Manchester United’s David Moyes takes blame as decline is laid bare

Monday marks an uncomfortable one-year anniversary that shines a light on Manchester United’s strife. Twelve months after Sir Alex Ferguson’s team dispatched Manchester City 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium to throw down a marker and move six points clear of the reigning champions, David Moyes’s United side are closer to relegation than to the leaders Arsenal and in a dogfight for Champions League qualification.

The chief concern is the side’s style of play and how this translates into results. United have become a touch slower, more sideways, and lack verve beyond Wayne Rooney, who was suspended for Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Newcastle United, and Robin van Persie, who is struggling for match fitness after a groin problem.

At full-back there is scant evidence of the marauding that marked Ferguson’s teams, with Rafael da Silva down the right corridor against Alan Pardew’s side producing one of his poorest offerings. On the opposing flank Patrice Evra is still reliable but is 32 and the word is that he harbours discontent at Moyes’s ongoing admiration of Everton’s Leighton Baines.

The fault lines continue into midfield and out wide. When Michael Carrick is injured, as he currently is, the quality deficit in central areas is a siren call warning that the failure to make a signing there in the previous window – when Cesc Fábregas and Ander Herrera were the targets – must not be repeated, whoever is pursued next month.

There is, though, a major caveat to all of this: these are the same players – minus Paul Scholes – who secured United’s 20th title and who have been strengthened by the £27.5m arrival of Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj’s emergence.
So how United have contrived to be 13 points behind Arsenal becomes the burning question. At the centre of a myriad of factors stands Moyes. The Scot is honest enough to know that whatever the travails of the summer transfer market and the “transition” continually pointed to, he is the man charged with being the firefighter who should lead United forward.
After the defeat by Newcastle, Moyes fronted up to offer a mea culpa, saying it was down to him to find better displays from his squad.

Refusing to blame the players, he said: “The one thing they did from the off was to try to make it happen. They were all committed and trying to win the game but we lacked that final bit of quality at the end or the final pass in the final third or a little bit of luck if something had broken and gone in.”

Yet the citing of ill-fortune for Yohan Cabaye’s 61st-minute winner is hardly the United way. “They got that little bit of luck with Evra’s header off the back of [Moussa] Sissoko’s head that played him in and set up an opportunity. The last game or two we’ve just lacked that,” Moyes said.

On arrival in July, Moyes cleared the backroom of Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and Eric Steele, the Ferguson lieutenants trusted by the players, for his own staff of Steve Round, Phil Neville, Chris Woods and Jimmy Lumsden. Despite this not inconsiderable change and the Moyes transition mantra, a confusing contradiction comes in the assertion made by United’s manager post-Newcastle that he has not altered much.

It all adds to the emerging picture of a Moyes whose thinking can be muddled on and off the field, as the fog that engulfed United after the departures of Ferguson and the chief executive, David Gill, begins to clear.

After Cabaye’s finish, Moyes turned to two players who have hardly had a kick under him to try to win the game. Wilfried Zaha’s career minutes for United totalled only 78 (in a Capital One Cup tie) before he was thrown on along with Anderson, who in six years at United has managed 70 league starts.

Why Moyes preferred Zaha, whose ability is yet to convince the staff, to Ashley Young, who was also on the bench, is a puzzle. With Fellaini and Carrick out through injury and Ryan Giggs rested, Moyes might have made a case for having little choice over bringing on Anderson.

Yet he insisted on praising the quality of the Brazilian – and Zaha – when saying: “I do think the squad has got the depth and that’s why I played them. I felt that we’ve had a lot of games and those boys were worthy of inclusion and that’s why we’ve involved them.”

Saturday’s defeat, the first by Newcastle on United’s turf since 1972, followed Wednesday’s 1-0 reverse to Everton, when the Merseyside club ended a 21-year wait for a triumph at Old Trafford. West Bromwich Albion’s 2-1 victory in September ended a similar sequence that had stretched back to 1978.

One by one visiting teams’ fears are tumbling as a realisation dawns that United have lost their aura and become just another average proposition. Where once a kind of hyperconfidence and alpha-male strut from United defeated teams before a ball was kicked in their cathedral, now Moyes’s players view every opponent as a potential banana skin.

Jonny Evans accepts as much. “Obviously the lads have lost a bit of confidence,” the defender said. “You can tell that with the possession and creativity. Usually whenever we’re chasing a goal at Old Trafford, especially at the Stretford End, we put teams under an enormous amount of pressure but with the lack of confidence and creativity we didn’t produce that. It is hard to put your finger on it. If you look back at the game, we lacked a bit of sharpness in our passing. We were sloppy in possession, which allowed Newcastle to get control.”

Moyes’s challenge now is to somehow avert a season of hell for United.

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