, from across the city.

Manchester City do indeed play a version of 4-4-2, with Aguero tucking in and having freedom to do as he pleases. They also have wingers who actually do things like cross a ball successfully, to players like Edin Dzeko who are good with their heads. 

Jon Super/Associated Press

United have not been very good at 4-4-2 for some time. 

Yes, they won a championship playing it last year, but the football was less than inspiring. 

To carry on winning and beating teams year after year you have to show your variety in skill, otherwise opponents work you out and punish you. 

Against Fulham, United put in a shocking 81 crosses into their opponents box, per Squawka. Some will tell you that this is the epitome of attacking football, but anyone who witnessed the game will tell you how futile this tactic was. 

United successfully found a teammate in only 22% of those crosses, as Fulham defended their line with ease.

4-4-2 lends itself to predictable football, and Chelsea proved this on visiting Man City as they cut the lifeblood of Yaya Toure from the game and shocked their hosts.

United are currently shocking no one, except their supporters.

Wing-play will not get United into the top 4. If the team switches to a 4-2-3-1 they have a tangible shot of actually beating some clubs. 

This change in formation will address the issue of Mata playing too wide and too deep and it will also protect a central defence that needs to find its confidence once again.

Can all this happen in such a short space of time before the season ends and we all enter World Cup fever mode?

Only Moyes can answer that question. 


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