It’s safe to say that it hasn’t been an easy start for David Moyes at Manchester United. The Red Devils have already lost nearly half the Premier League games they did last season, and we aren’t even at the end of October.
Granted, the Scot has faced a series of incredibly tough fixtures, taking on Swansea, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the opening five weeks of the new campaign, but all the United boss has proved so far during his Old Trafford tenure is that Sir Alex Ferguson is an almost impossible act to follow.
Of course, it doesn’t take the brain power of Steven Hawking to realise that a 13-time Premier League title-winning manager would be irreplaceable, but many expected the former Everton manager to have made better progress.
The theory was at the start of the summer that Manchester United’s talented squad, who claimed the English accolade last season, along with the club’s monolithic infrastructure and efficiency off the pitch would be able to withstand losing such an iconic manager, even if his replacement bared no particular experience at title-winning or even Champions League level.
But the transition process hasn’t quite gone to plan, as the Red Devils find themselves in 9th place with 10 points after seven games, and the performances have been almost as disturbing as the results.
So what is it that the reining Premier League champions are missing exactly without Ferguson at the helm? They have the same title-winning squad as last season, with the added midfield influence of Marouane Fellaini, and although the Scot’s talents are well-known, he’s hardly been the most hands-on manager over the last few years.
Joey Barton even quipped in a recent meeting with the press that Ferguson ‘couldn’t put on a training session to save his life’, and although few United fans would pay attention to the words of a controversial midfielder who has spent the majority of his footballing career with the noisy neighbours and can’t even claim first-hand experience on the issue, it’s by no means the first story we’ve heard to suggest the Scot’s role significantly reduced in the latter stages of his managerial tenure.
Yet, Jamie Carragher believes the former gaffer was still worth in excess of ten points per season, for his ability to pressurise referees, galvanise his players and wind-up the opposition. An interesting valuation considering the Red Devils have dropped eleven points so far this year.
More than anything else however, or any particular positive managerial attribute to Ferguson’s name, I believe it’s the psychological edge over opponents Ferguson, or rather Ferguson’s image, provided that the Red Devils are suddenly missing this season.
With a Ferguson side, you knew exactly what you were getting, because it was what the man came to symbolise over the years; work-rate and hustle for a full ninety minutes, an aggressive determination to succeed, and the confidence that they could beat any opponent, big or small, and overcome any burden to recover from a losing position.
The combination provided a fear factor the Red Devils, just as the famous ‘hairdryer treatment’ did for Ferguson’s players, a kind a preceding reputation, a myth of monolithic dominance, that insisted upon their opponents to play in a more negative and cautious manner to accommodate for it.
But now, for the first time in the best part of twenty years, United’s ability to overcome any endeavour has seriously come into the question, as has their in-build determination, and as a result, other Premier League clubs have simply stopped being scared of them. As West Brom proved a few weeks ago, if you go to Old Trafford positively and well-prepared, without getting caught up in Manchester United’s tradition of success, then you can claim results, and other clubs are now beginning to follow suit.
And it’s not simply a case of what goes on during any particular match-day -Ferguson’s image of a man who should be feared, and subsequently United’s as a club that should be feared, was constantly maintained in the media and by pundits, as well as being a rather self-fulfilling phenomena.
Now however, we’ve already seen a wealth of criticism from the British press over Moyes’ failed transfer pursuits in the summer, not to mention his side’s performances on the pitch. If Sir Alex had made just a single addition to a title-winning squad, nobody would have batted an eye-lid. Similarly, if the Red Devils had started the season in such poor form with Moyes’s predecessor still at the helm, they would have undoubtedly been tipped to bounce back in the title race, rather than suddenly fade away.
It’s this psychological edge that Moyes must somehow try to reaffirm if he’s to make a success of his Manchester United tenure. It will be no easy feat, considering Ferguson’s powerful image was a cumulative effect of his maintained managerial successes over the years.
But if he can’t do it via results, there are other ways too. Ferguson regularly criticised referees and the press to put pressure on them, which was yet another showing of the Scot’s entrenched desire to succeed, and something Moyes should strongly consider replicating.
So far, we’ve seen the United boss criticise the FA’s schedulers by alluding the tough start to his Old Trafford career in terms of fixtures could only have been a product of design rather than fate, but we need to witness further aggression and temper from Ferguson’s successor in the public eye.
That being said, the Ferguson mark 2 act won’t be convincing without results – in fact, it could have the adverse effect – and although United’s performances have a long way to go before they start living up to the dominant displays that further helped provide the Red Devils’ fearsome image, the impetus over the next few weeks must be to claim as many wins as possible, and put notions that the United have become a soft touch over the course of the summer to bed.
Moyes has a great opportunity to do so however now that his difficult start in the Premier League is out of the way. Regular giant-killers Southampton may prove an issue, but after facing the Saints at Old Trafford this weekend, the English champions take on Stoke, Fulham and Norwich over the next month, which is a more than ample enough opportunity for Moyes to re-instate his side’s dominance and monolithic reputation.
Is it Sir Alex Ferguson’s psychological edge Manchester United are missing most?
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