When David Moyes looks back to the end of last season – a small, glorious period in which he was celebrated nationally for his decade-long service to Everton as he marched towards the Old Trafford throne – he’ll probably wonder where it all went so wrong.
Last week, Manchester United came away from a Champions League tie against Olympiakos with a two-goal deficit, making it seven out of a possible twelve defeats for the club in 2014. Regardless of domestic form, unless we witness a dramatic turn-around in the second leg at Old Trafford, the Red Devils’ shocking performance in Greece could well be the most defining one of their season.
Blowback from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was always expected; perhaps not to such an extent the reigning Premier League champions’ title defence would be over by Christmas and they’d soon go on to lose 2-0 to a striker-less Olympiakos in Europe, but none the less, this debasing form that’s rocked the Old Trafford camp had been anticipated as a distinct possibility, even by the most faithful of Manchester United fans.
Rather, Moyes’ biggest error, his most fatal and intrinsic of flaws, has been his continual inability to step out of the shadow of his monolithic predecessor and differentiate from the old regime.
In many ways, you can’t hold it against him. After all, Ferguson selected Moyes as his heir to the Carrington throne personally, presumably due to the incredible similarities between the two. Both are club men, rather than careering go-getters, both, through their Scottish roots and aggressive demeanour, share that determined, ruthless spirit customary north of the border, and although the former Everton boss may not be the master of the hairdryer, he does come with those frightening light blue, bulging eyes to assert his will in the dressing room. Furthermore, during his Goodison days, Moyes always promoted an intrinsically English style of football in-keeping with Manchester United’s traditional identity.
At the same time, the United boss inherited a squad that had strolled their way to a Premier League title the year previous – it would take a brave man, especially considering the Scot’s inexperience at major clubs, to rip up the blueprint simply for the sake of change.
But the paradoxical after effect has been that, barring results, the only difference one can draw from Manchester United this term in comparison to the last is that era-ending change in leadership. In a nutshell, David Moyes has become Sir Alex Ferguson-lite, and the Red Devils have become Diet-United. That ultimate ingredient in the Carrington club’s successes – Ferguson’s magic – has been replaced by a synthetic substitute that just can’t replicate the flavour.
Had Moyes formalised some of his speculated signings in the summer, perhaps things would be different.
That’s no diss to the current Red Devils squad; yes, their limits were well-documented even as they lifted the Premier League trophy, and yes, those who were expected to shoulder the majority of responsibility this season have decisively shirked it, but regardless, the United roster is still a better assembled cast than Everton, Tottenham and Liverpool’s.
But the likes of Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria and Ilkay Gundogan arriving would have been a breath of youthful, fresh air in an otherwise ageing squad. Most importantly, all three – in addition to United’s many other targets from summer 2013 – would have significantly changed the way United play.
Now however, the tactical differences between the Red Devils under both managers are virtually non-existent. No matter how United’s line-ups are portrayed during match-day coverage, it’s still essentially the same 4-4-1-1 system – two wingers as a permanency, and Wayne Rooney in his dual No.10 role – that was used by the old regime throughout the entirety of last season. Once again, the only differences are the outcomes and the man in charge of selection.
For example, United were sternly criticised for their record-breaking number of crosses during their 2-2 draw with a bottom-of-the-table Fulham side last month. Under Ferguson, the Cottagers would probably have been praised for their bus-parking performance, but under Moyes, it was labelled a statistic that highlighted the side’s lack of creativity.
More than anything else, it was the fact we’d heard this song before, and so had Rene Meulensteen, who commented after the game; “When I saw Manchester United today I thought the game-plan was quite straight forward – get it wide, get it in. If you’re well organised and the goalkeeper is in good positions to come and collect the ball, it can be easy [to defend against].”
Not that I’m suggesting Manchester United would be in a different position than they are now if Moyes had arrived at Old Trafford in the summer immediately announcing plans to go against every tactical principle of the club’s identity – although there have been signs of the Red Devils’ need to modernise tactically for some time. That would be purely through the benefit of hindsight alone.
But amid the current situation David Moyes now finds himself in, in which Manchester United could finish the season with the unenviable title of the worst championship defence of the Premier League era, the Scot would at least have the safety net of trying something different.
Regardless of results, he could have answered his critics honestly with the undeniable truth that he was attempting to move the club in a new direction, rather than his futile efforts of prolonging an era that was orchestrated, masterminded and personified by the one man no longer at the club.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that David Moyes is entirely to blame. The fact is that Manchester United is a club shaped in Ferguson’s image – his influence can be felt at every level of the Old Trafford hierarchy, in the club’s every department and, barring Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, every player in the first team is a Ferguson signing.
A more daunting battle than confronting his predecessor’s almighty shadow and reputation is the task of overcoming the institutionalised legacy Ferguson has left behind. In essence, if Moyes is to ever instigate significant change at Old Trafford, the history, beliefs, ethos and character of the club itself – all molded in Ferguson’s effigy – remains his biggest nemesis.