A False Start Or A False Recovery?

Many have heralded Man United's return to the title race after their win against Arsenal, but Matt Stanger says David Moyes still faces a tough test to meet required standards...

Last Updated: 12/11/13 at 14:57 Post Comment

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Rarely is a single result a barometer for a team's form. While The Sun hastened to dismiss Arsenal's title hopes after their scrappy 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Sunday, the same could be said of those who are now heralding the champions' return to the race at the top. It was a victory to engender optimism at Old Trafford, but by no means did United's performance prove wrong their doubters.

"Manchester United were champions last year and I have always said a lot of people had written us off very quickly," said David Moyes after the game. But it was Moyes who pointed to the flaws of other teams in United's title victory last season and it was Moyes who rubbished the idea that they can win the Champions League. He had a point. Many have opined that Sir Alex Ferguson papered over the cracks in his final year in charge, cracks that have widened at the beginning of the incumbent's proposed six-year tenure.

While a false start has been blamed for United's sluggish defence of their title thus far, it could equally be argued that we are witnessing a false recovery. The idea of an unbeaten run was enough to send shivers down the spines of United's rivals during Ferguson's reign, but the current aura around the club is one of pretense rather than premonition.

Since the home defeat to West Brom, which left them stranded in 12th, United haven't lost in nine matches in all competitions, winning six of those fixtures and scoring 16 goals. An impressive record, perhaps, but closer inspection reveals that apart from the win against Arsenal, there is little for Moyes to boast about. United found it hard work to dispatch Sunderland and Stoke, Southampton grabbed a deserved equaliser at the death and Real Sociedad were only defeated by an own goal. So much for a return to the old ways.

"People want us to fail because we have won the league so many times," said Phil Jones after his excellent performance against Arsenal. "Everyone hates the best clubs, it is as simple as that, and United won the league long before I was here." There is a sense that the youngster is coming of age after shaking off his injury woes of last season, but when he stands out as arguably the best midfield option at present and also chief rabble-rouser, it is difficult to dismiss the idea of slipping standards.

The same applies to Wayne Rooney's much-vaunted return to form. "I said to Wayne afterwards that his energy and the way he worked was magnificent," said Moyes, who also praised the striker for 'running around' in England's pre-season friendly against Scotland. That United fans are still sceptical over Rooney's place in the starting line-up despite his seven goals says as much about his personal decline as it does United's. Does his improvement merely boil down to a demonstration of more effort following an end to his stand-off with Ferguson?

The stats reaffirm the notion that the champions are struggling for fluency. Last season they led the Premier League table for passing accuracy, this year they are down in seventh. They average more long balls per game under Moyes and fewer short passes responsible for flowing attacking moves. Only Crystal Palace have scored a higher proportion of their goals through set pieces. The defence has improved, but at what cost? There is a telling quote from David Weir that Moyes views the game from a 'defender's perspective' and that certainly appears true at this stage of his United reign. "It was as if (attack) wasn't his forte," said Weir of the pair's time at Everton.

United can still capitalise from Chelsea's failure to find a suitable striker and City's dismal away form - as well as the nerves that creeped into Arsenal on Sunday, as Arsene Wenger admitted - but the teething issues under Moyes are unlikely to disappear. The long-term values that Ferguson instilled will be enough to carry United through testing times at the start of the Moyes era, but the new manager must ensure his own vision aligns. If not, it will be difficult to shake the idea that United's false start holds more truth than supporters would care to believe.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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