David Moyes’ nightmarish reign is now over. Manchester United, however, has been left in tatters with rookie coach Ryan Giggs in charge for the final four games. Given the lack of available top class managers the Welshman may very well end up as the best choice to take over on a permanent basis. It leaves an open question as to why was Moyes was appointed in the first place when Jose Mourinho, Josep Guardiola and Carlo Anchelotti were available last summer.
One conspiracy theory is that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to deify his legacy at Old Trafford by appointing an incompetent successor. The facts over the past ten months paint a more reasonable picture than that.
When Ferguson retired Wayne Rooney was all but sold while Thiago Alcântara had been lined up as a star midfield purchase. United’s weak midfield and aging backline needed attention, but a decent transfer fund was available to address the problem.
Robin van Persie’s opportunistic acquisiton had limited Shinji Kagawa’s appearances, but the Japanese had a title-winning start in the Premier League at least. There was plenty of reason to believe United had attacking options to excite.
Thiago has proven to be an exceptional holding midfielder at Bayern Munich this season. United would have gained much had the former Barcelona player come to Old Trafford. Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, for example, could have advanced with far greater confidence had Thiago and Michael Carrick been present in midfield. The Reds might have even garnered another season out of the Frenchman by letting him concentrate on attacking rather than defensive duties.
It proved to be a crucial mistake – at £21.5m Thiago’s acquisition should have left enough money for a gifted winger, allowing Kagawa to play centrally in a replica of Borussia Dortmund’s approach that compensates for the lack of energy with extra creativity from deep.
In this context Moyes’ appointment made some sense. The Scot’s approach is far more system-based than Mourinho or Guardiola and the Scot’s default template is actually similar to the Dortmund model. The youth of Kagawa et al would have weathered a few years of Glazers-enforced austerity too.
So what went wrong?
Moyes decided against bringing in Thiago, experimenting in pre-season with Carrick in a role that demanded more pressing than the Geordie typically offers. Moyes’ very early trust of Anderson over Kagawa suggested that the Scot thought he could get away with Tom Cleverley or Anderson partnering Carrick in the engine room. He couldn’t.
Another Barcelona midfielder in Cesc Fabregas was eventually pursued. The suspicion, though, is that Fabregas would have played behind van Persie rather in central midfield – just as Danny Welbeck did in the season opener against Swansea City. The former Arsenal midfielder would have brought great energy and thrust in attacking areas.
The chase for Fabregas ended in humiliation. Having failed – or neglected – to bring in any wide players, Welbeck has spent as season providing cover on the flanks. Moyes certainly wanted directness if Adnan Januzaj’s exile in recent games is anything to go by. The Belgian-Kosovar is surely a considerate number 10 by nature. Meanwhile, Rooney was given another chance and gained much leverage over Moyes, to the detriment of manager and club.
Kagawa thrives in space and tempo, neither of which have been provided by United’s functional midfield. Moyes perhaps realised his error and United’s late window approach for Ander Herrera, a player similar to Thiago, was the result. The transfer saga, which at one point supposedly involved imposters bidding for the young Spaniard, ended with Maroune Fellaini arriving at Old Trafford. Moyes’ initial trust in Anderson and Cleverley was clearly misguided, if not completely insane.
In the end Moyes’ true nature reared its conservative head. Kagawa started out wide, asked to cut in and maintain possession rather than make impact in advanced central areas. The immobile midfield partnership of Carrick and Cleverley exposed both Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, while Moyes blindly trusted Rooney to provide all the thrust alone. He couldn’t.
Juan Mata’s arrival was, in part at least, a move to appease an increasingly angry fanbase, but the former Chelsea player of the year also serves a tactical purpose. Mata’s genius has made the best of second balls while the Spaniard’s versatility has filled the void out in wide areas.
But the fact that Kagawa was often chosen ahead of Januzaj on the left suggests that Moyes views wide players as a function of a greater system. Spending £37.5 million on a world class player to support Rooney made little sense. Considering that Moyes deploys energy – Rooney or Fabregas – in the hole Mata was simply brought in as cover, or with no plan at all.
The long term implication is frightening. Mata is much better than Kagawa in creating space on his own and would work better with a target man that United does not possess.
van Persie is now a bona fide poacher, while Javier Hernández has been preferred in leading the line over the more well-rounded Welbeck. Moyes clearly values a man in the box at any given moment and the promising talents in Januzaj and Welbeck were always destined to face limited opportunities in their natural positions. It is worth noting that Ross Barkley at Everton is flourishing with Moyes elsewhere.
This is a theory, of course. If true though Moyes had no accurate assessment of United players and was foolish, or arrogant, enough to work against what appears to have been Sir Alex’ plan for squad evolution. Perhaps the most disturbing implication, however, is that Ferguson expected the current financial climate at Old Trafford to continue. Consistency, not excellence, is United’s target now.