By Graham Ruthven
There's a lot of finger pointing going on at Manchester United. The club's fans might blame David Moyes for the dismal start made to the season. In turn Moyes might blame his predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson for leaving him an aging and substandard group of players to work with. And Ferguson could put that down to the tightening grip of the Glazers on the club's transfer activity, gradually diluting the team's quality over a number of years - Glazernomics, they call it.
But let's stop looking for someone to incriminate. Let's look at ways Moyes can recover the situation and his Manchester United career.
The season thus far has undoubtedly been a disaster for both Moyes and United. The club sits slumped in the Premier League seventh spot and has now been eliminated from the FA Cup, one of their only realistic prospects of silverware this year.
The Scot was appointed on the premise of stability, that his 11-year record with Everton was enough to suggest he'd bring similar footing to United. But nothing unsettles a club more than losing games. His six-year contract suggests Moyes will be given time to fix the mess he, or someone else, created. To do that, however, he needs a master plan.
At the forefront of this plan should be a change in the way he interacts with his players and the club's supporters through the media. For someone with over a decade of Premier League experience, Moyes has seemed naïve in his new position.
For instance, his admission that he gambled on the fitness of Robin Van Persie, United's best and most influential player, raised eyebrows and concerns. Having missed several weeks of action due to an existing injury, Moyes played the striker for a full 90 minutes in December's defeat to Newcastle, confessing that his decision to keep him on was governed by the reaction he feared from the fans. "Some people would say 'What are you doing? You are 1-0 down and you're taking off your top goalscorer,'' he said after the game. Should the manager of a club like Man Utd base their decisions on public perception?
Of course there is no solid correlation between media engagement and results on the field, but this dialogue sets the tone of the team and is the only insight most have into Moyes' management of the club. Whether you see it as an indictment of modern soccer or not, it matters.
As has so often been the case this season, Moyes protected his players following the defeat to Swansea on Sunday. "We don't come away thinking we deserved to lose," he insisted. "But we did."
While this may be a wise approach after a single defeat or an uncharacteristically poor performance, Moyes' words are starting to sound hollow. The time for protection has passed. Moyes needs to let United fans know he feels let down by the players, because that's certainly how the supporters feel; he needs to establish some sort of link with the fans, conveying the message that he's as upset as they are.
The turn of the year presents fresh opportunity, namely the chance to buy new players. January is a notoriously difficult month in which to conduct transfer dealings. The best teams don't want to sell their best players midway through the season, meaning cut-price mediocrity and temporary solutions are the only options.
Moyes missed the chance to reinforce from a position of strength during the summer, losing the momentum that heading into a new season as league champions brings. It will take shrewd scouting and negotiating to recover that, but he must start by replicating one of his biggest assets at Everton.
Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines and Mikel Arteta, among others, were unearthed by Moyes' expansive scouting system at Everton, which focused on markets relatively untapped by the European elite. Meanwhile, by targeting players like Cesc Fabregas, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, as well as Fellaini and Baines (two players Moyes had at Everton), United displayed a distinct lack of imagination in the last transfer window. Moyes must impose himself on the club's transfer approach.
But perhaps even more important than strengthening is the need for Moyes to be proactive by preempting a hemorrhaging of existing talent from Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney's flirtation with Chelsea was well documented over the summer, and with his contract with Man Utd running down the situation is far from concluded. Rooney is the only player who has responded to Moyes this season, and the need to tie him to a new contract is obvious. It will provide a statement on where Man Utd is headed as a club.
Unfortunately for United, there are some mistakes Moyes cannot undo. His decision to rid the club of its coaching staff on arrival at Old Trafford was reckless and misguided, betraying the very reason for his hiring -- stability.
The secret of Ferguson's 27-year premiership at United is that his best spells always saw him flanked by a better tactical mind as his number two. Carlos Querioz and Rene Meulensteen were two of the best, and are largely credited with the return of United as English soccer's dominant force in the last decade. The appointment of Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs as coaches at least shows an understanding of self-replenishment and education within the club, but Moyes needs an accomplished and experienced soccer mind by his side.
Ferguson was a master of adaptation. The best soccer managers are the ones who are open to change and are willing to make alterations to their methods in accordance with circumstance.
Moyes' strenuous training practices are attributed as factors in injuries suffered by key figures Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney this season. Indeed, it's something that must be addressed if United are to preserve their best players for the biggest games.
There is precedent for Moyes to follow. Frank De Boer started his tenure as Ajax boss with a regime of 'overtraining.' The theory is players overloaded in training will be fitter, and hence better prepared for the demands of competitive gameplay. It doesn't really work like that, though. De Boer recognized that his players were picking up more injuries, and tailored his approach for the following season. He's now considered one of the brightest young managers in Europe.
Going on the sample of his five months in charge, Moyes has been too timid. He seems uncertain on how to make his mark on this United team, and has instead coasted by on what he was left by Ferguson. But that strategy isn't working.
Wing play is woven into the fabric of Manchester United. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and George Best are all club legends, and nothing embodies Man Utd better than a marauding, skillful and above all exceptional winger.
But Moyes must ignore all this, at least for the moment. United's current crop of wingers simply aren't good enough. Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young collectively make up the Premier League's most wasteful group of wingers (the three have made more failed crosses than any other trio), so why is Moyes persisting with them?
A lack of creativity through the center of the pitch is blatantly apparent, with United looking increasingly predictable. By abandoning the 4-4-2 formation, which places heavy emphasis on the wings, Moyes could hit two critical issues with the same solution, fielding more players in the middle to give his team greater presence. Ferguson, a fierce advocate of wingplay, might not approve -- but Moyes shouldn't care.
It's a long way back to the top from here for Moyes (11 points to be precise), but at least a plan will make that route seem a little more manageable. Even if there's still nobody to blame.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for The New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.