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Although Juan Mata, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney started together for the first time on Saturday, there was no expected improvement in Manchester United's performance as they slumped to an eighth Premier League defeat of the season. David Moyes blamed the result on bad luck and the champions' failure to take their chances, but he also opined: "Overall, I think we played well." He is beginning to sound like a broken record.
This was Stoke's first victory over United since 1984 and the match once again emphasised Moyes' farcical doublethink. "It was a good performance, we just didn't take our chances," said the manager in his post-match interview. But if the performances aren't lacking, then how have United succumbed to five defeats in eight matches in 2014? That isn't merely ill fortune; instead, it points to the absence of a convincing plan to lift the champions out of their malaise.
"I don't know what we have to do to win," Moyes also confessed in his post-match interview, although the admission was hardly necessary. He talked up United hitting the byline "eight or nine times" before cutting the ball back into the middle, but it is precisely this tunnel vision towards the wings that has left a familiar groove to the champions' displays. In the first half, only two of 16 crosses found a teammate. By full-time, United had completed five of 33 deliveries.
Of course, the players are also to blame for executing the manager's plans in such poor fashion, while United were hindered by injuries to Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. But Moyes must work quickly to dismiss the idea that allowing him to sign Mata is like giving a smart phone to your grandparents. That almost half of United's attacks came down the left wing, where Patrice Evra partnered Ashley Young, illustrates the manager's failure to get the most out of his new playmaker. Mata must wonder whether constantly looking for the wide option is the best use of his talents.
That wasn't the only problem with United's display, however, and Moyes' opinion that he still requires a new left-back and central midfielder will have been fortified by Patrice Evra's poor form and Rooney's cameo in midfield. "If you asked me what I needed most, I would have said a central midfielder and a left-back. But sometimes you don't always get the pieces of the jigsaw at the time," he said after signing Mata. It was perhaps odd that Darren Fletcher - a useful piece he does currently possess - remained on the bench when Jones was stretchered off.
Is the fact that Chelsea also lost at the Britannia earlier in the campaign any comfort to United? That point could be argued, but the debate is futile when the gap between the two teams stands at ten points. As Jose Mourinho said following the Blues' 3-1 victory over the champions at Stamford Bridge, such a chasm is insurmountable, and United's sole focus now must be to break into the top four. To do that, Moyes must not only work out a way to win, but devise a plan to keep winning until the end of the season. It's a task that is easier said than done.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.
Allaboutunited.... Its not the fact of what they did differently its the fact they were there for 20 years!!! experience was what they had!!!!!! Renne was also let go again all the players loved him!! SAF said "Keep what we've got, keep the continuity, work with them and they'll guide you through". I think that's the view of most man utd fans- ManUtd99