Amid all the dispute and discussion about David Moyes this season, there is only one thing we can say for certain: it hasn't exactly been the most edifying start for Manchester United. Even beyond all the talk about the worst beginning to a season in over two decades, and so much of the statistics thrown around about the paucity of goals from open play, much more of an issue has been the chances created.
The recent 2-1 home defeat to West Brom posed some of those problems. As United chased the game, there was no real grand rally; no sort of siege to inspire that energised unpredictability that had Alex Ferguson smiling in his recent interview with Charlie Rose. "In the last 15 minutes throw the kitchen sink at the them. It's worth a gamble." This United, however, did not truly roll the dice. Instead, they played the same card over and over. It was all somewhat predictable.
The perception was of Moyes' side simply trying to win the ball in midfield, get it out to the full-back, get the cross in... and either force a chance or repeat. The 50-year-old certainly seemed to repeat the approach he primarily practised at Everton.
Of course, perception is part of the issue with the wider debate here. Because of Moyes' previous record, and the understandable if somewhat unfair comparisons with his predecessor, the key question for United has been whether the new man's approach is too reductive and - most importantly of all - whether it can actually develop.
Former Everton centre-back David Weir described Moyes as a manager who looks at everything in football "from a defender's perspective" and how, in leaving much of the work with attackers to other coaches, it was if "that wasn't his forte". Similarly, Tottenham are understood to have discounted him as a candidate to replace Harry Redknapp in 2012 because of a particularly compromised display at White Hart Lane. With all that in mind, it's worth attempting to properly analyse such perceptions in his time at United so far.
For a start, it does seem that United have been relying on full-backs to create openings, with Patrice Evra playing the most key passes per game (1.8) of United players with at least 2 appearances. That is no surprise given Moyes' conspicuous pursuits of Leighton Baines and Fabio Coentrao over the summer, and his use of the former at Everton. It is also is in stark contrast to previous seasons, with Evra often well down the same list.
Similarly, there is no disputing that United are depending on crosses more and more, with that style of attack becoming one of their main weapons. Crosses indeed represent a higher percentage of their overall passes. In both 2011-12 and 2012-13, United were 12th out of 20 Premier League clubs in terms of the proportion of their passes (including crosses) that were crosses. This season, they are fifth, only behind Sunderland, West Ham, Hull City and Norwich.
Worse, Moyes' side actually have the second worst crossing accuracy in the Premier League this campaign (17.1%), only behind Fulham (15.7%), but have been attempting the most (27.6 per game). This suggests that United have been focusing on an approach that doesn't suit them, and goes some way to explaining the signing of physical Marouane Fellaini.
It is also here, however, where it starts to get interesting and a little more uncertain.
In order to begin analysing United's moves and interchanges an attack, WhoScored isolated a specific central area the width of the opposition penalty box and running from the goal line to roughly 10 yards outside the area, as depicted in the image below. They then calculated the amount of passes that were made within that zone by each team. For example's sake, it would have glowed with some of the moves Eric Cantona or Dwight Yorke used to try. The results for the modern United were as follows:
So, the current stats represent a huge drop from 2009-12, but an actual increase on last season. This perhaps strengthens the perception that the distinctive abilities of Ferguson and Van Persie held a declining team together over the legendary Scot's last campaign, and that Moyes has merely had to resort to what he knows best in order to begin filling the gaps himself. His reductive approach is far from ideal, but that is because United currently lack the personnel. With Moyes continuing to leave Kagawa on the bench, and Rooney utilised further forward, there has been a gap in that key area.
It is also not coincidental that United finally ended a drought in terms of goals from open play when Adnan Januzaj was introduced against Sunderland. That, more than anything, indicated how the side's attack badly needed new energy and more sophistication.
Moyes has so far lacked the latter. That cannot be disputed and United's style of play almost proves it. It is still a little difficult to say, however, whether it is down to something lacking in him or just something lacking in his squad.
Is there too much emphasis on attacking with crosses at Manchester United? Who do they need that can change that? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below