The Writing Was On The Wall For David Moyes’ Managerial Career at Manchester United
Anyone remember a player by the name of Teeratep Winothai? Yes? No? David Moyes may not recall him but Winothai scored the winner for the Singha All Star XI as Manchester United succumbed 1-0 in the Scot’s first game in charge of the Red Devils.
Though the result seemed harmless enough, it was nonetheless an inauspicious start to David Moyes’ tenure as Manchester United manager. As far as omens go, it’s fair to say that the result certainly wasn’t a good sign.
Moyes’ time at Manchester United though was not the tale of a man cursed with a ridiculous amount of bad luck, but of a manager who was promoted above his station and made numerous preventable mistakes.
Eyebrows should have been raised right at the beginning of the season when Moyes complained about the opening fixtures that saw United face Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the first five games. It revealed a negative mindset that would permeate to the players at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he would have “raged” at the opening set of fixtures had he still been in charge but you suspect that he would have relished the challenge to get a head start over United’s rivals and give the Old Trafford club immediate momentum in defense of their title.
Moyes though didn’t seem to accept the challenge and instead of trying to make an immediate positive mark to buy himself time, he reverted to what came most naturally to him: playing with caution. His subsequent suggestion that the fixture list may have been “rigged” didn’t hint at a man who was comfortable breathing the rarefied air that managing one of the biggest clubs in the world brings. If anything, it betrayed a small-time mentality.
The narrative over the season especially from his backers has been that Moyes needed time to build his own Manchester United. But the question is: did Moyes do anything over the course of the season to earn himself the time his supporters insisted was needed to rebuild United?
Moyes did start building his Manchester United team at the backroom level, dispensing of the services of Mike Phelan, Eric Steele and eventually Rene Meulensteen, against Ferguson’s advice, and bringing in Steve Round, Phil Neville, Chris Woods, and Jimmy Lumsden. In hindsight that was the first of many errors.
Under his guidance, United failed to defend their title with any purpose and missed out on Champions League qualification. They were embarrassingly knocked out at home in the third round of the FA Cup by Swansea, and soon after ousted out of the League Cup semifinal by Sunderland in a farcical penalty shoot-out. The morass of unwanted records built up during the Moyes era cannot be blamed on bad luck alone.
Oddly enough, given Moyes’ lack of European experience, his best results have come in the Champions League as United qualified top of their group and went through to the quarterfinals. But even then there was the debacle away to Olympiacos, which reportedly led to questions being raised at board level about Moyes’ suitability as Manchester United manager.
The tie against Bayern Munich did play to Moyes’ skill set because he wasn’t required to force the issue as United were against a superior team. For most of the season United were facing so-called smaller sides and seemed incapable of imposing themselves against the opposition.
Tactically, United have been one-paced, limited, slow to react during transitions of play, and devoid of imagination. The home game against Fulham was an unflattering caricature of Moyes’ attacking ‘philosophy’ but in general United have scored fewer goals this season compared to the year before and the Scot couldn’t come up with any solutions to rectify the situation.
This goes on to a larger question: what kind of football does Moyes actually believe in? While the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have a clear vision of how they’d like their sides to play (and the wherewithal to change things tactically when required) Moyes doesn’t appear to have much of a philosophy bar keeping things tight, maintaining a rigid shape and a reliance on crosses. More than anything Moyes is an instinctively reactive manager rather than being a proactive one. To ask the question again, would it have been sensible to give Moyes time to “build his own side” when there wasn’t a clear direction as to how he was going to achieve success?
Moyes’ supporters have also purported that the squad bequeathed to him by Sir Alex Ferguson was poor and needed a huge overhaul. To a point they are correct. The relative lack of investment under Ferguson and the Glazers in the playing squad in previous seasons has seen it weakened in certain areas, especially in midfield. Ferguson’s judgment also needs questioned for letting Paul Pogba go. That said, this is a squad that won the league last season by 11 points and is not filled with amateurs. In David De Gea, United have a genuinely top class keeper. Rafael, Phil Jones, Johnny Evans, and Chris Smalling are good defenders in their own right and between them there seems to be enough to cover right back and the centre back slots. The central midfield area clearly needs addressing with Tom Cleverley regressing after initially impressing when he broke into the first team, Marouane Fellaini has endured a torrid time at Old Trafford whilst Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick can’t go on indefinitely even if rotated properly. Up front though United have a wealth of options with Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck to choose from. Add to that the emergence of Adnan Januzaj, the purchase of Juan Mata, and the experience Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand bring, and one can argue that this United squad have enough talent to be higher up in the league than their current position. Though the squad is by no means perfect, it is not as poor as it’s been made out to be.
Additionally, a key question that needs to be asked is how many players have actually improved under David Moyes and his coaching staff? David De Gea is the obvious candidate; Adnan Januzaj has emerged under Moyes’ guidance (and lest we forget tied down to a long term contract by him and Ed Woodward). Beyond that who’s actually improved under Moyes? Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia have regressed, Phil Jones has yet to make a position his own, Chris Smalling hasn’t completely convinced whilst Danny Welbeck, despite scoring more goals this season, clearly wasn’t happy under Moyes. The lack of players responding to Moyes’ coaching methods points to an inability or unwillingness on the part of the squad to get on board with the message the manager attempted to convey. One way or another, it was Moyes’ responsibility to get the squad to buy into his methods and get the best out of his players but too few have stepped up whilst too many have gone backwards.
That said, the United squad needed to be refreshed and Moyes had two windows to address the problem. He was correct in identifying that a new left back was required given the number of games Evra has played over the past few seasons and also recognizing the need for at least one top class midfielder. But Moyes discovered that dithering over targets can completely undermine any rebuilding exercise. Out of two transfer windows, all Moyes had to show were the signings of Marouane Fellaini at an overinflated fee and Juan Mata, who was bought because he became available. Granted, a lot of the blame for the transfer window fiasco has to go to Ed Woodward; but with United missing out on Thiago Alcantara, Leighton Baines, Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera, and Fabio Coentrao – to name a few, the debacle didn’t reflect well on Moyes, or Woodward for that matter, and their ability to get deals done.
A lot has been made of David Moyes revamping the scouting system at Old Trafford, which had purportedly impressed the Old Trafford hierarchy, and of his thoroughness in assessing his targets. However, there’s a fine line between being thorough and being indecisive. There was no guarantee that he wouldn’t overpay again for players who may not be up to the mark, or be able to coach new talent to the level required to win trophies. Unfortunately, given United’s lack of success this season, the new boss, whoever he may, be will probably have to pay a premium for new players.
Again, a number of Moyes’ supporters have argued that he should have been given the chance to spend money this summer to make this Manchester United side his own whilst pointing out that a significant amount was needed to be spent to rebuild the squad. If Moyes failed after bringing in his players then he should be let go, they’ve argued. The point they’re missing is that this summer window is not going to be a typical one for Manchester United. If reports are anything to go by, they will spend anywhere between £100 million to £200 million and that is a significant amount in anyone’s book, especially in the era of Financial Fair Play.
So let’s say that Moyes wasn’t sacked, spent that money, still didn’t get the requisite results and was subsequently relieved of his duties. The new manager would have a bunch of players who are not “his” and won’t have the luxury of overhauling the squad to the same extent as Moyes. Could Manchester United afford make that expensive a gamble? Could they make that gamble in light of Moyes’ failure to meet any of his targets? Unfortunately for Moyes the United board didn’t want to take any more risks.
A lot of blame for United’s descent has fallen on the shoulders of the players which is fair to a degree as the team’s slump cannot be attributed to Moyes alone. The abject performances, the leaks to the press, and even outbursts such as Robin Van Persie’s comments after the Olympiakos game have tarnished Moyes’ tenure at United. But again, Moyes is not blameless as over the season he has questioned the ability and quality of his squad. He unbelievably labeled Liverpool as ‘favourites’ when the Anfield side visited Old Trafford and that United needed to aspire to Manchester City’s level. He was hardly inspiring confidence and didn’t speak like a Manchester United manager.
Moyes’ apparent indulgence of Wayne Rooney – informing him about transfer plans and setting him up for captaincy – appeared to undermine the Scot’s stature at the club as well, with some of the crueler followers of United stating that the England international was the real boss at Old Trafford.
On top of that the alleged strained relationships with Robin Van Persie and Ryan Giggs, the tweets of Rio Ferdinand and Wilfried Zaha, Nemanja Vidic’s decision to sign for Inter, and the stories of Danny Welbeck wanting to leave the club betrayed an image of a manager who couldn’t handle the job of Manchester United boss.
There’s no doubt that following Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a huge task. Moyes wasn’t helped by being paired with a novice CEO in Ed Woodward, the lack of investment from the Glazers as a result of the debt which left United with an imbalanced squad, or Ferguson’s hospital pass regarding Wayne Rooney’s future at the club. However, a lot of Moyes’ wounds have been self-inflicted. Whether it was the botched-up transfer windows, replacing a successful backroom team, the cautious, uninspiring football, his innate negativity or the protestations that luck was against his side and claiming not knowing what he had to do to win, David Moyes was almost his own worst enemy.
Essentially, there will be debates to the merits of the Moyes era as to whether he needed more time or if the club should have sacked him sooner. The issue with football, especially in this day and age, is that time can’t be given – it must be earned, and quickly. The notion of Manchester United not being a sacking club is a bit misleading with the likes of Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton, and Ron Atkinson all drummed out of Old Trafford, though the latter three did manage United for a reasonable period of time. Ferguson was the exception rather than the rule. The reason why Ferguson was given time was because he earned it. Ferguson had a track record of success at Aberdeen breaking up the Rangers/Celtic duopoly and memorably beating Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners Cup. In his first full season at United he guided them to second and whilst there were wobbles (which arguably may have seen him sacked in the current climate) he still managed to deliver a trophy, the FA Cup, in his third full season.
Moyes, pre-United, possesses a very respectable managerial resume but crucially he didn’t have the credit of winning a major trophy or being a “proven winner.” It was always going to be difficult to succeed Sir Alex but nobody expected him to replicate that level of success at all, let alone instantly. What he needed to do to earn time was to lay the foundations and map out a vision to setup a successful Manchester United era post-Ferguson whilst still getting the results required to aid him in his rebuilding efforts. Unfortunately for Moyes he wasn’t able to do that, nor did he show any inclination that he could do so. Time waits for no one and that’s especially true in the modern world of football. Time certainly can’t be given – it has to be earned. Sadly for Moyes, he didn’t do enough to prove that he was the man to build another trophy-laden era at Old Trafford and his time at United ran out.