Brutal, disrespectful, and United’s only choice
So there it is – the moment so many Manchester United supporters seemingly craved, at least if social media is any barometer. After 10 months in charge at Old Trafford David Moyes has gone – to dancing on the streets of Twitter. It has been an anarchic period; a failure of manager, management and Sir Alex Ferguson’s succession plan. History’s finger will long point at Moyes for his ineptitude in a job that was always too much, although United supporters understand that blame is multi-faceted.
There was something opportune in the appallingly mishandled dismissal. This is a club that at one proclaims commercial acumen rivaled by none, but is chaotically mismanaged by Ed Woodward and his cohort of mad marketing men.
It was perhaps appropriately sleazy to leak Moyes’ sacking to the press some 24 hours ahead of the man being told by Woodward in person. That Moyes remained at Carrington some two hours after his dismissal – to wish his former players well – says much for his dignity if not for the former Evertonian’s suitability for the role.
Yet, Moyes has become a wrecking ball at Old Trafford – one that holds long-lasting consequences. From ripping up last summer’s transfer plans, to smashing players’ confidence and beyond, United will have to spend much and perhaps wait some time to recover from the Scot’s reign.
Destruction began early, with a pre-season programme that focused strongly on marketing and less on shaping the team against high quality opponents. The boot camp approach alienated players from the start. Moyes moaned about the fixture list, but the Scot’s dedication to long-running aerobic drills and little ball work left United undercooked on the ball and over-baked without it.
The manager’s deconstruction of Shinji Kagawa’s pre-season was symptomatic of a greater problem to come – a genuine lack of control. The Japanese player’s summer was split in two, disrupting what should have been a carefully managed programme for one of Moyes’ more creative outlets.
But it was in the market that Moyes was at his most indecisive, while demonstrating a perplexing naïvety. Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera, Gareth Bale, Leighton Baines, Sami Khedira and Daniele De Rossi were pursued by fax to little effect. Thiago Alcântara, lined-up for a £20 million transfer by Ferguson and David Gill, was inexplicably rejected. Perhaps Moyes genuinely believed other targets were available. They were not.
Marouane Fellaini’s eventual capture was a farce unworthy of far lesser clubs than United, but one that the new manager seemingly endorsed. United’s decision to pay £4 million over Fellaini’s buy-out clause was embarrassing; the player’s obvious lack of quality left a gaping hole in midfield. It is all very good installing a ‘high tech scouting system’ at Carrington, but if the outcome is a failure to deliver high-quality acquisitions then little improvement has occurred.
Moyes spent much of the summer courting players he would later alienate – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Ryan Giggs to name three. In pandering to Wayne Rooney the Scot created a rod for his own back and a long-term problem for the club. The sycophantic choice to place Rooney on a pedestal garnered early season energy from the striker, but it has largely been a campaign of perspiration when inspiration was desperately required. Too often has the forward been flattered by a manager desperate to please.
It is symptomatic of another Moyes trait – the failure to pick to form. There were, as just one example, times during United’s 3-0 victory at West Bromwich Albion in March that striker Robin van Persie appeared disinterested to the point of disrespect. It was the nadir of the Dutchman’s season, yet Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández have spent most of the campaign on the sidelines. The latter may still chose to leave.
Indeed, Moyes’ use of United’s squad is a contradiction. In 51 games the Scot has rotated each time, yet as the season began Moyes over-used veteran Ferdinand to such an extent that the 34-year-old was burnt out by October. Moyes has little idea how to manage a large and diverse squad.
The summer also brought unnecessary and destructive turmoil in the back room – it undermined Moyes’ cause. There was much debate around the decision to sack Mike Phelan along with goalkeeping coach Eric Steele, while the Scot failed to retain Rene Meulensteen. The loss of knowledge, experience and link between management and players has proven devastating. He changed too much, not too little – a sign of weakness from the off.
On the pitch Moyes’ start could hardly have been more positive – a 4-1 victory at Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City. Yet, even in the moment of triumph there was a sense that van Persie had rescued a laboured United performance. Over the coming months the new man would prove himself far from the dynamic, proactive, coach that many supporters believe United missed out on when passing over José Mourinho and Pep Guardola.
If results have been poor then United’s lack of style has exacerbated supporters’ anger. The two-legged defense-minded strategy employed against Bayern Munich was no one-off – Moyes has sought a safety-first approach all season. United has scored just 56 goals in the Premier League to Liverpool’s 96.
It’s not just about goals though. United’s style under Moyes has rarely brought supporters to their feet save for those few matches where the squad’s more creative players have been unleashed.
The approach has often been one-dimensional in an era of tactical innovation. In defeat at Stoke City earlier this year United launched 47 long balls forward into the swirling Potteries wind – just 13 found their target. Against Fulham at Old Trafford United delivered more than 80 crosses to laughably little effect.
Indeed, there is a sense in which the better football this season has been discovered by accident. In victory at Newcastle United Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Kagawa combined to provide a flexible, vibrant attacking performance rarely seen under Moyes. It was a fluke that the trio was deployed in tandem at all. Januzaj was overlooked for Ashley Young at the start, while Kagawa and Mata enjoyed more central roles only because Rooney and van Persie sat out the game. There was a similar pattern at Crystal Palace and West Ham United.
Moyes’ negativity has become the punchline to a very poor joke. The manager’s bizarre decision to substitute Rooney for Chris Smalling on 88 minutes as United led Southampton at Old Trafford last October seems a good précis for a season of caution.
Meanwhile, off the pitch there have been too many mixed messages – misplaced positivity one moment, the words of a man out of his depth the next. Moyes blamed referees, the FA, injuries, poor luck, and Sir Alex. Anybody, it seems, bar the man in charge.
The peripatetic use of the word “try” became a social media meme, while the Scot’s declaration that Manchester City are “at the sort of level we are aspiring to” brought anger that will take some time to quell. They’re probably still laughing at the Etihad.
“I don’t know what we have to do to win,” Moyes confessed after United’s loss at Stoke City in February. United supporters concurred and so, in the end, did the players evidenced by a rash of dressing room leaks that would never have occurred under Ferguson.
The political factions emerged with alacrity. In one camp the ‘Everton mob’ of Steve Round, Jimmy Lumsden, Chris Woods, Phil Neville and Fellaini. In the other a large group of disaffected players, player-coaches, and former greats.
Round and Lumsden have gone with the manager; Woods may follow in the summer. The stench may take longer to dissipate and United’s highly-paid stars have much to answer for.
In the end results signalled the end – perhaps after United’s loss to Olympiakos in February. Six defeats in as many games against City, Liverpool and Everton and just one win against the Premier League’s top six is a record that would have brought dismissal for greater men than Moyes.
Yet, it is a period that leaves the club in a desperate limbo, with few coaches of elite quality available and another – Louis van Gaal – tied up until after the World Cup.
The coming window is perhaps the most crucial in United’s recent past, with half-a-dozen players leaving and potentially as many arriving again. After last summer’s incompetence it is one in which Woodward must excel, but just perhaps without a manager in tow.
Should the club fail to capture its main targets the mediocre pattern set this season may be ingrained for longer than anybody wants, whomever is brought in to replace Moyes.
The new man will get money, although probably not the £150 million plus briefed from the shadowier corners of United’s communications department. After all, failure to invest over the past eight seasons left Moyes with a squad far removed from Ferguson’s best.
What the new man won’t get is time. Not any more. United has become a club like any other – Moyes’ chaotic reign left no other choice.