On a Premier League Wednesday with nine games played simultaneously, spectacular goals and the top five teams each victorious, it was another home loss for Manchester United taking the headlines.
Whenever United loses, it's crisis. When other top teams slip up, it's the quirky nature of the Premier League. The predictable reaction speaks to the sky-high expectations for a team proven perennial contender and 13 times Premier League champion. While it's premature to suggest United have abdicated their throne, retaining their title this term has become improbable. Setting the bar lower to Champions League qualification even seems an uphill climb for a team reflecting United only in colours and crest. The mighty have fallen. But how far?
After Wednesday's 1-0 loss to Everton, Manchester United sits 9th: United's lowest ever position after 14 games. The home form is most disconcerting. David Moyes' side has already been shut out twice at Old Trafford this campaign. Their eight home goals for is equal to the likes of West Ham, who have no true striker and one less than last place Sunderland. In comparison, Manchester City has scored 29 at home in the same number of games. That's a Grand Canyon sized difference between supposed rivals on the field. The gap, incredible considering United finished 11 points ahead of City a season ago.
Wednesday's loss is merely salt in the wound. The Everton away support mocked Moyes throughout. United support most likely felt like doing the same, if it were not the previous instructions by his predecessor, "your job now is to stand by our new manager."
Wariness persists about the new man. While the players and staff all say the right things, belief amongst even the most ardent supporter wavers. Patience is preached. That narrative is difficult to swallow for supporters who have grown accustomed to winning trophies at a club with the bankroll to support ambition.
Perhaps Sir Alex saw this coming. Perhaps he had got everything he could out of this group of players. Perhaps he knew the team needed an overhaul. And perhaps that was a little bit too much for a 71-year-old manager with nothing to prove to start over and rebuild. And perhaps banking on ownership to actually use the clubs financial might to address the issues in the side was something Ferguson could no longer stomach.
This argument is less about the man in charge, rather than the team on the field. The goals United would score a year ago are now finding the woodwork. The challenges are sloppy. The shape leaves much to desire. It's striking the team couldn't rise up to the challenge of Everton; a fixture that was always going to be circled on the calendar, no matter where Everton and Manchester United sat in the table. The fact Moyes' former team sat above his current gave added urgency. The Reds didn't respond.
Yes, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck hit post and crossbar respectively. But the chances for Everton were as good, or better than what United could muster. The irony, plain to see, with a United transfer target's injury replacement Bryan Oviedo scoring the match winner. The Everton midfield, which was plucked of Marouane Fellaini at the transfer window, was dominant throughout, with Fellaini's replacements James McCarthy and Gareth Barry keeping the shape United only wished they could have. And Fellaini, fortunate to have stayed on the field after an ugly challenge, and looking a shell of the influential player he was while wearing blue.
"We never felt inferior," remarked a jubilant Everton manager, Roberto Martinez. A Martinez managed team had never scored a goal at Old Trafford, let alone win. His Everton team in one try did what Moyes' Everton couldn't accomplish in over a decade – win at Old Trafford.
It was a measured, calculated and composed approach by the visitors. Time after time, they exposed the weakness in United's midfield. United can still maintain possession of the ball in the middle of the park. But the east-west ball movement lack cutting edge and fluidity. The end result is a stale, predictable product.
Most noticeably, United's inability to put high pressure on the ball, and subsequent lack of numbers in attack on the counter left United at the mercy of a superior Everton midfield. Vintage United teams over the last two decades were deadly at forcing mistakes through putting pressure on the ball and forcing teams out of their element. It was always near textbook counter-attacking football. That was the Manchester United way. When in possession, Sir Alex Ferguson's United would attack in waves. It would be relentless and it would break you down.
This new United sits back. And when on the ball, there are very few options in support. Everton were vastly superior at both pressing the ball and attacking in numbers, just as West Brom were in a shock away victory at the Theatre of Dreams earlier this season. Fluid movement on and off the ball and purposeful possession broke down United. These were no fluky, lucky away victories. They were well earned.
We should fall short of calling United a bad team. They are still a good team with a collection of players able to compete. But they have simply fallen back to the pack. Hanging in and grinding out points is where the team is. That's not a bad thing. It's just not typical United. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have match changing, game winner abilities. Outside f the two, the squad falls short on top talent. So system, discipline, and effort need be relied upon.
No matter what happens in January, Moyes number one job is to get his midfield right. He would likely trade his entire midfield roster for the likes of one of Eden Hazard, Yaya Toure, or Mesut Ozil – all top players for title contending teams. Likewise for Juan Mata, Oscar Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla – you get the picture. In the midfield, Manchester United is playing from a deficit.
The discourse coming from Old Trafford has to change. It cannot be about moral victories. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward saying United will remain strong financially without winning trophies sends the wrong message. The expectation is winning, not profit. The league is becoming clearer: Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea are clear title threats. Liverpool, Everton, and Spurs are in the second tier. Is United better than the aforementioned three? Certainly not based upon form.
This is the challenge for United and their new manager. These may be early days, but it's gut-check time. A suspended Wayne Rooney Saturday doesn't make matters any easier. The team has responded before. Will they respond this time around, for this manager?
- Luis Suarez is on a run for the ages, scoring 13 goals in nine games this season. The bite seen around the world and the summer of discontent seems to be a distant memory. But this is Suarez we're talking about. Dependability is not his middle name. One has to wonder what is his value now? Liverpool famously rejected Arsenal's audacious bid of just over £40 million. What is Barcelona or Real Madrid offer £80 million? Can Liverpool afford to lose him, no matter the price? Qualifying for Champions League is massive for the short-term future of the club. And could very well determine if Suarez continues on at Anfield.
- After just 90 seconds Wednesday, Niklas Bendtner scored his first Arsenal goal in 1,005 days. In very Bendtner like fashion, he later missed an absolute sitter. Can Arsene Wenger afford not going into January's transfer window to buy another striker? Or can Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski be decent enough options, providing cover for Olivier Giroud? The decision could be the difference between winning the league.
- Andre Villas-Boas outburst at the press doesn't bode well for the Spurs manager. The Portuguese manager has bigger fish to fry than petty public spats with those who cover the team. Finding requisite width and appropriate attacking formation tops his to-do list. The lack of influence through the wing positions despite worlds of talent is troubling. Two late goals at Craven Cottage spared his blushes. Maintaining focus is paramount. AVB has the players. Time to bring it all together.
- Southampton's dream run has been derailed for the time being. A difficult stretch has seen the team lose their top goalkeeper and concede eight times in their last three after giving up just five in their previous 11. It doesn't get any easier, with games against top teams Manchester City, Newcastle and Spurs in their next three
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