Friday 20 April 2018

Mark Ogden: Unwitting Moyes handing his players an excuse

Talk of lowering expectations at Old Trafford has seen post-Fergie malaise set in quickly

Manchester United midfielder Anderson shoots over the bar under pressure from a clutch of West Brom defenders
Manchester United midfielder Anderson shoots over the bar under pressure from a clutch of West Brom defenders

Mark Ogden

It was a damning assessment of his team's failings, but perhaps there really was no hiding place for David Moyes and his Manchester United players after such an insipid home defeat against West Bromwich Albion.

Manchester Utd 1 West Brom 2

"It was the whole thing," Moyes said. "We were lacklustre in nearly all the areas, so we've got to try and work on it and improve.

"We are just not playing that well. We should be scoring more from open play and we should be defending better. There were lots of things that disappointed me."

Despite a third defeat in six league games, which ensured United's worst start to a season in 24 years, they are holding off from the blame game at Old Trafford judging by the applause for Moyes at full-time.

Bewilderment, rather than anger, appears to be the pervading mood, but Moyes seems to be the only one prepared to discuss the elephant in the room, that this United team are vulnerable and, as West Brom showed, increasingly incapable of coping with opponents prepared to expose their weaknesses.

Yet Moyes' honesty may ultimately prove to be as damaging to United's hopes of success as the problems he has inherited from Alex Ferguson.

The narrative of the season so far from Moyes has been one of lowering expectations. The squad, he insists, is not strong enough in key areas and the Scot even suggested in the wake of the 4-1 defeat at Manchester City last week, which he described as "embarrassing", that he required two new players to go straight into his starting 11.

Moyes is undoubtedly correct in his assessment: United do lack quality, particularly in midfield, but there is a danger that he is giving his players an excuse for failure by repeatedly highlighting their frailties.

Ferguson, in contrast, would never talk his team down. He would often exaggerate the potential of his players simply to instill the belief that they could achieve great things. The mind games started at home, in the United dressing room, and Ferguson's psychology delivered the results, but the message from Moyes is one of fear and concern and he may need to find a way of saying something he does not believe in order to put his team back on track.

The current United squad was good enough to win last season's title by 11 points, so the drop in form and performances has been alarming and Moyes accepts he must take his share of the blame for that. "The players set really high standards, they are all top lads, but when you're the manager, you take it (blame)," Moyes said.

"That's what happens and you know what the consequences are because if the team loses it's always the manager. I'm taking over a new team and there will be some setbacks along the way, but there are other clubs having setbacks as well, not just us. We said at the start it could be a topsy-turvy season and it may well prove to be that."

So where do United go from here? The Champions League trip to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday precedes a visit to Sunderland on Saturday and Moyes can ill afford another defeat from those fixtures. Having rested Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Robin van Persie in this game, he will at least be able to restore those key figures to his team, but Marouane Fellaini has done little to improve United since his £27.5m arrival from Everton, and Rio Ferdinand, Anderson and Javier Hernandez were so far off the pace against Albion that all three will be lucky to start in Ukraine or on Wearside.

And then there is Moyes' strange handling of Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese midfielder who stood out in the first half on Saturday but was replaced for "tactical reasons" at half-time.

Kagawa's removal took away a threat to Steve Clarke's team and the visitors took advantage by opening the scoring when Morgan Amalfitano embarrassed Ferdinand and Alex Buttner by scoring from distance on 54 minutes.

Wayne Rooney's equaliser from a free-kick three minutes later would ordinarily have preceded a United onslaught, but it was West Brom who chased victory and were rewarded when Saido Berahino scored on 67 minutes.

"I didn't speak about United before the game," Clarke said. "I just spoke to my players about how we would come here and be positive and try to win the game. I want to try to change the mindset of the team. If you have good forward talent, added to a strong defensive unit, a bit more flair and creativity going forward will hopefully mean more afternoons like this."

United, clearly, will aim to experience fewer afternoons like this, but the message from the dressing-room is a determined one.

"No, I don't think it is a crisis," full-back Buttner said. "We have lost games, but we have to focus and fight in every game to win it.

"If we lose we are not happy, but we have to fight to win every game and that's not been happening. Our season starts now and we can win many games." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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