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Lack of spark leaves Moyes' boys playing for their futures

Patrice Evra does not have fond memories of his first Manchester derby. “Before the game I was sick,” recalled Evra minutes before Manchester United’s 4-1 battering at the hands of cross-town rivals City. “I remember there was a corner kick. I was on the post thinking ‘what are you doing here? You should have stayed in Monaco nice and relaxed!”

At around 6pm last Sunday, David Moyes could be forgiven for thinking something similar. A second consecutive defeat away to a major rival, a 4-1 pummelling by the noisy neighbours, the biggest beating at City in nearly a quarter of a century. Moyes held his head in his hands. What am I doing here?

Well, no-one said it was going to be easy.

Moyes, by his own admission, is learning on the job and will need time. “I still see myself as one of the young coaches and young managers in the Premier League,” he commented after his appointment in July, and in a press conference prior to the League Cup meeting with Liverpool he admitted this season is “a period where there will be transition.”

But while the execution at Eastlands was a disaster for United, it was far from the only distress signal the champions have emitted this season. There are several areas of concern for the Red Devils at present – some to do with the manager, many others not - and in light of Moyes’ recent comments, a number of United players are already playing for their futures. First, a look at the problems:

Lack of creativity

The Red Devils outscored everyone in the Premier League last season, hitting 52 goals from open play – more than any other team. 26 goals came from set pieces or 30.2% of United’s total of 86 netbusters.

After five games of the Moyes era United have scored three goals from set plays and only four from open play – not one since the opening day triumph at Swansea.  If this rate were to continue, United would end the season with a miniscule 30.4 goals from open play which, would have seen them finish 12th in the Premier League for open play goals last season with less than West Brom.

Granted, Moyes’ boys have had a tricky fixture list to date, with games away to City and Liverpool – their two biggest rivals – and at home to Chelsea. But if we compare their early season chance creation to other teams who have played those opponents, we see an interesting trend (or worrying, if red is your colour).

So far this season, so-called lesser teams with lower ambitions are matching United for creativity. Against Chelsea, Everton were just as inventive as the champions, creating more havoc both in the penalty area and six-yard box, winning 1-0 while United failed to score.

At Anfield, United had a meaty 57% possession, but still managed to create less than a Southampton side who saw 12% less of the ball. The Saints won 1-0.

Even more worrying for United fans, and smirk-inducing for everyone else, was the Crystal Palace game. Despite playing against 10 men for more than half the match, the champions could still only conjure 3 more chances than Stoke. Once again, United couldn’t muster a single goal from open play.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to see a pattern emerging. Still, not to labour the point or anything, but, finally, here was the chasmic difference in invention between City and United in the opening 50 minutes last weekend, as City stormed into a 4-0 lead.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Moyes’ team have created less than any of last season’s top five so far this campaign (48 chances to City’s 61, Spurs’ 81, Arsenal’s 60 and Chelsea’s 69).

Why is this?

Well, before you run off with your Moyes Out hashtags, the first thing to note is, interestingly, United's numbers are in fact almost identical to last season. United created 50 chances during the same five games last season (swapping Palace with Reading), and still won the title at a canter. Can United fans therefore breathe more easily? Probably not.

Their rivals have spent millions this summer playing catch-up, and Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer around to offer the X-Factor that regularly gave United an extra 5-10%. “Don’t underestimate the importance of the manager, the father figure,” as Rene Meulensteen once said of Ferguson and these figures do a lot to support that argument.

What’s more, the horror stats aren’t over yet.

My kingdom for a winger

The Manchester derby highlighted several flaws in United’s game. For one, question marks already exist over Marouane Fellaini’s ability to impose himself in games of that stature from a defensive midfield position.

Fellaini’s positioning, tactical awareness, choice of pass and knowledge of when to press and when to hold were all shockingly poor at Eastlands, in complete contrast with the effervescent Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, the sturdy Brazilian minder tucked behind him.

Danny Welbeck also showed few signs that he’s ready to lead the line for United in Robin van Persie’s absence. Generally speaking Moyes’ staff had a good record for injury prevention at Everton – over the past two seasons the Toffees lost players through injury for 714 days in 2012/13 and 716 days in 2011/12: significantly less than United’s 1,088 and 1,681.

Nonetheless, two muscular injuries to Van Persie already, after an injury-free first season, will raise eyebrows, as will Moyes' curious decision to tire out thirty-somethings Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic by playing them three times in a week.

But above all, the number one issue continues to be United’s inability to put teams under severe, sustained pressure in forward areas.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia came in for heavy criticism after the derby following ineffectual displays, and penetration from wide areas has been lacking for some time. United are averaging 27 crosses per game so far this season – the league’s second highest figure – but many of them are, plainly, awful, yielding only 4% of their shots inside the box – the 6th worst record in the league.

Vincent Kompany is undoubtedly a robust and quality defender, but the fact he has completed more successful dribbles than any other United player this season so far is little short of an embarrassment to United’s wingers. Such a sorry statistic speaks volumes.

The champions also did not have a single player in the Premier League’s top 20 for key passes per game last season, a stat that continues to this day. That insouciance, that killer instinct in the final third possessed by so many great United sides of the past, is missing. Take Wayne Rooney out and the forward line rapidly goes from quicksilver to quicksand. No wonder the Free Shinji movement gains daily momentum.

“There’s a new manager and, in turn, there will be new players,” stated Moyes this week. “I think we’ve got the numbers. Maybe we’ve got work to do to bring in players not for the squad but to go right into the team.”

The clarion call has been sounded. We may only be five games into the season but the message is clear. From today, a number of United players are playing for their futures.