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  • Aug 23, 2014
  • Updated: 9:34pm
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PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 10:56pm

It's hard to believe, but United have become the team to avoid

Red Devils even vulnerable at Old Trafford - and that used to be simply unimaginable

BIO

Nick has been SCMP’s tipster since soccer betting was launched in Hong Kong in 2003, having previously served as racing editor. He takes a statistical approach to soccer betting, focusing mainly on the English Premier League but also on the other major European leagues and the English lower divisions. Now based in England, he brings a wealth of experience as a punter and writer having also worked for the Sunday Times, Racing Post and Betfair during a 25-year career in sports betting journalism.
 

It has been an unhappy new year for Manchester United and they simply have to stop the rot on Saturday night at home to Swansea, the team that dumped them out of the FA Cup just six days ago.

Another cup defeat at Sunderland midweek added to the pressure on David Moyes, who has started the year with three defeats out of three, and there are growing doubts over whether he was the right man to replace Alex Ferguson in the Old Trafford hot seat.

The last time United lost three in a row was in the late stages of the 2000-01 season and it hardly mattered then because they had already romped away with the Premier League title, winning by 10 points despite those three defeats.

If United believe in their new manager, Moyes needs the same backing now to remodel the team his way and for his part he needs to make similarly astute signings
Nick Pulford 

But it would be wrong to believe it was always plain sailing for Ferguson during his long reign at United.

One of the biggest crisis moments was midway through the 2005-06 season when United finished bottom of their Champions League group and had poor results in domestic games, including a 4-1 Premier League defeat at Middlesbrough that led to Roy Keane's infamous tirade on MUTV and his subsequent departure from the club.

That season brought only the League Cup to Old Trafford, but Ferguson's advantage was that his previous trophies bought him patience from the owners and time to rebuild the team.

In the January transfer window of 2006, he made two key signings - defenders Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra - and with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney about to come of age, the foundations were in place for a new era of success.

If United believe in their new manager, Moyes needs the same backing now to remodel the team his way and for his part he needs to make similarly astute signings.

One of the main problems for Moyes is that United's difficulties have coincided with probably the most competitive season since the Premier League began.

Whereas Ferguson's United could regenerate while still being far enough ahead of most teams to finish third at worst, Moyes faces a wider variety of threats.

Virtually every other team in the top eight is having a resurgence, notably Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Newcastle. With Manchester City and Chelsea challenging as strongly as ever with their big squads, United have been caught unprepared and that is hardly Moyes' fault.

The form lines tell the story of where United's problem lies. Against bottom-half teams they are averaging 2.5 points per game - down from 2.85 over the whole of last season, but still bettered only by Liverpool and Arsenal, and even then not to a great extent.

In the mini-league of games involving the top eight, however, United are bottom with just one win out of eight. Moyes' team have given up 13 points to Manchester City in that category alone, as well as six to Arsenal, four to Chelsea and three to Liverpool.

That probably reflects the lack of quality Ferguson left behind, along with the ageing legs that in his heyday he was so ruthless at replacing. In the biggest games, when the combination of finesse and fitness are at a premium, United have been found wanting, but it may well have happened under Ferguson too, given the stagnation of the squad.

Most troubling of all is that United have become unimaginably vulnerable at Old Trafford - their record of four wins in 10 matches means they rank only 11th on home form and three of the wins have been against teams that are in the bottom five on away form. As Swansea are the 11th-best away side, they could cause problems again.

United's home form hints at a lack of quality in breaking down packed defences, but until they improve significantly they are a team to avoid.

The stats say that short-odds backers are better off this season going with the top teams away to bottom-half sides - the big six have won 79 per cent of those games this season. Liverpool, at Stoke, and Arsenal, at Aston Villa, are in that category this weekend.

Slightly better odds are available for Southampton to take advantage of easier opposition with a home victory over West Brom. Since breaking out of their low-scoring start to the season, the Saints have scored in their last seven games against teams below them and won five of them.

A bigger risk, but interesting nonetheless, are Fulham at home to Sunderland. Under Rene Meulensteen, Fulham have lost all four games against top-half teams, but won all three against bottom-half opponents.

 

Southampton, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Brentford, Sheffield United, Fiorentina

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