On Tuesday morning, April 22nd 2014, David Moyes’ fledgling reign on the managerial throne of Manchester United was terminated. For ten months, Moyes was consistently a hot topic of controversy and debate among supporters of the infamous club, as well as pundits and casual fans of the beautiful game alike.
How would this determined, focused and battle-hardened Scot fare, making the jump from the slow and steady improvement of an Everton side he had nurtured since 2002, to the post made available by Sir Alex Ferguson – certainly the greatest manager in the history of the Premier League – where every sign of body language and tactical decision would be scrutinised and analysed as though he was the newly-appointed leader of the free world?
The answer, as has just been confirmed, was not very well.
Moyes’ credentials and reputation were immediately questioned before a ball had been kicked; from the incredulously drawn-out pursuit of Cesc Fabregas to the delusional notion that Cristiano Ronaldo would return to the team that skyrocketed him to a plateau hitherto unseen in English football, not to mention to bizarre circumstances surrounding Anders Herrera’s proposed switch to Old Trafford. How much blame can be placed on the shoulders of the Scot is questionable, but why else would the United board spend €33.5 million on Marouane Fellaini, a specialist who requires a very specific style of play in order to reap anything beneficial from him, unless Moyes desperately desired the Belgian and his unworldly ability to control the ball with his chest. Unless Moyes planned on playing route one, with ‘The Afro’ at the peak of his formation, Fellaini was never going to live up to his remarkable fee.
With two wins in his first six Premier League games, including a 2-1 loss to the lowly West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, slowly losing its reputation as an impenetrable fortress, Moyes was already feeling the struggle. Indeed, the Moyes pictured with Fellaini in August 2013 appears ten years younger than the Moyes pictured with Mata in January 2014. Meanwhile, the Moyes post-match rhetoric became stilted and familiar, numerous reiterations of ‘try’, ‘played well … Unlucky’ and ‘rebuilding’ began to frustrate. His comments after the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, that City were ‘playing at a sort of level that we are aspiring to’ (per Sky Sports), were a microcosm of the philosophical defects of the United mentality. These remarks only served to inflict injustices on the side that won the Premier League in 2013, with a chiefly identical squad of players, though arguably against inferior opposition – Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool all have the same or more points now than they had at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season (per ESPN). The Wayne Rooney contract debacle reared its ugly head, only to resolve itself with Rooney becoming the highest-paid player in club history, and consequently sealing his place in the side permanently, at least under Moyes.
The Rooney situation ties into the two greatest failures of the ‘Chosen One’ experiment; his team selection and tactical decisions. As Everton manager, Moyes preferred to alter his line-up to best frustrate the opposition, rather than what his successor, Roberto Martinez opts for, which is to make Everton the team that imposes their philosophy on the game. This contrast is key and was best seen in the 2-0 Everton victory over United; Everton have become an active team, playing their preferred style rather than allowing the opposition to dictate the flow. United, under Moyes, abide by the philosophy enforced by Moyes as Everton manager, they have become a reactive team. As such, they display little imagination in attack, despite the creative ingenuity of Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj, and possession stats become meaningless. It’s all well and good to have 60% possession and high pass completion rates, but if none of those passes present a goal-scoring opportunity, then it’s the equivalent of eleven people in a park playing without a target. The reactive setup worked against Bayern at Old Trafford, with United as the definitive underdogs, but a constant reactionary attitude only suits the perceived underdog, such as Everton under Moyes, punching above their weight. The psychology was consistent with Moyes in charge of United, but it is a mind-set ill-suited to a team of their reputation, notified attacking flair and standing in world football.
The line-ups that Moyes usually opted for can kindly be considered unimaginative, underwhelming and predictable, which is almost paradoxical considering he chose a different starting eleven in every single game this season. His options were severely limited in defence and midfield, but his choices for front four frequently left fans sighing with exasperation. The segregation of Kagawa and Januzaj from the starting line-up proved frustrating, with Moyes showing an unusual infatuation with Ashley Young, an inefficient, inconsistent winger, and Antonio Valencia, a one-trick pony. Wayne Rooney featured in the CAM role when Robin van Persie was fit, and these two have shown little-to-no chemistry in their time together. In recent weeks, with the signing of Juan Mata and the resurgence of Shinji Kagawa, United’s attacks were relatively fluid and exciting, with the two versatile and exciting trequartistas interlinking and free-flowing in a manner that gave United potential with every attack. It almost didn’t matter who played CF and RM, but United’s 4-0 win against Newcastle offered a brief glimpse at greatness, with Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj’s playmaking complimented beautifully by the grafting and running of Javier Hernandez, in a rare start.
Sadly, as soon as Rooney was available to play, Moyes inserted him, unfit, into a line-up that flourished without him. As CAM, Rooney is neither as creative or unselfish as the aforementioned trio, and as CF, his refusal to hug the shoulder of the last defender and make runs akin to Hernandez and Robin van Persie, in preference of dropping deep to acquire and rob possession from his teammates, stifles the flow of the attack. This falls back on Moyes as, because Rooney is seemingly politically undroppable despite form and reason, Moyes will not or cannot restrain him in order to play in a functional and beneficial system. In his last few weeks, Moyes finally, as if by accident, stumbled upon a tactical structure and suitable personnel that was set to deliver in bundles, and in his first opportunity to run with something new, he reverted to Type 1.0 and drained the optimism from fans and his players. The display against Everton, his former team, appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as his players were unenthusiastic and unwilling to make the effort for him anymore. In this situation, the Glazers could either sack the players, or sack the manager who couldn’t control or inspire the players, and as evidenced by their running of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Glazers do not suffer fools. You can have the best players – and as such, the biggest egos – and if the manager cannot reign them in, why should he be given €200 million to buy more players for a dysfunctional system.
David Moyes will be fine. He has proven himself to be an excellent manager at the right level, and opportunities appear in football at an alarming rate. Manchester United will move forward under Ryan Giggs on an interim basis, and Ferdinand and Evra, to name a few, may follow captain Nemanja Vidic to pastures new, to be replaced by the improving Chris Smalling and the unlimited potential of Phil Jones. Whomever the new manager is, be it Louis van Gaal or Jurgen Klopp (unlikely, as he has ruled himself out), he will face an uphill battle to find the best players to cover United’s weaknesses, but more importantly, he must convince the current crop of United’s underappreciated phenomena, like Kagawa, Januzaj, Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, that they still have plenty to contribute to the future of the club.
Ryan Collins, Pundit Arena.