London – Manchester United's home defeat by Newcastle United on Saturday left them 13 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal and in danger of missing out on a Champions League place.
With Everton having won at Old Trafford four days earlier, the 20-time English champions have now lost consecutive home league games for the first time since 2002.
We look at the factors behind United's alarming slump since David Moyes succeeded Alex Ferguson as manager in July.
1 Flimsiness in central midfield
Not since Roy Keane's pomp have United had a real driving force in the centre of the pitch and their lack of options in that area has been highlighted by an Achilles injury that has sidelined Michael Carrick. Moyes has tested two different partnerships in United's last two matches – Marouane Fellaini and Ryan Giggs in the defeat to Everton, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley in the 1-0 defeat by Newcastle – and neither worked. Giggs's age means that he must be managed carefully, while Fellaini is still finding his feet following his move from Everton and neither Jones nor Cleverley are specialist holding players. Former United youth-team player Robbie Savage, now a media pundit, said: “They have missed (Carrick's) ability to keep the ball, and they do not have another defensive-minded player in their squad.”
2 Injury to Robin van Persie
Former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini said that Van Persie was the deciding factor in last season's title race as the Dutchman's 26 league goals helped United finish 11 points clear at the top of the table. His recent absence with groin and toe injuries saw United held at Cardiff City and Tottenham Hotspur, before being beaten by Everton. He returned against Newcastle, but did not appear fully fit. Moyes admitted that he should have been substituted with 30 minutes to play, but with United chasing the game and Wayne Rooney suspended, the former Arsenal man stayed on.
3 Failure to strengthen in the close season
Fellaini, a £27.5 million recruit from Moyes's former club Everton, was the only major new arrival during the close season. Whereas United missed out on targets including Leighton Baines, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Ander Herrera, all of their rivals strengthened. Arsenal were transformed by the £42.4 million record signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, while Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City all invested at least £50 million in new players – and all are now looking down on United.
4 Unfamiliarity with Moyes's methods
Dressing room dissent was not tolerated by Ferguson, but Rio Ferdinand openly questioned Moyes's methods when he said that the Scot's habit of waiting until the last minute before naming his starting XI was creating “nervous energy”. Moyes pledged not to tinker with Ferguson's winning formula, but he has already overseen sweeping changes, notably the introduction of a completely new set of coaches. Pundits including former United defender Gary Neville have observed that United appear to be taking up deeper defensive positions on the pitch, while they have also become more vulnerable at set-pieces. For his part, Moyes has emphasised that they are going through a “great transition”.
5 Loss of fear factor
West Bromwich Albion manager Steve Clarke said that his side felt no fear about visiting Old Trafford prior to a 2-1 win there in September and United's home ground is losing its capacity to intimidate. Teams who had the temerity to take the lead against Ferguson's United could expect a ferocious onslaught as the hosts pushed for an equaliser, but Newcastle saw out their victory in relative serenity. “Usually whenever we're chasing a goal at Old Trafford, especially at the Stretford End, we put teams under an enormous amount of pressure,” said centre back Jonny Evans. “But with the lack of confidence and creativity, we didn't produce that. It is hard to put your finger on it.” – Sapa-AFP