x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

David Moyes’ tactics for Manchester United and Juan Mata wide of mark

Manchester United need to rethink attacking from flanks and focus on getting Juan Mata in more damaging areas against Arsenal.

Spanish playmaker Juan Mata has been deployed on the right of midfield since his move to Manchester United last month. Jon Super / AP Photo
Spanish playmaker Juan Mata has been deployed on the right of midfield since his move to Manchester United last month. Jon Super / AP Photo

In Machiavellian theory, the ends justify the means. In Moyesian management, the ends – the results – have long been criticised. Now the means are almost as contentious.

It is not just the reality that Manchester United are failing to win. It is the way that they are failing to win that has attracted attention. Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Fulham was a surreal occasion that nevertheless contained an element of repetition.

In their quest for a goal, David Moyes’s United kept on crossing. By the time the final whistle blew, they had delivered a record 81 crosses. None directly led to a goal.

It did prompt Rene Meulensteen, long a trusted lieutenant of Sir Alex Ferguson and now Fulham’s coach, to use the word “straightforward” to describe United’s approach and to say that it was comparatively “easy” to defend against. Coming from the Premier League’s bottom club, they were damning words.

Moyes, a manager with ever more to prove, now needs to convince his doubters that his brand of football is not too rigid and predictable. United have to offer evidence they can fashion chances without looking to the flanks.

They face apposite opposition. Their counterparts are a contrast. Arsenal eschew out-and-out wingers and leave the touchline unmanned to converge in the centre. They have long aimed to unlock defences by threading passes through even the most crowded penalty areas.

They have a surfeit of players who prosper in such areas – Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, the injured Aaron Ramsey – whereas United’s natural inclination is to use the wide men.

Moyes passed up the opportunity to sign Ozil in the summer. He has struggled to accommodate Shinji Kagawa in his preferred position in the middle. Now he has the issue of a third No 10 when Juan Mata, a player Wenger admires, became United’s record signing.

Were he afforded the freedom to be the central creator, it ought to ease United’s dependence on crossing. Instead, Mata is accommodated on the right.

It is an uneasy compromise and while Mata’s three games have brought as many assists, the figures are a little deceptive. The Spaniard and the strugglers are not on the same wavelength. Moyes remains on the defensive.

He said: “Some people might say that one of the things that Manchester United do is play with width and cross the ball. That’s in the genes.”

And so it is. United have a tradition of wingers, dating to Billy Meredith, through George Best to Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, a midfielder, but one whose pinpoint deliveries from the flanks proved an invaluable asset.

The difference, however, is that the great United teams did not just cross. They could not be branded one-dimensional. Not as long as they had the class of Paul Scholes, for instance, or when Eric Cantona could orchestrate attacks with imperious authority.

It is a moot point if Moyes, by asking Wayne Rooney to play as a striker, is preventing him from creating in slightly deeper positions.

With Moyes under the microscope, it is a question if the manager has ordered United to focus more on crosses. The underlying problem predates his arrival. With Mata on the right, United lack a playmaker who, unlike the holding midfielder Michael Carrick, operates in the final third. It was a deficiency Moyes recognised, as the failed bids for Cesc Fabregas show; an Arsenal star could have shown United the way.

As it is, Moyes may rue the one who got away as well as the one he left behind. Without having the same gifts as the Spaniard, Everton’s Leon Osman scored eight goals for him last season as an attacking central midfielder. Now he is reliant on forwards to score and wide men to cross.

Perhaps, though, it might prove a profitable policy on Wednesday. United beat Arsenal in November when Robin van Persie headed in a Rooney corner. Arsenal conceded twice from set pieces at Anfield on Saturday. And so United may be encouraged to launch another aerial assault.