By Ewan Roberts
After just seven games in charge of Manchester United, David Moyes is already a man under pressure. The Premier League champions have made an unquestionably poor start to life under the Scot, sitting in ninth position and closer to the relegation zone than table-toppers Arsenal.
United's title defence has already been written off in some quarters, a less fearsome proposition now than under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet, there are some positive signs for the former Everton boss, and the team's performances - if not those of a certain talismanic Dutchman - remain largely consistent with those of last season.
Moyes, it should be noted, was handed a rough selection of fixtures to begin his tenure. The Red Devils have already played three of the current top five (only Aston Villa have faced more members of the league's leading quintet), and the 50-year-old has been keen to point out the difficulties in such a competitive early season calendar.
|SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT
|MAN UTD BALL POSSESSION
United, even with more favourable fixture lists, have often been slow starters in the past. They had already lost twice at this stage last season, against Everton and Tottenham, and were four points adrift of a Chelsea side they would eventually finish 14 points above.
In the last decade, United have averaged 15 points from their opening seven games, and only once have they topped the table after both that early milestone and the final game of the season. On five occasions in the past decade, the club have been four or more points behind the mid-October league leaders (they were 11 points behind Arsenal on this date in the 2004-05 season) and have made just two unbeaten starts to the campaign.
Beyond nationality, starting slowly and ramping up performances as the season goes on is something Sir Alex and Moyes clearly have in common; though regularly among the top six come the end of the season, the Toffees have an average league placing of 10th at this stage of the season, and have been as low as 20th position.
On top of that, new managers invariably take time to blood in, especially with United undertaking an overhaul of the backroom staff. Manuel Pellegrini, for example, has seen his side suffer shock losses against Aston Villa and Cardiff City, while Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, now flying high, had to wait until their fourth and sixth games respectively to record a league win in their maiden campaigns. And neither had such large boots to fill.
|HOW VAN PERSIE'S STATS STACK UP COMPARED TO LAST SEASON
Interestingly, United have improved in a number of respects compared to last term. Though they failed to beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, they enjoyed, on average, 56.6 per cent possession against the three sides - a significant step up from last year, when the same fixtures saw United record just 47 per cent. They also created 28% more chances.
Meanwhile, City's 4-1 demolition of the Red Devils at the Etihad Stadium in September was seen by many to represent a changing of the guard, yet City have won four of the last five encounters between the sides, scoring 15 goals. That particular result is entirely in keeping with United's recent record against their increasingly noisy neighbours.
United were also heavily reliant on Robin van Persie last season, especially in the corresponding fixtures. The Dutchman scored three match-winning goals (notably against Liverpool and City - though he missed the trip to the Etihad this time around), assisted Patrice Evra's leveller against Swansea, settled a somewhat nervy 2-0 win over West Brom and saw his shot deflect off Titus Bramble for an own goal against Sunderland.
In fact, Van Persie's goals were directly responsible for more points (21) than any other player in the Premier League, or 23.5% of the total points the Red Devils accrued across their title-winning campaign. This season, however, Van Persie's goals have been less decisive. Were his goals discounted, United would have no fewer points than they currently have.
United did not lose any of the 20 games Van Persie scored in last season (boasting a win rate of 80%), while the five losses they recorded all came in games in which the Dutchman failed to score. United's win rate dropped to 64% when Van Persie did not net, and their loss rate rose to 29%. The 30-year-old was a crutch for the champions last term, and it stands to reason that they should struggle when he is neither fully fit nor his usual talismanic self, as is the case now.
United, then, should not panic. They have a new manager, undertaking one of the most daunting changing of the guards in football history, who is a notoriously slow starter, just like the club he has inherited, while the side's main man has yet to hit top form. But Moyes can take heart from the club's cup form, and the fact he has taken a point more than Sir Alex managed in his first seven games in charge - a tenure that, in the end, worked out rather well.
Follow Ewan Roberts on