Whilst Manchester United manager David Moyes is still trying to get used to being manager of the biggest club in the world, I have been adapting to life as a married man. My darling wife has zero interest in English football, to the extent that she thinks Peter Crouch is famous for being married to Abbey Clancey. Despite this, she obviously took her vows seriously, and has, in this season of all seasons, subjected herself to watching some of the meekest and most apathetic Manchester United performances since Lassie was a pup.
A couple of weeks ago, we had watched the once mighty Red Devils crash out of the FA Cup at the first time of asking against a Swansea side that played extremely averagely and still managed to leave fortress Old Trafford as victors. After the match, Moyes explained to the gathered media that Manchester United had actually played very well, and were very unlucky to lose the game. Swansea had more possession, more successful passes, and more shots on and off target. They also weren’t even at full strength.
Following on from the home defeats to Everton and then Newcastle, Manchester United’s new manager told us “I think we played quite well in the first half” and “we maybe abused it, the amount of opportunities we got.” This synopsis of the game came after his side had amassed two shots on target, and three off target. The lack of movement was staggering, and the lack of character in the side was apparent, a recurring trait after losing two home games without even managing a single goal. Aside from 18 year old Adnan Januzaj, the more experienced professionals seemed eager to hoof the ball at the earliest opportunity, or gift it back to the Welsh side. I honestly can’t remember Tom Cleverley completing a successful pass.
After the game, my wife turned to me and asked, in a way that was as naïve as it was perceptive, “Why are Manchester United so bad now? Surely it can’t all be because of Chris Moyles?” After briefly considering correcting her mistaken reference to a fat, loud mouthed disc jockey, I instead paused to consider my answer.
I have watched Manchester United week-in and week-out now for in and around 24 years. In that time, it cannot be argued that I have been a spoilt fan of a football club. I have never experienced the threat of relegation. I have never contemplated a season without European competition. I haven’t seen my side finish lower than third during a Premier League season. Given the cyclical nature of English football, that is quite incredible. You naturally become accustomed to success. You expect it.
Reflecting on the past, for most of us, involves focusing on the positives while failures get pushed to the back of our minds. Looking back on the Ferguson era, it is easy to look back on it and think there were never any genuine trials or tribulations. The truth is there were periods of time where fans grew restless, and the media circled like vultures waiting to announce the crumbling of the empire he had built. The 2001-02 season saw them finish third in the Premier League and trophyless. Jaap Stam was sold and replaced by the ghost of Laurent Blanc. Fabien Barthez continued to falter in goal. Diego Forlan was brought in to add some attacking impetus and managed to contribute absolutely no goals and as many assists. The expensive acquisition of Juan Sebastien Veron successfully managed to upset the balance in midfield.
Fast forward to the 2004-05 season and United finished, wait for it, third in the Premier League and trophyless. Despite the arrival of the outstanding Wayne Rooney, the side coughed and spluttered to a disappointing season. Cristiano Ronaldo was still all flash and little substance. Roy Keane was no longer moving box to box like a young Michael Douglas, and the new midfield options of Alan Smith and Kleberson didn’t exactly spell title-winning side. The following season brought only success in the League Cup and the new low of being eliminated from the Champions League at the Group Stage bottom of their section, below Lille.
The important fact that follows on from these relative problems, failures, and re-building projects is that the team recovered to win titles and another European Cup, and Ferguson is rightly recognized as one of the very best managers in the history of the game. He didn’t always get it right, but overwhelmingly he bought wisely, he had a distinct playing style, and he built attacking teams with an insatiable winning mentality. This mentality was encapsulated when Ferguson was addressing his players and the media at a function the day after Manchester City had pipped them to the title in 2012. He may have been a little bit tipsy, and a tad emotional, when he said “I’m a dinosaur, an absolute dinosaur, but what I am, I’m a winner.” After having beaten Sunderland at the Stadium of Light that day, the home fans were cheering City’s title win. Ferguson went on “I said to the players yesterday, we won’t forget that, I’m telling you.”
Ferguson always gave his sides a sense of entitlement. Manchester United are winners. A defeat means a reaction, you always get a response. Whether that be in the next game, or the next season, the desire never diminished, and the mentality never changed. The season following that speech, Ferguson won yet another title with an unfancied side. Yet another time when his side accepted a challenge and ultimately won the title at a canter. The teams reflected the manager, and with isolated exceptions, if they went down, they went down fighting. His teams arguably became slightly more pragmatic on occasions towards the end of his tenure, but never lost that attacking swagger and ability to dominate, particularly at Old Trafford.
He left with the parting words to the fans: “Your job now is to support the new manager.. Moyes was reportedly Ferguson’s recommendation to the board, and signed a six year contract, as the club sought to establish on-going stability.
No one particularly needs reminding how the season has gone until this point. From their position as reigning champions, the season started badly before getting worse. After a summer transfer window that saw United linked with seemingly every midfielder in La Liga, they ended up bringing in Marouane Fellaini for a jaw dropping £27 million. They currently sit 7th in the table 14 points off the top, are out of the FA Cup, and must overturn a deficit if they are to make it to the League Cup final. Europe has been the one bright spot with qualification from the Group Stage proving straightforward.
A brief glimpse at some statistics illustrates the apparent regression in the side’s performance levels. United have scored an average of 1.65 goals per league game this season, compared to 2.5 at this stage last season. On average, they are managing fewer shots on goal, far less passes per game – of which substantially fewer are in the final third of the pitch, and average pass completion has dropped to an embarrassing 71.7%. Anyone watching the games will know that is largely down to the side’s persistence in playing long balls from the back. Finally, and tellingly, United have failed to gain a single point from goals scored in the last ten minutes of a game. In fact the reverse is true, as points have been dropped in the final minutes against Everton and Southampton at home, and Cardiff away. The once famous late onslaught appears to be a thing of the past.
But I digress, and will return to the original question: Surely this can’t all be the fault of David Moyes? So after pausing to reflect, I explained to my barely interested wife that it was the same squad of players, but a different coaching team. I informed her that Moyes had doubtless inherited a squad that requires a level of re-structuring, but fundamentally he has a talented and deep squad bursting with internationals who are collectively a shadow of their former selves. Confidence levels of established players are at rock bottom, and there has been a worrying lack of fight during each of the defeats this season. Proven top level players are playing with no arrogance, no determination, and no belief. Players are saying the right things to the media. After the Swansea defeat, Darren Fletcher explained “We feel we have let the manager and the fans and everyone down today by losing and it’s not good enough. We’re going to have to raise our performance levels”. Those comments were followed up with a limp defeat to relegation candidates Sunderland.
Granted, United have since beaten Swansea in the league, although the regression is further illustrated with the fact that this represented a massive three points. In years gone by it would be an assumed victory. Green shoots of recovery arrived in the second half as the team regained some level of fluency in their play. However, the trip away to Chelsea had the team fall back to earth with a thud. The first half performance represented what was a marked improvement compared to recent weeks, yet they still went in at half time two goals down. It was game over after the first goal went in.
So ultimately, is David Moyes the single biggest factor in the spectacular failure that has been United’s season to date? In my opinion, yes. It was always going to be a monumental challenge for whoever took over the reins from Ferguson. My issue from the day Moyes was appointed was that United needed someone who would be brave, attacking, play the right style of soccer win or lose, and above all, be a winner and inspire his players to be like-minded. Granted, he did a credible job over 10 years at Everton, but did he genuinely excel? Did he produce sides that were pleasing on the eye and competitive against the better teams in the league? I would argue that he did not, and Roberto Martinez has done a good job at hammering that point home this season, as they sit fifth, having only lost twice, and four points above United.
We have been told to support the new manager, but at what point does loyalty have to make way for common sense? I value stability, and the vision of one man to re-mould the club. My concern is that, with the wrong man at the helm, that loyalty could do far more harm than good. From the outside looking in, Moyes is employing the tactics of a decent mid-table side, and has thus far achieved a decent mid-table position. Whatever excuses you can make for him regards injuries and the inheritance of a lightweight central midfield, the side has vastly under-performed and failure to achieve a top four finish this season could trigger a lasting decline. He is clearly not motivating his players, and the rumblings of discontent from within the squad are not surprising or difficult to understand.
I have no hope or expectation of a new manager arriving before the end of next season at the very earliest. However, I would urge the board to make a change now. The club is renowned for its loyalty to the manager, but I have seen nothing from David Moyes, past or present, to re-assure me that he is the man for the job, or even that he has any form of a cohesive plan for progression in the coming seasons. The scatter gun approach to the last transfer window is testament to that. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but I’m sorry to say I’m preparing myself for life as a soccer fan who for once in his life is not going to be spoilt with the consistent success with which I have grown accustomed.
For more Manchester United coverage, visit the Manchester United team page for news, analysis and opinion.