"Yes, it does mean I may have to take a few more blows, definitely... maybe even more than that. Maybe all season I have to take a few blows." – David Moyes, after Manchester United's 4-1 loss to Manchester City.
It was never going to be easy for Moyes to live up to the lofty standard of his predecessor at Manchester United. Transition is complicated. In modern football, patience isn't a quality readily exhibited. The knives are out for Moyes. The carving ensued months ago. The cuts are deeper now. And so are the questions.
Wednesday's Capital One Cup victory over Liverpool creates some breathing room for the gaffer. But let's be honest, Capital One Cup will never be the make-or-break competition in the court of public opinion. It was a mixed-bag team that looked more a United of a previous regime: counter-attacking with purpose, decisive ball movement and a level of passion and fire that has been lacking to a degree. Still, the team under Moyes remains a work in progress. The two new players Moyes deems necessary are not on the horizon. And his continual proclamation about the lack of familiarity with his current players baffles.
The issues plaguing the new Manchester United are not black and white. As Moyes publicly tries to lower expectations for the season, it's a futile exercise. A club like Manchester United is expected to win; nigh it's demanded. It's not in the clubs DNA to except a 'down' period.
It doesn't have to mean trophies, this year at least. SOME patience will be given. But progress must be made. A plan must be enacted. Vision must be displayed.
This entire idea of transition equals struggles is greatly over-stated. This is the same team that finished atop the league a season ago, with the additions of Marouane Fellaini and Wilfried Zaha (who has yet to play). Even Moyes has questioned last year's title, citing a down-year in the Premier League. That debatable assessment fails to credit the remarkable consistency the 2012-13 Manchester United team showed in the most competitive league in the world. I take the comments more about Moyes feeling the pressure of his new job than any malice.
Staunch United loyalists cite the difficulties of transition back to 1986, with it taking Sir Alex considerable time to find his way. It took four years to win a trophy. The comparison however misses the mark. The club Ferguson took over was one stuck in neutral, not the toy worth $3 billion with a balanced squad, featuring developing players and those ready to continue winning trophies. Moyes has been given the keys to the Bentley. Steer accordingly.
It's too early to make assessments with a period although it's clear Moyes has much work to do. These first five games of the season have been a learning curve. I'm not in the 'Moyes Out' camp. I'm not in the group preaching considerable patience either. I'm the rare breed somewhere in the middle of this hotly debated topic.
Here is some of what Moyes needs to do better or different to quell the criticism and make his mark at United.
1) Better squad selection – Proper rotation is essential for a team with veteran bodies requiring regular rest. The usual reliable centre-back pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic were exceptionally poor against Manchester City: lax in marking and failing to command defensive positions. Quite frankly, both players looked exhausted. It was their third match in a week. And both have started every match in the Premier League. It's too much to ask of an aging Rio and his partner Vidic, who was played with care last season coming off a serious knee injury. Jonny Evans, who took a big step forward a season ago hasn't played a game in the league. And Chris Smalling has played right back out of necessity. The two in combination mid-week against a full strength Liverpool were solid, with Evans earning Man of the Match honours. He needs to play. And Moyes has to show trust.
Centre-back isn't the only position Moyes needs to use proper rotation. The wing positions have gone stale. Perhaps the new blood of Adnan Janusaj and Zaha will breathe new life into a predictable attack. United hasn't scored a goal in open play in league action since the opener at Swansea. And what has come of Chicharito. His match-winner against Liverpool gives a taste of his superior movement and goal scoring ability. He needs to have a run in the team, even if that means playing alongside Robin van Persie. United has a big squad. It's problematic if Moyes doesn't have enough faith as of yet to use them. Ferguson empowered his players with important squad rotation. His players remained confident, fresh and hungry. It was an area of strength and key to so much success. Moyes needs to learn from his predecessor, not having the same luxury while at Everton.
2) Moyes being Moyes – Sir Alex often times showed pure and utter defiance when pushed or his team failed to meet standard. Public commentary from Moyes thus far has either been safe (borderline Roy Hodgson-type glossing over sub-par performances) or downright puzzling. That's not who Moyes is. Moyes at Everton was straightforward, honest and calculated in his assessment. It's fair to question whether Moyes is acting as he thinks he should at the prestigious Manchester United, rather than whom he is and how he should carry about his business. Take off the suit if he likes. Put back on the tracksuit. Get your hands dirty. Do as you please. Sir Alex chose David Moyes for the man and the manager he is. No need to change his stripes with the change of his colour.
3) Heed the advice of Ferguson – Sir Alex wants Moyes to go through the process of finding his managerial legs at the club by himself. He doesn't want to be a distraction. Moyes can learn from his mistakes and carve out his own victories. But it would be well worth his while to sit down with Ferguson over a bottle of wine. A good casual, fatherly discussion could go along for Moyes to learn from his elder how to balance business and a hectic schedule, how to get the most out of certain players, and ask what adjustments can be made to the team. It's another pair of eyes, and few are better than Ferguson. To not use the wisdom of Ferguson would be a waste. There is no shame going down this road. It would be a sign of strength in character assessment rather than weakness.
4) Find your formation – About the only thing that has seemed to work is Rooney playing off van Persie in attack. How Moyes best shapes his side is a work in progress. It's assumed Fellaini will play along Carrick in a more defensive midfield, or pivot role. This may not best suit both players. It may work better to move Fellaini more up the field to play off the attack players, where he can have a greater influence on the proceedings. And if he's not getting productive on the wings, Carrick can drop even further and he can deploy the wingbacks higher up the field to join the attack. True width can come from the back, rather than high positions. This way, they can load the midfield, giving players the flexibility to use their creativity ability, rotating and finding space as needed. This would seem to play to the strengths of the likes of Nani and Shinji Kagawa. The 4-4-1-1 he played at Everton may not be best for United.
Seven points through five matches doesn't constitute a crisis. The schedule wasn't kind. But it's no excuse. The next five matches will be the time to hunker down and get rolling. West Brom, Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke City and Fulham provide a plum testing ground. Anything short of full points would be a disappointment. Talk to me again in five matches and we'll see how Moyes' transition is coming along.
- One of the more peculiar decisions last weekend was Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers deciding essentially to play four centre-backs across the backline in a 1-0 home loss to Southampton. Mamadou Sakho, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Kolo Toure took up the positions, leaving Liverpool without a wingback capable of getting up the field to help in attack. Luis Enrique had been standout thus far this season, and Glen Johnson is still nursing an injury. Sometimes it is best to play players who can play a defined role, rather than simply trying to fit the best players into positions out of their comfort zone. It was all too easy for Southampton in the defensive third. Any moment of worry defensively for the Saints was created through individual efforts of Daniel Sturridge or Victor Moses. Without Coutinho through injury (shoulder), there must be a better team attack. Rodgers went another route Wednesday, playing a 3-5-2 with the return of Luis Suarez. It's a good time for experiment for Rodgers. What will work best is to be determined.
- Everton remain the only undefeated team in the Premier League, thanks to the brilliance of Leighton Baines. Two goals from set pieces, with Baines' free kicks going far post and near, serving as the prelude to Romelu Lukaku's dramatic winner as the Toffees downed West Ham, 3-2. The 'transition' has been seamless for Roberto Martinez. There is belief in the squad. And for a change, Everton is already talking up the prospects of adding to the squad in January. There is a lot to like here. And the newfound depth bodes well for the team to continue to grow. They already move the ball around well. Sustainability has always been the question.
- Desperate times for Sunderland as the beleaguered Premier League side parted ways with manager Paolo Di Canio. The club had hastily handed over the reigns to the fiery Italian – 14 news players in the transfer window and more quantity than quality. A 3-0 loss at bottom dwellers West Brom was the final blow. I'm not sure we've seen a manager with the gall to be the last remaining on the pitch after a humiliating defeat as such, in a standoff with the travelling supporters, willing to take it on the chin. It was a bizarre scene at the Hawthorns, to say the least. Whether reports of a player revolt and mass dysfunction were more accurate, it was a necessary move by the club in an attempt to save their season. The status quo could not continue, no matter how much was invested in Di Canio. It's better to clean the slate before it's too late. Consistency in approach, a proper temperament and a degree of level headedness are required to navigate through a difficult Premier League season. The emotion and passion of Di Canio is fine; we can all relate. But no matter the mind for the game, if one cannot keep the players calm and on task, it's a battle lost. Di Canio proved unfit to manage at the top level. Much like his playing days, he left his mark, but not necessarily for the right reason. Potential unfulfilled.
- Chelsea at Spurs is a mouth-watering affair to kick-off Match-day six on Saturday. The battle of Portgeuse tacticians will be one to watch. The history between the two managers has been well documented. It seems the younger Andre Villas-Boas has the better equipped, on form side heading into the match. Spurs, for me, have been the most impressive side of the early season. They have depth at all positions. In particular, the additions of Roberto Soldado and Paulinho have been instant stars. It's strange to say, but Chelsea is seemingly underdogs heading into the weekend. Nothing has come easy, nor has it been pretty for Jose Mourinho; last Saturday's 2-0 win over Fulham was a stale display, lacking cutting edge and fluidity. That doesn't matter for the stubborn Mourinho. If unattractive football brings results, then so be it. As long as his team is coming up with results, his decision to leave David Luiz and Juan Mata out of his plans will be tolerated. If the master plan doesn't pan out, things can sour quickly. The preference of Andre Schurrle for Mata makes little sense. But this is how Mourinho likes it; keep his name in the headlines and other red flags about team play hidden on the back pages.
Underappreciated Players of the Week – Sone Aluko (Hull City), Tom Huddlestone (Hull City), Artur Boruc (Southampton), Morgan Amalfitano (West Brom), Sylvain Distin (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)
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