The perfect time to branch out at Manchester United?

It’s time to face facts David Moyes; Manchester United are eleven points behind fourth place Liverpool in the Premier League table – they won’t be playing Champions League football next season.

The Scot is unprepared to admit defeat in the Red Devils unlikely bid for European qualification, but for the first time in an almighty migraine of an Old Trafford tenure, the enormous gulf between United and the Reds does mean the pressure is finally off for the final twelve games of the season.

So with the old way clearly not working – best exemplified by United’s record-breaking 81 crosses against Fulham in their recent 2-2 draw with the bottom-of-the-table club -should David Moyes use this silver lining of an opportunity to begin a period of tactical experimentation at Old Trafford? He needs to consider all available options ahead of next season and, bearing in mind the old adage of a change being as good as a rest, it could give the players some respite from what has been an incredibly taxing and fruitless campaign.

In my opinion at least, one of Moyes’ biggest failing points since taking the Carrington role has been the inability to differentiate from his illustrious predecessor.

Admittedly, having recently claimed their 13 title of the Premier League era, there were few who were prepared to claim back in the summer that Manchester United were a club in need of revolution rather than evolution. With similarities between Sir Alex Ferguson and Moyes aplenty, through their Scottish roots, bullish attitudes and tactical outlooks, it was undoubtedly the notion of the former Everton gaffer being a protectorate of Manchester United’s intrinsic identity – tactical ideology included – that got Moyes the Old Trafford gig.

But the lingering after effect has been that, apart from results, the only clear contrast one can identify from the Red Devils this term in comparison to the last is the man in the dug-out. Right now, Moyes can be best described as Ferguson-lite, and under his leadership, Manchester United have become diet-United, with their delicious sugary substance substituted for synthetic additives that cant replicate the original.

Branching out tactically would allow Moyes to finally escape Ferguson’s eclipsing shadow, and for better or worse, it would illustrate to the United fans that the Scot is at least prepared to try something different amid their current malaise.

So far this season, every side the Red Devils manager has fielded in the Premier League has consisted of a four-man defence and a five-man midfield,  baring one 4-4-2 line-up against Newcastle.  Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

But what tactical avenues are actually open to David Moyes? He’s not only got to fight against the engulfing tide of poor form, but furthermore, almost every philosophical tradition that has become synonymous with Manchester United. That being said, the Scot undoubtedly has a squad at his disposal, almighty in its vastness and endless in its flexibility, that can handle the burden of any tactical demand, no matter how outlandish or alien to the Red Devils’ customary modes of play.

My first suggestion is rather slight but it’s historical significance should not be overlooked; essentially, a maintained shape of a 4-2-3-1 but with a narrow attacking trio you’d more commonly associate with Chelsea or Arsenal.

That bucks United’s historical trend of natural width and focusing the attacks down the flanks, but none of the Red Devils’ wingers, barring Adnan Januzaj, have produced anything close to acceptable form this season, and as we witnessed against Fulham, the Carrnington club’s traditional wide play has become dangerously predictable.

It would also accommodate for Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney to feature in the same line-up without compromising each individual’s ultimate utility, and could also get some use out of Old Trafford misfit Shinji Kagawa, who has been wasted in his customary role on the left hand side.

Then there’s the diamond midfield – a formation Sir Alex Ferguson tried to implement countless times during the latter years of his United tenure but never had the confidence to stick with for more than a handful of games in a row.

Regardless, a  4-1-2-1-2 would once again make room for Juan Mata to feature at No.10, undoubtedly his most potent and effective role in the centre of the pitch, whilst allowing Rooney to return to his more favoured position of an out-and-out striker.

At the same time, it doesn’t compromise United’s traditional use of widemen and overlapping full-backs, and would remove Moyes’ burdening selection headache of who to field in the Red Devils’ engine room – neither Michael Carrick, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley nor Marouane Fellaini have mustered up more than a handful of decent performances in central midfield this season.

And finally, the audacious option, a formation which flies in the face of every institutional characteristic of  the Manchester United philosophy- a 3-5-2. It may seem like an absurd suggestion; as Gary Neville recently quipped upon Liverpool’s use of the formation, it’s incredibly alien in comparison to other systems, and unless every player understands their role perfectly, it often causes as many problems as it solves.

That being said, Moyes is privy to a vast selection of centre-backs – he’s used six different players at the heart of defence already this season – whilst the efforts of Patrice Evra, Rafael, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at full-back have left a lot to be desired. Furthermore, players such as Smalling or Jones, donning great athleticism and versatility but still lacking in defensive nous, would be an ideal fit, in theory at least, for a back three.

At the attacking end too, the five-man midfield and two-man strike force would create room in the same starting line-up for Mata, Rooney and Robin Van Persie, and leave the rest of United’s midfield intact. Antonio Valencia in particular, would be another player naturally fitting to the formation as a defensively assured right-midfielder.

Of course, these are all suggestions that, for reasons above my footballing intellect, David Moyes would probably diagnose as a case of too many long nights on FM14.

But amid the woes of the current campaign, it’s patently obvious that Manchester United’s most fatal flaw is the predictability of their play. The club’s great traditions are often celebrated, but whilst they’re still yet to break the shackles of a painfully English style of football,  the rest of the Premier League has  moved on to foreign perspectives of the beautiful game, leaving the Red Devils lagging some way behind.

It’s a new era at Old Trafford, and although David Moyes would prefer to build on the tried and tested foundations old one rather than venturing into the tactical unknown, there will be no greater opportunity to do so than Manchester United’s final twelve, essentially irrelevant games of this season.

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