Manchester United‘s midweek 1-1 draw with European champions Bayern Munich has given David Moyes some respite and reprieve from what has otherwise been a season to forget for the Red Devils boss. Not that the painful lessons learned from the Scot’s inaugural Old Trafford campaign could ever be unscarred from the back of his mind.
But facing the grimly unenviable prospect of overseeing the worst title defence of the Premier League era and United’s exclusion from next season’s Champions League tournament for the first time in 19 years all-but mathematically declared, the jury is still out on Sir Alex Ferguson’s self-appointed successor.
Throw a stone in any direction and it’s not hard to hit a pundit with a thought-provoking opinion on what’s gone wrong at the Carrington camp this season. We all knew that Ferguson’s retirement would have a debasing effect on the Premier League champions, that much was inevitable, but few anticipated the rupture would be so deep, and so costly in terms of results.
Some blame United’s 7th-place standing on the attitudes of the players; knowing full well of David Moyes’ lack of trophy-winning exposure, dressing room leaders such as Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney should be filling the experience void.
Others suggest the Red Devils squad, despite losing only the sole figure of Paul Scholes in the summer and David Moyes spending a combined £65million to add Juan Mata and Maroaune Fellaini to a roster that strolled it’s way to a Premier League title last season, hasn’t been rightly invested in for some time, and now that Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t around to pave up the cracks, it’s intrinsic weaknesses have been disturbingly exposed under the new regime.
Then there’s the rather reactionary views of the #Moyesout brigade, aeroplane escapades and all, who would prefer a more continentally proven, silverware-laden figure in the dugout.
But David James, of England goalkeeping fame, has an alternate theory, courtesy of his column in the Guardian – the simple notion that David Moyes is still caught in the Everton mindset.
A patronising hypothesis perhaps, suggesting that the 50 year-old has failed to appreciate the differences between his former post and his current one, but the supporting evidence is certainly there.
This time last season for example, Moyes’ Toffees were sitting in sixth place with 56 points from 33 games, with a goal difference of +14. This term, with just six fixtures of the campaign remaining, Moyes’ United are in seventh place, with 54 points and a goal difference of +14. Superficial and circumstantial evidence perhaps, but the interesting coincidence certainly comes with an almost haunting quality.
Likewise, whilst Old Trafford’s reputation as a fearsome fortress has been completely obliterated this season through defeats to West Brom, Everton, Tottenham and Newcastle, Manchester United’s runs on the road have been a far more fruitful experience for Moyes. In fact, the Red Devils are currently topping the Premier League’s away table, with 30 points out of a possible 48.
The Scot was hardly known for his away day escapades with the Toffees, in fact quite the reverse – he lost just once at Goodison Park last season, compared to nine times on the road. But it’s not hard to envisage how a hard-working outfit of Moyes’s Everton variety, centred around direct, counter-attacking football, strengthened by the immense quality of the Manchester United roster, could quickly become a formidable force when visiting Premier League opposition. The underdog nature of playing away from home without the requirement of dominating possession certainly lends itself to David Moyes’ more traditional strengths. To quote the former Liverpool and Portsmouth goalkeeper directly “It’s a familiar formula for Moyes, comfortable and well-honed over the years.”
The difference at Old Trafford is the philosophical legacy Sir Alex Ferguson left behind. Under the retired Scot, the Red Devils were adventurous and daring, cavalier and swash-buckling, aggressive and relentless, bookending their matches with ferocious starts and even more ferocious finishes.
Moyes has failed to replicate that; under his leadership, United have approached games more cautiously, seemingly waiting to settle into the match before going for the jugular. The only problem is that it nullifies the psychological threat that’s served Manchester United so well at home throughout the Premier League era. Likewise, it’s hardly the low level of intensity you’d expect from reigning English champions.
Of course, confidence and context has to be considered. There’s no point in a low-in-morale United side trying to start a game at full throttle when quality opposition can quickly pick them apart.
But in Moyes’ behaviour and diction too, the signs are there that he’s still caught in the Everton mindset. Taking first team training on a near-daily basis may have been the norm at the limited-in-resources world of Goodison Park, but at a club of Manchester United’s monolithic stature, you have to take more of a birds-eye perspective.
Steve McLaren once described Sir Alex Ferguson has having a ‘helicopter view’, foreseeing far-away fixtures and transfer windows from the distance of his office rather than at the coal-face, but Moyes’ hands-on approach must make it difficult to look past the day-to-day running of the club. As Fergie stated upon the release of his latest book, which strongly argues the importance of delegation; “Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped.”
Admittedly, at this point in time, the United gaffer probably can’t think too far ahead of his next fixture. Every game between now and the end of the season is a different type of test, and every result will invite scrutiny.
But as Jose Mourinho will quickly tell you, at a major club public perception is key. Like Ferguson, the Chelsea boss is a cult of personality in his own right. His image is powerful, and hence, so is that of his club. Moyes on the other hand, was ‘thrilled’ to be in the quarter-finals of the Champions League – a stage of the competition which United have reached or surpassed twelve times in the last 17 campaigns.
If things weren’t going Ferguson’s way, he’d target anything he could to remove blame from himself and his team, be it a refereeing decision, the performances of a single player or even a ball-boy, anything to maintain the notion that he was in full control. In contrast, after a 2-1 defeat to Stoke, Moyes vented at reporters; “I don’t know what we have to do to win”. Following a 2-0 loss to Olympiacos, he told journalists; “I didn’t see that coming”. Neither statement suggests the customary attitude of a flagship club, or a flagship manager.
It’s not a case of David Moyes being out of his depth. I refuse to believe that the only glaring mistake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford tenure was hand-picking his own replacement. There’s no way Moyes would have got the gig if Fergie had any doubts over his ability to handle the challenges of managing historically the most successful club in England.
Rather, adapting has been the problem, and understandably so. Here’s a manager with no silverware to his name, telling 13-time Premier League title winner Ryan Giggs to put out cones and do his shuttle runs. Things were incredibly different at Goodison.
Transition takes time, but this is a different process. Moyes needs to change the way he thinks, sees, acts and reacts. The psyche must change – from that of a respected manager at a minor club, to that of a powerful leader at a major one.