OLYMPIACOS: The Result Of A 9 Month Decline

Manchester United’s devastating defeat at the hands of an average Olympiacos outfit in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 was not just a new low for David Moyes and his team, but also a 90 minute micro-drama of the season to date.

Team line up

Moyes has shied away from continuity in terms of starting XI all season – suggesting a struggle to ascertain the best starting lineup – and predictably he changed things round for the clash against the Greek champions. Following an all too rare win against Crystal Palace, out went Messrs Mata, Januzaj and Fellaini, and in came ‘Lessrs’ Cleverley, Young and Valencia.

Mata was cup-tied having previously represented Chelsea in the tournament – a detailed missed by a number of disgruntled fans – but the exclusion of Fellaini and Januzaj may represent over-management on David Moyes’ part. Thanks to prior ineptitude, Manchester United aren’t scheduled to play again until the 8 March and thus there was simply no requirement to rest/rotate players.

Midfielder Fellaini, having suffered a Moyes-esque spluttering start to his United career, finally churned out a credible performance at Selhurst Park at the weekend. His reward… he was unceremoniously removed from his starting berth for the consistently disappointing Cleverley.

Adnan Januzaj, the candle in the ever descending Old Trafford cloud of despair, was left behind by the manager on the grounds that “[he] chose not to use him”. Baffling! The young Belgium born star has shown confidence, maturity and comfortably surpassed the mediocre standards set by his more experienced colleagues throughout his breakthrough season. Ashley Young on the other hand, Januzaj’s replacement, seems able to produce an almost infinite number of disappointing displays in a red jersey without jeopardising future first team involvement. Unsurprisingly the England wide-man was completely ineffectual again against Olympiacos.

Chris Smalling, purchased as a centre-back – on the grounds that he is a centre back – has been frequently preferred by Moyes to the precocious Rafael at right back; and was so again on Tuesday. Though it cannot be ignored that Rafael has struggled under Moyes’ guidance, the modern full-back must be mobile, comfortable in possession and able to contribute offensively – all areas of strength for the Brazilian. In contrast, Smalling can header a ball.

Ferdinand and Vidic were the preferred centre-back partnership in the absence of the injured Jones and Evans. Sadly the pair’s latest outing just continued their rather undignified exit. Both looked rushed, suffered in possession and spent the evening apparently knee high in quicksand (such was their immobility). Neither Ferdinand nor Vidic are likely to remain at the club beyond May, and neither have shown great form or leadership during Moyes’ tenure. Why then do the likes of Jones and Smalling continue to be used out of position?

The top-heavy, kick and rush, Valencia also played once again – see Ashley Young.

The aforementioned changes only served to produce a characteristically disjointed performance from Moyes’ boys in which passing frequently went astray – often from the seemingly lost Smalling. Furthermore, “[teammates] occupy the spaces I want to play in” was the repost from the downtrodden – arguably disinterested – Robin Van Persie.

Tactics

The mind-boggling tactics displayed by Moyes at times have often been a consequence of player changes (forced and voluntary), but the overall philosophy – or lack of it – is becoming increasingly concerning. Take Brendan Rodgers first 6 months in charge of Liverpool as a comparison. Rodgers suffered a rocky start to his tenure – as Moyes has – and understandably received criticism from the press and a portion of the Anfield support. The new man did however come with an instilled tactical philosophy – to play the game the “Spanish” way – and was determined and confident in his approach. The result was early green shoots of hope despite the numerous struggles and a sense the side was evolving.
What is David Moyes’ philosophy? What did he set out to achieve in Athens?

The only answer I can muster in relation to the latter is that United were setting their stall out to avoid defeat. In a Champions League away tie, in one of the reds last meaningful ties of the season, against a team from a footballing backwater! That’s just not good enough.

On the infrequent occasions Manchester United did possess the leather sphere, they cherished it in a manner comparable to a child cradling a freshly baked potato in un-protected hands… carelessly tossing it away at the soonest opportunity. The overall attacking aim seemingly to get the ball forward quickly and muster up a crossing opportunity – a resounding vote of no confidence in the technical ability of a side who waltzed to the title last term.

The string of aimless crosses floating beyond the far post or slicing into an adjacent timezone has been the theme of the season. Cast your mind back to the insufferable 81 crosses against Fulham! Moyes remains steadfast in his [lack of] style and belligerent to the fact an incomplete cross is nothing more than a misplaced pass.

Furthermore, the familiar frailties of United’s defence were also apparent from the whistle. Dominguez dispossessing Smalling on the near touchline before proceeding with a 50 yard dribble that carved through United’s defence and into the box – the diminutive Argentine EVENTUALLY (seemingly light-years later) denied a strike at goal by a last ditch Vidic tackle.

This soft-centre has been on show since Moyes’ inception but nothing appears to have been done to rectify it. If Manchester United are going to be so impotent going forward they must build a platform defensively.

Attitude/Morale

A football player is a selfish creature and must believe their manager can guide them to their personal goals. From the moment that Moyes was appointed to the Old Trafford helm the talk was about transition, difficulties and long-term projects. Even Sir Alex Ferguson hinted at potential pitfalls during his end of season address. “I would like to remind you this club stood by me in bad times,” he said. “Your job now is to stand by the new manager.”
This all set a tone at Old Trafford.

It’s fine for a youngster such as Januzaj to think 2/3/4 years hence, but what about those in the winter of their career? They don’t have the time to ‘donate’ to a project. It’s now or never. Is it any wonder then that the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Van Persie appear to have switched off mentally? Can it really be considered a shock that their respective frustrations have bubbled into public comment and even a premature decision to depart?

There’s an air of apathy and self-pity engulfing the formerly defiant Manchester United players. The team started the match in Athens in un-confident mood – as they ofter have under Moyes’ tutelage – and were hustled and bullied off the ball by the apparently hungrier Greeks. Carrick’s bland and passionless post match interview summed up the state of affairs. Roy Keane, the former captain turned ITV pundit, proceeded to lambast the performance of his former club and also the comments offered by Carrick. The passionate straight-talking Irishman the perfect antidote to the current regime.

Misfortune

Dominguez’s crafty deflection came with more jam on it than one of Anderson’s pre-match cakes, and the strike from Joel Campbell was one in a thousand – it was all eerily similar to the way the reds went down to Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. Over the course of the season add in bizarre refereeing decisions, a string of injuries and the much maligned Premier League fixture list (that saw Manchester United drawn to play every team in the league home and away), and you can build a very strong case for David Moyes’ tenure suffering a lack of fortune. Sir Alex Ferguson would be one of the first to tell you the importance of this element.

People do say things even out over the course of a season though. Perhaps Moyes can expect the police to discover 6000 alloy wheels in the Liverpool dressing room or for Ronaldo to decide he really misses the slate grey skies, and tracksuit laden women, of Manchester.

The truth is though that factors such as luck have been accentuated by the poor performances. Had Manchester United shown up against Olympiacos – or Stoke – they could have buried the game long before misfortune stole it away. This has been the problem all season. Every game they have won, and every game they have lost, has been a tight affair (bar a handful of games). If the reds can’t outplay their opponents they are invariably going to be more susceptible to game changing moments.

Conclusion

Olympiacos weren’t afraid of their opponents and neither are any of Manchester United’s domestic challengers.

The aura has gone and the rot seems to be its ready replacement.

Severe doubts now exist amongst even the most hardened Moyes backers that the Scot possesses the necessary skills to turn the club’s Lizzy Yarnold paced slide around. If this feeling is echoed amongst the playing staff, and rumours abound that it does, then the Sword of Democles surely hangs over Moyes and his team.

At present the balance of the side is out of kilter, the energy levels sunken and the approach of the coaching staff intrinsically flawed.

In addition, Moyes’ tenure can no longer be seen as in its infancy. The majority of Manchester United fans have been commendably patient to date (presumably as much to ‘get one over’ their Chelsea, City counterparts as to support Moyes), accepting that transition can have short-term effects on results… but they rightly expect evolution. This, so far, has resembled destruction.

Tuesday’s wayward passing, idiosyncratic team selection policy and creative void were a snapshot of the last 9 months. More tellingly, the game portrayed the lack of progress being made under the stewardship of David Moyes.

Written by Bobby Cowsill – follow him on Twitter!

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