By Zoran Milosavljevic
(Reuters) - Following in Alex Ferguson's footsteps was never going to be an easy task for David Moyes but few Manchester United fans would have anticipated the English champions slipping 12 points behind the Premier League leaders with only a third of the season gone.
Wednesday's 1-0 home defeat by Everton, United's fourth of the campaign, exposed all the chinks in the armor of a team who won their 20th league title in May after Ferguson masterfully papered over the cracks in his squad.
It would be unfair to put all the blame on Moyes who is still learning the ropes at Old Trafford after 11 years at Everton where he might have viewed finishing in the Premier League's top six as success with a much tighter budget and limited squad depth.
But the 50-year old Scot has to take some responsibility for failing to inject fresh blood into a ponderous midfield palpably lacking a playmaker and struggling to protect a shaky defense when Michael Carrick is unavailable.
Former England and Newcastle striker Alan Shearer, now a pundit for the BBC, summed up United's engine-room frailties after the Everton defeat.
"They missed Carrick against Everton and a dominant midfielder who is going to create and score goals," Shearer said after Moyes cut a forlorn figure trudging down the tunnel.
"It was too easy at times for Everton to run at United's back four."
Recruiting Marouane Fellaini from his former club looks more and more like an ill-judged decision by Moyes, with the towering Belgian resembling a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in United's normally creative midfield.
The defense, with ageing centre backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic well past their prime, has been vulnerable too as the alternatives have failed to show that they are adequate long-term replacements.
Moyes has a plethora of wingers and strikers to choose from and even with Robin van Persie out injured, United have racked up goals thanks to the good form of Wayne Rooney who clearly thrives as a lone striker with a three-pronged support cast.
Hence it is unlikely that Van Persie's return to full fitness will solve United's mounting problems, although the champions could have done with his lethal finishing against Everton as they missed several chances before Bryan Oviedo struck a late winner for the visitors.
Moyes can take comfort from United's good form in the Champions League, where they have booked a last-16 berth with a match to spare, but domestic inconsistency will in all likelihood force him to bolster the squad during the January transfer window.
Otherwise, United may face the unfamiliar concept of finishing among second-echelon Premier League teams this season as predicted by former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler, also a BBC pundit nowadays.
"I don't think they will win the league," said Fowler. "I think they may even struggle to finish in the top four. I know a lot of people will say ‘oh he's just an ex Liverpool player going on about Manchester United' but they have been very poor this season."
Battling for a Europa League spot is a situation Moyes knows all too well from his Everton days but neither he nor the Old Trafford faithful, used to a steady inflow of silverware, will settle for second best.
Still United's best passer of the ball at the age of 40, their most decorated player Ryan Giggs acknowledged that the English champions need to show the grit and determination which regularly ground out results in the face of adversity under Ferguson.
"We cannot feel sorry for ourselves for too long," Giggs told the club website.
"We need to get on a run. Before (the Everton defeat) we were on a 12-game unbeaten run (in all competitions) and we have to get over this disappointment.
"We're just not getting the rub of the green or taking our chances when we should. If you don't do that, you're going to get punished like we did against Everton."
Former United defender Phil Neville, now Moyes's assistant, also remained upbeat.
"We can go 20 games unbeaten at any time and the rest of the league knows we can do that," he said.
But judging by United's patchy form and inability to sign a world-class player who pulls the strings in midfield like Paul Scholes did in his prime, that may well be easier said than done this season.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)