Manchester United are improving, and crossing is not the problem

Michael Regan

Manchester United have gone through some awful form recently, but things are not as bad as they may seem on the surface. The problems are clearly fixable.

PR is not one of the strengths David Moyes has brought with him to Manchester United, although the criticism of his remarks after the Fulham draw seemed odd. Did people expect him to say "I'm delighted to get the win and the three points?" The simple fact is that United did, by and large, play well. And of course, they did fail to win the game. Their form since the turn of the new year has been utterly ruinous despite the addition of Juan Mata, but in reality, there are signs that things are improving in some ways.

Compare and contrast the poor results against Stoke City and Fulham to those against West Brom and Newcastle. In the former two, United dominated, chances weren't taken, and they fell to sucker-punches on the counter-attack. In the latter, they were just awful all-round and thoroughly earned their defeats.

Now, pretty passing and triangles of course do not mean that a team 'deserves' to win a game. Stout defending and reliable finishing are as much a part of football as controlling a match, and barring some incompetent refereeing, no loser 'deserves' to have won the game. But Fulham more than rode their luck, and it was utterly amazing that United failed to win the game. The same cannot be said of some of their earlier defeats, where they were fairly comprehensively outplayed from start to finish.

So, what was different? The Robin van Persie-Wayne Rooney-Juan Mata-Adnan Januzaj quartet of doom should be enough to wallop most teams into submission, but unfortunately for Moyes and United, it is not quite that simple. The last time United had a glorious frontline was in 2008-2009, and that team was not a prolific one. Their strength was in always finding a way to score against any opponent rather than putting five or six past teams every week.

We can see the opposite work in City's form in the first half of the season - options and rotation allowed them to crush teams, but without Sergio Aguero, they did not have anyone of the requisite quality to unlock Chelsea's defence. Jesus Navas is a class below Juan Mata. Ditto Alvaro Negredo and Robin van Persie. But Manchester City have a back six that can do them justice, and allow them to perform at their best.

Against the likes of Newcastle and West Brom, this was a problem. Against Fulham, who defended deep and then got scared into being entirely camped in their own area, it shouldn't have been. Yet United conceded two chances and both cost them goals - Michael Carrick may have done a fine job at sitting in the centre-circle and calmly passing back any hacked-away clearances, even finding time to go forward and score a goal, yet his cowardliness in midfield after being sold slightly short by Vidic was partly to blame for Darren Bent's late winner.

United's midfield malaise has spread to the defence. If a team goes out and has a go, they are liable to overrun the likes of Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley. If a team sits back and hopes for the best, they can make a reasonable bet on getting a chance or two out of the meekness of that same midfield, but also the iffy form of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand (and by the way David, Antonio Valencia if he's playing at right-back.) In short, they have no option other than to outscore teams.

The second problem with this front four in the current set-up is that they are all very similar players. Rooney has lost much of his pace and tenacity, and while Adnan Januzaj is nimble and can scrap when he needs to, ultimately all four players are purely technical ones, there for their ability to sweetly strike a ball or pick a pass. There's not enough variation in the frontline to leave them to their own devices, particularly against a team that chooses to sit deep.

Crosses have been blamed for United's problems - specifically, Moyes' assistance on using them rather than picking their way through the middle. But that's the coffee table analysis. A team defending as deep as Fulham did makes it almost impossible to have runners in behind, so crossing becomes almost the only viable option. Instead, United's error seems to be the way in which the crosses were attacked.

Fulham may have headed away the centres with relative ease, but they did not do so authoritatively. Loose balls were there to be won, but United seemed to have no interest in pursuing the second ball. Wayne Rooney rarely checked his runs to profit from them, and the two midfielders were sat too deep to take advantage either, until Carrick ventured forward near the end and - what do you know - scored from one.

It's difficult to blame anyone but Moyes for that, but it's odd that he should set up a team that seems incapable of it when he had two players specifically for this purpose at Everton, to devastating effect. The first was Tim Cahill, and the second now plays for Manchester United. There should really be no reason that Rooney, a player who is good both in the air and at hammering home loose balls from the edge of the area, cannot fit this role perfectly.

United's problems are many and severe, and they're masking the talent that Moyes does have at his disposal. But fixing any one of them would improve United vastly. If MIchael Carrick or Nemanja Vidic had been replaced by somebody competent, United would have won yesterday, and probably against Stoke as well. It's hard to see where Moyes will go from here, but if the reports that he will get two years no matter what are true, he should be glad that he at least has something to build around. United's problems are easily fixable - but that knowledge will not help them from now until the end of the season. A makeshift solution needs to be found.

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