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A cross-examination of Manchester United’s tactical approach

The modern football observer has access to a wealth of statistical data, on which to analyse the performance of both players and teams. Thanks to the incredible accessibility of such figures, nearly everyone with an affliction for the beautiful game – even those who didn’t watch the match – will know that Manchester United succeeded with just 18 of their whopping 82 attempted crosses in drawing 2-2 at home to Fulham on Sunday. With “all United do is cross it” becoming the new “Arsenal always try and walk it in”, David Moyes has two options; stick with his current approach and improve his side’s efficiency in carrying it out or change his tack.

The struggling Scot’s loyalty to crossing from wide areas has been maligned for most of the season, and the criticism has greatly intensified following Sunday’s draw with Fulham. However, such a tactic can be very effective, but if Moyes wishes to persevere with it he must improve literally every aspect of its execution by his new charges.

First of all, Moyes must take steps to improve the quality of the delivery from wide areas. One of the main criticisms of United following Sunday’s match was that they set over so many aerial balls (15 of which were cleared by the head of 6ft 7in Dan Burn) but setting that aside momentarily, the Old Trafford side simply need to ensure more crosses land in dangerous areas. A failure to produce consistently dangerous deliveries – often the same match, nearly always from match to match – has undermined Moyes’ approach all season long.

On matchdays, Moyes looks desperate to change his side’s fortunes; apoplectic gesticulations have become almost commonplace in the United dug-out. However, if his current approach is to succeed, his real work must be done on the training ground. The Scot oversaw the development of a successful crossing-based strategy at Everton, where the most consistent delivery came from the left-boot of Leighton Baines. The fact that Moyes’ new ranks don’t currently contain a provider anywhere near as cultured as the Liverpudlian suggests the introduction of regular crossing practice should be his first step if United are to perfect their crossing-based game, as Everton did.

It seems absurd to suggest such a simple remedy, and obviously there is no way to prove that United don’t work on crossing every single day. However, their delivery from the flanks has yet to improve, and Moyes seems to have taken the view that once his strongest players return to the side, United’s fortunes will transform. It has been said that crossing is a lottery for which David Moyes is wrong to buy a ticket, but a consistent failure to put the ball into dangerous areas – within the width of the goal-posts – means that too often United don’t even get to the shops.

Returning to the issue of 21-year-old Burn’s success on Sunday, which lead him to tell the BBC he “hadn’t headed that many balls since the Conference”, United must change the positions from which they cross the ball. While Messrs van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez are by no means poor in the air, Old Trafford does not host a striker of truly frightening aerial prowess. Therefore, to maximise the capabilities of his front-men, Moyes must find a way to get in behind opposition defences; getting his wingers and full-backs to the by-line on a more regular basis, to cut the ball back low into the box.

Returning the lottery analogy, the odds are stacked in defenders such as Burn’s favour when competing for a floated aerial ball, but United’s dynamic strikers would fancy their chances of outmaneuvering him to slot home a fizzed low cross around the penalty spot.

However, United’s failure to consistently get their wide players into such positions has numerous roots. The Red Devils are ponderous during the transition between defence and attack, during which they could exploit the ever-increasing space modern full-backs leave behind when they push on. The speed of United’s build-up play is laboured, and visiting sides now have more time than ever to get into shape and close up the gaps through which a killer through ball could be threaded.

However, it’s debatable whether (with the exception of Michael Carrick) United possess a player capable of playing such a pass. In such a case, the wide players themselves would have to beat their man and make the space for themselves, but the predictable Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have shown precious little inspiration this season. All these failings have led to the skepticism regarding Moyes’ clear belief that United’s most effective attacking approach should be built on wide-play.

Despite all the current criticism, a more dynamic midfield, coupled with the recruitment of reliable wingers who are stronger in 1v1 situations could see Moyes’ crossing-based strategy supply some of the league’s sharpest strikers with the necessary ammunition to fire United back up the league. However, such major surgery is obviously only possible in the summer, and the Scot has already spent £37million on Juan Mata, who, as United legend Gary Neville immediately identified, isn’t well suited to the current approach. Therefore, as many observers are suggesting, it might be best for Moyes to abandon this strategy, and explore other options.

Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, it was suggested by many (including myself) that Juan Mata would line-up alongside in-form Adnan Januzaj and the returning Wayne Rooney, with the trio interchanging at will and creating chances for Robin van Persie. If you were to place this line up on a diagram, the Spaniard’s name would almost certainly be on a flank, but the intention would be to give him freedom to roam inside, with Rafael or Patrice Evra charged with providing the side’s width.

The former Chelsea man is most effective when roaming free, able to pick up the ball and run at the heart of defences, but has surprisingly found himself isolated in a wide area for much of his early United career, his majestic left-foot predominantly being used to supply high crosses. Giving Mata much more license to move inside, as well as a recall for the bafflingly ousted Adnan Januzaj, would see United overwhelm opponents in central areas.

Given this foundation, the Reds’ full-backs could marauder forward into acres of space, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck or Chicharito would find themselves able to capitalise on more through-balls, while whoever is deployed at centre-back would have more passing options when they look to start attacks.

Granting total attacking freedom to the “three number tens”, would necessitate United’s stagnant central midfielders to occupy the deeper positions they appear more comfortable in; especially if both full-backs bomb forward. While the need for a dynamic midfielder, who can link the defence and attack is still pressing, simplifying the attacking roles of the central pairing would certainly be beneficial. Merely being charged with supplying Mata, Januzaj and Rooney short passes would ease the burden on the men who are currently operating in the area of the pitch receiving the most scrutiny, as well as allowing them to provide better protection for a currently vulnerable defence.

Such an approach would also suit Shinji Kagawa and even Welbeck if he were to be deployed in a deeper role, given the pair’s clever movement and link-up play, meaning that the new approach need not be defined by the presence of the aforementioned creative trio on the pitch. The change would represent a major diversion from the traditional United “philosophy” outlined by “G-Nev” on a number of occasions, but would return an air of unpredictability to the Red Devils’ attacking unit, and rectify some of their current issues.

Whichever of his options he selects, David Moyes must act quickly if he is to realise the faint hopes he still has of salvaging a degree of success from his debut season in the Old Trafford dug-out. While his employers have made all the right noises with regards his job security, the Scot must surely show signs of how he intends to rebuild the Manchester United empire between now and May, if he is to be granted the necessary time to do so. And, despite the barrage of criticism he has faced following Sunday’s emergence of that damning 18 out of 82 statistic, in all likelyhood, he will rely on a strategy based on wing-play to achieve this aim. Dynasties can be built on the flanks – think David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, 1999 and all that – but David Moyes must bring improve the quality and change the angle of United’s deliveries if his is to be another.

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