The Manchester United-Liverpool game was the last chance for David Moyes to make a case for the top 4 chase. Given the build-up and positive results in the league recently, United had a grain of optimism.
But today, Brendan Rodgers didn’t pull his punches and dared United to try and stop his team rather than the other way around. This had the makings of being an open game, and unfortunately United were too open.
While the diamond formation was a bit new since Liverpool have mainly used a 4-3-3 with one of Suarez or Sturridge drifting wide, the overall playing style was the same except Sterling was used centrally and Allen got wide left to drag Fellaini out of position. At this point United were effectively being pulled apart on Liverpool’s counters and essentially beat themselves with a hat-trick of penalties, a sending off, and Rafael basically asking Mark Clattenberg: “Send me off IRL”
Of course, the result leaves us with two options: 1. the highly unlikely scenario that we win the Champions League to qualify next season. 2. Cut our losses and look to the summer where we can ship out the deadwood and bring in genuine quality replacements.
The second one might make me more optimistic if the manager knows where he wants to take the team going forward. We can all point to the underperforming players on this team, and no doubt the “Sack Moyes” brigade will be in full voice tomorrow morning due to a perceived ineptitude. But what was even more concerning was that David Moyes did not really know how to respond and he has yet to show evidence that he has the bottle to evolve with the times. This was very evident as United were running like headless chickens trying to get back in the game. And for the first time all season, I am starting to question whether Moyes has what it takes to keep United competing at a high level for the long-term.
David Moyes made a name for himself at Everton by building a team that was very tough to beat, hard-working, and capable of staging a few impressive one-off wins. Last season Everton lost 7 games, the third fewest in the league. But being a tough team and being hard working aren’t identities. Manchester United isn’t Manchester United because they work hard and don’t lose. Sir Alex Ferguson built this team by taking a high risk-high reward approach. He would rather lose a game 2-0 than 1-0 if it meant his team could take a point, and that kind of attitude made Manchester United such a feared team. The sheer number of late-game heroics by those sides of the past meant that there was more to it than just being lucky. The ethos of ” The more you attack, the luckier you get” has been entrenched in Manchester United’s culture for so long that it seemed like second nature. Something we’d take for granted.
Today showed the difference between a manager who has a plan and one who’s frantically trying to figure out what works. Rodgers could have kept the same team as usual, but instead he chose to experiment in such a big game and it paid off handsomely. In fact, much like Fergie has done previously against Liverpool, Rodgers has altered his personnel and tactics for each of the three meetings, and he’s won twice. He knows what he’s about and what to expect from his players. Moyes, after United conceded two penalties, went with low-risk, like-for-like substitutions while 2-0 down.
At United, Moyes no longer has clearly defined constraints like he did at Everton (both financial and ability wise) and is looking overwhelmed as he’s trying to “get things right”. He’s saying all the right things and is taking much of the blame, but he doesn’t seem to know what his own philosophy is and his managerial profile is starting to look increasingly divergent from Manchester United’s historic image.
I’m not saying that being a reactive one-off type manager can’t be a successful approach. Jose Mourinho is probably the most famous example of preparing his teams that way, but he also motivates his players and makes them feel as though they are capable of doing anything he needs. Mourinho was unafraid to make the bold decision of dropping Juan Mata and now has Chelsea playing his way with a mix of creativity and guile. Moyes might have a great work-ethic and wants to get his players to be fit and determined, but for what? What are they trying to work towards? Does Moyes know what he wants to achieve no matter the cost? Why is he worth playing for?
These are all fundamental questions David Moyes needs to ask himself, and his answers do not appear to suit Manchester United’s long-term needs. He doesn’t need to do what Mourinho or Ferguson would do, in terms of rattling opponents or creating a larger-than-life persona, but he has to show some signs that he fits with United’s image. Moyes is one of the Premier League’s diplomatic nice guys, but if he’s unable to answer these questions to fit United’s long-term identity, it might be worth looking for the next man. If a manager like Louis van Gaal is available, he would likely be more successful for a short spell since he has tried and tested methods that he can rely on. It’s not about Moyes winning nothing in comparison to the others, it’s about his approach to take the next steps fearlessly which he doesn’t seem willing to do.