In 1975 Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft, although in later years the billionaire would frequently return to the institution. Realizing that he needed to learn business to nurture his new enterprise, Gates went so far as to butt into faculty poker games and bet himself into the professors’ brain trust. In a similar vein, Manchester United’s league position would be much improved had David Moyes also prepared so eagerly for his new role.
Having exhausted the leaves, Gates left Harvard just one semester prior to completing his degree; the Microsoft co-founder did so certain that three months’ head start would be crucial in the fledging firm’s future.
Such is his extreme conservatism that one suspects Moyes would have been picking out a diploma frame. Indeed, United’s worsening fate suggests that Moyes may not have the character to succeed at the very top.
The Scot’s tactical acumen has been under question for a very long time. The demoralizing 3-0 loss to Manchester City on Tuesday saw United start in a 4-3-3 formation, with Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Maroune Fellaini in midfield.
Edin Dzeko and David Silva ran riot, forcing Moyes to shift his team into a more familiar 4-4-1-1, with Cleverley filling in on the right wing. The under-fire manager brought in Shinji Kagawa at half time to fix the affairs, but the rearrangement did little to stop the City side intent on securing the Premiership.
Moyes likes players to be in space, but then so did Sir Alex Ferguson. The retired Scot, though, demands that his players exploit space and does not try and force his team to utilize it. In the 4-4-2 dominated landscape of the 1990s, the 72-year-old deployed Eric Cantona in a deeper role, paving the way for the modern 4-2-3-1 system. Like the fellow Scot, Ferguson was reactive in his approach, but did so in positive ways.
Ferguson had another evolution in mind before his sudden retirement last summer’s. Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund forces the opposition into conceding space. Robert Lewandowski is an adroit target man, while Marco Reus provides running from midfield, and Shinji Kagawa – when in Germany – brilliantly exploited the space created.
Kagawa was Ferguson’s penultimate signing. Dzeko, a classic target man, was considered and then rejected, and Lewandowski was close to joining United last summer. Yet, it is no coincidence that Wayne Rooney, who cannot play with his back to goal, became increasingly ostracized under Ferguson. The retired United manager clearly had an eye on a tactical future, revolving around Kagawa.
By distinct contrast, United under Moyes is more likely to deploy Alexander Buttner on the left flank against Bayern Munich on April Fool’s Day, than to unveil a tactical innovation.
Back to Tuesday match, and United’s 4-3-3 was evidently not working against City. Even the best managers have off-days of course, although they are by definition required to fix any tactical problems as they arise. Moyes has failed to do so on a consistent basis during his short stay at United. Antonio Valencia, for example, began warming up 10 minutes into the game against City – Jose Mourinho would not have waited until half-time to make the substitution.
In fact there was a variety of ways to organise the abject 4-3-3 into a 4-4-1-1 system. Cleverley could have played at number 10 – where he did for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic – but Moyes needed a goalscorer in the hole.
Meanwhile, Marouanne Fellaini played behind the main striker at Everton, although the Toffees’ template required energy in the engine room, which neither Carrick nor Cleverley can provide. Cleverley often played on the left during his loan spell at Wigan Athletic, and it would have been more natural to shift Danny Welbeck into an attacking midfield role. The Scot wanted pace on the left flank and stuck to his default setting.
In part Moyes reticence is a factor of his history. When Ferguson moved to Old Trafford, for example, the Scot had managed more clubs and won more trophies than Moyes. The former Aberdeen manager was younger too. And Ferguson, despite a shaky start in Manchester, was making palpable progress in revitalising the youth system while Moyes has taken Manchester United backwards.
Worse still, Moyes has shown little sign of improving as a manager. The stars point to the situation becoming even more serious for the all but dethroned champions of England. Fans are rebelling against the “Chosen One” and the sponsors required to fund progress will surely be driven away by a lack of success and division within the fan base.
Yet, the Glazers continue to create a shadow over Old Trafford, and despite widespread media predictions to the contrary, United cannot compete at the top of the transfer market indefinitely and pay down more than £300 million in debt. It is a scenario in which the manager’s importance is heightened since the Reds have to make the very best of a budget meager compared to that of rivals’.
United’s board is clearly hoping that Moyes develops, but there is an alternative: recruiting a more capable manager. Mourinho, for example, had achieved great success before leading a big project at Chelsea, while Brendon Rodgers took Swansea City into Europe, and Manuel Pelligrini has won several titles in South America.
Even in areas of supposed strength Moyes is behind. The Scot has a “war room” filled with scouting reports and white boards, but it was Klopp that plucked Kagawa from Japan’s second division for just €350,000. Unfortunately, the expensive acquisition of Juan Mata and Fellaini has not yet justified the investment.
Moyes will have the money to impose his style upon the Reds this summer, but it is a philosophical transformation that is also unwise. For his system to work the Scot needs a target man and, given the rarity of top class players in that role, there is a nightmare scenario in which United boasts Andy Carroll wearing number nine next season!
Elsewhere there will be change if Moyes stays. The future of Mata is at stake, and Kagawa will be welcomed back heartily at Dortmund if Moyes pushes through a sale. Robin Van Persie does not readily fit into the current system, but will not be in demand given his wage, age and injury record that continues to burgeon. Rooney will be Moyes’ number 10 whatever happens – Adnan Januzaj and Mata face a permanent future shunted out wide.
There is a simple equation: either Moyes persists with the current approach, and risks alienating a plethora of talent, or he chooses to adapt. Should Moyes choose the latter the Scot will be changing his style for the first time a 15-year managerial career – in which case Moyes’ experience is irrelevant anyway. Either way, bringing in a new man becomes the prudent option.