Kevin Mirallas - Chris Brunskill
A look at the recent form of the team and the players.
After making such a positive, promising start to the season which has had us all in the dizzy heights of the top four with pundits and supporters alike talking of Champions League dreams we seemed to have plateaued recently, throwing away enough points to have seen us top of the Premier League.
Ok, granted, we got away with a draw in the Merseyside Derby against Liverpool - it is about time we had the rub of the green in them games, but let's have it right here; Liverpool's goals were as a result of our own mistakes. They say the stats don't lie, and there was only one side on top in that game and it weren't the team in red. In recent years we would have rolled over and died, 3, 4-0 maybe? Instead, we showed belief and character to pull two goals back and but for a cruel injury to Kevin Mirallas we probably would have gone on to take the spoils.
But then there's the games versus Newcastle, Fulham, Reading, Norwich, Wigan Athletic, WBA, all games we should have won which has amounted to 16 points dropped. Throw in the Liverpool game and that's 19 points. Going in to the midweek games we currently sit in 5th with 21 points. United are top - 9 points ahead of us. Puts it into perspective, doesn't it?
We didn't show up against West Brom. They were the better side and we got what we deserved.
Wigan was more or less the same as West Brom, except West Brom are better than Wigan. QPR is best not spoken about. Reading was a game of two halves where again two second half errors cost us. Norwich was the same, a second half error. Fulham too!
These games all have other things in common though. We had plenty of very good opportunities to kill the game off.
Newcastle was thrown away by a goalkeeping error. And speaking of goalkeepers I'm afraid to say that Tim Howard isn't for me anymore. He's cost us quite a few goals this season. Last season, by contrast, he was superb, a contender for player of the year perhaps? His shot stopping was (and still is) superb. His distribution however has somewhat dwindled. And, his reluctance to command his six yard box from set pieces is now non-existent. Time for a newer, younger, fresher keeper for me. Jack Butland was muted about the place in August, and a deadline bid was rejected for the England and TeamGB Olympic keeper. Another, more realistic target is Craig Gordon. Jan Mucha has made it clear that he sees his future away from the club and probably isn't worth mentioning. Gordon would offer experience and ample cover, provided he stays fit. When fit, there's no doubting his ability as a top keeper and on a free makes perfect sense.
Last season's player of the season John Heitinga has looked a completely different player, different for the worse unfortunately. He looks liable to a mistake each game and when he has come up against a strong, powerful forward he has struggled. Kone of Wigan gave him the run around, as did Grant Holt on Saturday and Jason Roberts at Reading. In contrast, when he comes up against a skillful, quick striker where the only battle he has is on the floor he does look a different class. But then so does Sylvain Distin and it could be argued that if he would have played against the three mentioned then we would have had an increased chance of winning.
Into the midfield and I never thought I'd utter the words "how much have we missed Darron Gibson?" The Irishman adds that extra bit of solidarity in the middle of the park, willing and able to sit when the more creative push on, break up the opposition's phases of play and distribute simple to Osman, Mirallas, Pienaar, Fellaini. I'm sorry, but anyone who enjoys watching Phil Neville trying to do that job needs their head testing!
Last season, the return of Steven Pienaar gave the whole club a lift, an extra 10% to get us challenging for Europe. He almost single-handedly changed the way we played and seeing him down the left with Baines was a joy. However, this season and in particular throughout November the South African has failed to inspire; he admitted so on his own personal Twitter feed. He's also cut his hair by the way!
Ross Barkley has been setting Hillsborough alight recently. He has played in their first quarter of the season, picked up various man of the match awards, been praised to the hilt, set up a load of goals and scored four himself. With being light in midfield Moyes rightly recalled him, then left him on the bench. Pointless. I'd have loved to have seen him straight in for Fellaini in the same position behind the striker with Osman and Hitzlsperger sweeping up behind him should the youngster make a mistake. But no.
And so the onus seems to be on the Belgian's. Marouane Fellaini has been exceptional this season, and it is no coincidence that he has had more chances to score since his International colleague Kevin Mirallas has joined us.
The winger has been instrumental in our attacking flow this season. Against Fulham we had 29 shots on goal. It wouldn't surprise me if Mirallas was involved in the build up to all of them until he was substituted as well as having a pop at goal himself. I don't think I have seen a player in blue go past opposition defenders with such ease and finesse since Andrei Kanchelskis and we all know how key he was to our play.
However, it seems as though the manager is reliant upon these as much as he was Baines and Pienaar two seasons ago. Remember when one of these were missing, more often Pienaar? Moyes went direct to Fellaini and relied on flick ons and midfield runners to pick up bits to convert into chances and goals. With Pienaar's dip in form, the manager has done the same thing again.
Another thing Moyes does is switch the left and right midfielders. Now please correct me if I'm wrong (preferably in the comments below) but when one of your more influential players is suffering with a dip in form, the best thing to do is to continue playing them in their preferred position with a player they more or less know telepathically. It isn't to play them there for an hour them move them across to the opposite side of the pitch two or three times in 30 minutes.
And as for some of the stick Nikica Jelavic was getting on a local radio phone in after the Norwich game, that was completely unjust. How many times did Heitinga bypass the midfield with a punt up field looking for the Croat's head? How many times would Fellaini chest them, bring them down and link up play? And how many headers has Jelavic scored compared to shots? I think some people need to look at the wider picture and remember - Duncan Ferguson has retired.
A change in form and fortune has to be achieved if we are serious about Europe, and it has to happen now.
Tomorrow night's game is a tough one for us. However, it is one I fancy us to win. I think we will be too strong for Arsenal all over the park. Fellaini will return fresh and hungry to carry on where he left off. Gibson could be fit, but if not Hitzlsperger can continue to do the steady job he has been doing. I just hope we utilise the left hand side of the pitch and play the ball through the midfield and not over it, and allow Jelavic the opportunity to do what he does best, a one touch finish.