Back to his roots. Not that David Moyes has a significant relationship with Spain. None in fact. Yet, while the Scot’s tenure at Old Trafford still brings cold sweats to even the most hardened Manchester United fan, there is no denying Real Sociedad’s is a bold choice of new manager: Moyes on an 18-month contract. A middle ranking club, for a middle ranking manager; both specialist in building more than the sum of meagre parts.
In truth United was always a step too far for Moyes – an alien environment that set the Scot’s worldview spinning. San Sebastián, even with its distinct language and proud Basque culture, should hold no fear for the former Everton manager. It may even be the making of Moyes after a humiliating experiment gone wrong in Manchester. Make it here and the Scot will reinvent a personal brand gone horribly awry over the past 18 months.
These are not easy times at Sociedad though, and Moyes will be far from taking over the league-winning squad he inherited at United. Six defeats in 11 La Liga games and an early exit at the Europa League qualifying stage brought Jagoba Arrasate’s reign to an abrupt end in early November. Supporters hopes for renewed progress this season, after finishing fourth two years ago and seventh in 2013/14, have been dashed on a string of poor results. The slide has been dramatic, with chairman Jokin Aperribay acting after Txuriurdin slipped to 19th in La Liga.
Few at Anoeta hold any sympathy for Arrasate though – a man whose passive brand of football alienated both the terraces and his playing squad. Where former manager Philippe Montanier built an attacking side around the ample talents of Antoinne Griezmann, Inigo Martinez and Carlos Vela, Arrasate has seemingly preached a more conservative – and unsuccessful – approach.
“Fans did not believe in him and, more damagingly, nor did the players,” concludes the Guardian‘s Sid Lowe. “The team lost identity and lost their way. Good footballers stagnated, bereft of leadership.”
It is, those of a crueler persuasion might add, an assessment that could have been made at almost any point during Moyes’ humbling Old Trafford tenure.
Arrasate, an inexperienced former primary school teacher, was not helped by summer departures. Griezmann joined Atlético Madrid for more than €25 million, goalkeeper Cladio Bravo ended up at Barcelona for a little under half that sum, and forward Haris Seferovic moved to the Budesliga with Eintract Frankfurt. In came the Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason, who scored at almost one per game in the Dutch league, and the ever erratic Esteban Granero. Neither has settled well in San Sebastián.
Yet, this is a challenge Moyes should enjoy. Relish even. First, to arrest an alarming decline in the club’s fortunes and to stamp his authority on players not able, or in some cases, ready to reach the club’s recent heights. Next, to drive the Basque side back into the Champions League – a platform that Moyes very much believes is one he has earned.
Moyes inherits a squad bereft of confidence, even if there is talent. Martínez and Vela remain, while youngsters such as Jon Gaztañaga and Rubén Pardo will compliment the experienced captain Xabi Prieto. Moyes, diligent as ever, will already have formed a view of his squad’s strengths and weaknesses – one bolstered as the Scot watched his first training session at Sociedad’s Zubieta complex on Wednesday.
Moyes will also need plenty luck. After all, he is unlikely to receive any more patience than the 10 months proffered at Old Trafford. Sociedad have enjoyed – or is that endured – 15 managers in the last 14 years, including John Toshack and Chris Coleman. Neither lasted more than 18 months.
Nor will the Scot enjoy a hefty budget; Sociedad remains every inch a ‘selling club’. It is, though, an inspiring town with a club that aspires to grow beyond its current station.
“I have spoken to him and I have told him that he is going to a marvellous place,” said former Moyes’ charge Mikel Arteta. “He is going to find a club that in many aspects resembles Everton. It’s like a family and with a group of players that are currently in a lower position that they deserve to be.”
Moyes will also be able to build on his own terms, free from the pressure of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, and the expectations of a playing squad that simply did not believe the former Evertonian had the right tools for the job.
“He is a coach who had no luck here,” said Juan Mata, who views Moyes with more respect than many. “Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson is not easy. Not for him not for anyone. He was unlucky. He did not got the results we wanted. He did a very good job at Everton. He works hard and prepares really well for the games.”
Whether that preparation will also include Moyes’ former coaching team is yet to be revealed, although none of Steve Round, Phil Neville or Jimmy Lumsden is currently employed. Yet, the Scot may also do well to remember a lesson from Steve McClaren’s renaissance at FC Twente, where the former United assistant manager used a predominantly local backroom staff. Significantly, Moyes will have to overcome the cultural and language barriers inherent in any first-time-abroad position.
“My head was spinning and I felt nothing was going to work,” said McClaren, whose Derby County side is top of the Championship. “After six months, you start to adapt and buy into their culture and get to know the league you’re in.”
Moyes will also enjoy working away from the extreme spotlight turned on Old Trafford, and in a league where the focus is on Real Madrid and Barcelona first, and everybody else a very distant second. He may face the pressure to improve on a disastrous start to the campaign, but there will be no talk of crisis two games into his reign.
Sociedad faces newly promoted Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend, with fellow relegation strugglers Elche to follow. Not until the fixture with Barcelona on 4 January will Moyes’ new side face anybody in the top six. It is a huge opportunity to hit the ground running.
Still, Moyes was proffered a similarly gilded legacy at United – a title-winning squad and a huge contract. The Scot can ill afford another calamity if a reputation destroyed is to recover.