By Jonathan Birchall
Only 263 days after winning the Premier League, you do not so much watch Manchester United these days as you do endure them.
They really are that bad. This title defence, barely worthy of the name, is the second worst in the history of the competition as it stands. Only Blackburn, in 1995-96, have a worse record as champions after 20 games. With three turgid, predictable 2-1 defeats in a row to start 2014, never has spectacular failure looked so boring.
It is difficult to pinpoint blame when the calamity and insipidity has been so widespread. Yet rather than attach it to a man sat in the stands, with no direct input on training or team selection this season, it would perhaps make more sense to look to the club's current manager and his players. Neither, in large part, are good enough.
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The Red Devils' need for a combative, energetic midfielder who can stop an opposition team in full flow has been apparent for far too long. Darren Fletcher, a player tenacious enough to fulfil the role to a large extent, sadly cannot yet be relied upon at the highest level given his long-term debilitating illness.
Put simply, United do not have a midfielder who can win the ball and turn over possession. Bar Tottenham, every other side in the top eight has one midfielder who averages over three tackles per match.
In Lucas Leiva (4.1), Cheikh Tiote (3.9), Aaron Ramsey (3.7), Ramires (3.4), Fernandinho (3.1), Mikel Arteta (3.1) and James McCarthy (3), the champions' immediate rivals have players more effective at taking the ball directly off their opposition. After excluding the tactically indisciplined Phil Jones (2.5), who has played more games in defence than midfield this term, Moyes's best tackler is Tom Cleverley, who has on average completed only 2.1 of them per Premier League appearance.
The champions have become wholly reliant on the interceptions of Michael Carrick in order to retain possession in the middle of the pitch, with the 32-year-old averaging more than any other player in the top eight of the Premier League. However, as with Adam Johnson's blistering, penalty-winning run from just inside United's half that helped Sunderland on the way to a 2-1 win in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, this is a team unable to stop direct attacking play.
However, Moyes's midfield transfer targets since moving to Old Trafford, namely Thiago, Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera during the summer and Atletico Madrid's Koke, who he has scouted extensively in recent weeks, are far more creative threats than they are midfield destroyers designed to break up play. The fact is, United are also in dire need of players with the ability to create and score goals.
Only one Manchester United midfielder, in Adnan Januzaj, has more than one goal in the league this season, getting on the scoresheet three times. Whereas, last term, the superhuman Robin van Persie, supplemented by United's other strikers, was able to ensure that the side always had a goal threat, his injuries, alongside those of Wayne Rooney in 2013-14, have meant that other areas of the squad needed to contribute.
They have not done so. United's midfield have offered a woeful six goals in 20 games. Yaya Toure (10), Aaron Ramsey (eight) and Eden Hazard (eight) have done better than that on their own. The Premier League champions have the same amount of goals at home as Sam Allardyce's West Ham.
Chelsea and Manchester City (both with 25) have more than four times as many league goals from midfield. Arsenal have triple the amount. And of those transfer targets? Koke has scored one more than Januzaj in 2013-14. Fabregas has one more goal than the entire United midfield put together this season.
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There are eight midfielders in the other top seven teams in the league who have more assists by themselves than United's entire midfield. Thiago (two), who has played only five Bundesliga matches this season due to injury, would still be joint leading the champions' midfield assist charts with Januzaj and Valencia. Koke (eight) has twice has many. Fabregas has two more than him.
The temptation when looking at the figures in black and white is to question what exactly it is the central four of United's 11 players are doing week in, week out. The answer, quite simply, is not very much at all.
Through signing the likes of Arteta, Tim Cahill and Steven Pienaar during his time at Goodison Park, Moyes showed both an eye for a bargain and an ability to bring players with no Premier League experience into a competition that is like no other on the pitch. At United in January, however, there will be no bedding-in period.
It perhaps speaks volumes that the midfielder with more starts than any other at United is Cleverley, a player who has never scored or assisted more than two goals a season at Old Trafford. He is the man to whom Moyes continues to return because, frankly, he has no other choice. Marouane Fellaini, the club's fourth most expensive signing ever, has no goals, no assists and a red card to show for his maiden season at Old Trafford.
On paper it looks awful for United. On the pitch it is even worse.
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