There are many reasons why Manchester United are struggling this season—injuries, under-performing players and long-term squad issues are just a few of them—but David Moyes’ conservatism is arguably proving to be the most costly.
The Scot is being too cautious.
Sure, when you’re struggling for form and in need of three or four players to strengthen the squad, it’s perhaps normal to revert to safe, tried and tested methods. But this is Manchester United, and the predictable style of football that has led to seven Premier League defeats is not good enough.
Not for a team that cruised to the title last season.
Moyes’ Conservative Tactics Come to the Fore Against Chelsea
United weren’t terrible against Chelsea—defensive lapses aside—but the way in which Moyes lined his players up illustrates the key problem.
He chose the conservative option.
Moyes asked Danny Welbeck to play in front of Michael Carrick and Phil Jones in order to try and prevent Chelsea finding the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian further up the pitch. That’s fine, given that Welbeck performed a similar role so effectively against Real Madrid last season.
But Welbeck is a striker in fine goalscoring form.
Moyes’ decision to drop Welbeck deeper was a negative move. There’s no getting away from that, especially as it forced Adnan Januzaj to play what, at times, seemed like a lone striker role. Januzaj’s best performances this season have come from the left-hand side; in fact, his display in United’s win over Swansea prior to the defeat at Chelsea showed as much.
Moyes’ mindset in asking two of his brightest players to play out of position in recent weeks was a strange one, to say the least. A 4-3-3 would perhaps have served United better in that game, with Carrick, Jones and Darren Fletcher allowing Welbeck, Januzaj and Antonio Valencia to play further forward.
Unfortunately, Moyes went for the conservative option, and it didn’t pay off.
United’s Style of Play Is Far Too Predictable
Beyond the starting XI that Moyes opts for, there is a greater issue at hand: United are far too predictable. Their style of play is repetitive, mechanical and, above all, ineffective.
In the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, the above tweet perfectly illustrates United’s current problems. Yes, when that pair returns to fitness, things will more than likely change, but it’s not like United don’t have adequate options in their stead, is it?
Moyes' proclivity to use wide men, such as Valencia and Ashley Young, restricts the playing time of Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernandez and Wilfried Zaha and is indicative of his conservatism. Chelsea lined up with three players of Kagawa’s ilk—the aforementioned trio of Hazard, Oscar and Willian—and yet Moyes didn’t even give him a chance to show what he can do.
That was a negative move, particularly as Kagawa had just put in one of his finest performances in a United shirt just a week earlier. How can he be expected to gain momentum from the stop-start season he is having?
This is not a slight against Moyes; rather, it’s an assessment of how he tries to win games. Seemingly, he tries to avoid failure first. That winning mentality and cutthroat attitude is missing.
How Can Moyes be Bolder in His Approach?
First and foremost, Moyes has to allow his players to play in their favoured positions. Januzaj, for now, should play on the left, and Kagawa should play in the No. 10 role.
Beyond that, though, a change of formation is required. The current 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 is not effective. A 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, which Moyes has used on a number of occasions this season, has proven to work rather well...which brings us nicely to the next point.
He can play in that latter formation. If Moyes is indeed weighing up a bid for the Spaniard, per Jason Burt of The Telegraph, he can’t stick with his current system. Otherwise, Mata will be isolated on the left-hand side.
As United legend Gary Neville suggests (per Sky Sports), Moyes’ interest in Mata could signal a change of mindset.
Maybe they have to change the philosophy and maybe that's what David Moyes is thinking. Maybe he wants to play narrow wide players and maybe a three in midfield. They would have to change to accommodate Juan Mata in the way they normally play.
Neville is spot-on in his assessment.
If Moyes is prepared to line up in a more attacking, progressive manner, then Mata would be a great signing. If Moyes wants to stick with the 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1, however, then it’s probably not the right signing.
Either way, it’s the perfect demonstration of the challenge Moyes faces.
Conservative football is the main reason United have struggled this season, and a change of mindset—along with the addition of one or two players—could transform United’s season. That may come across as a gross oversimplification, but it’s symbolic of Moyes’ and United’s current woes.
If United are to finish in the top four, then Moyes has to adopt a significantly different approach in the second half of the season. That much is certain.