It was the moment so many Manchester United supporters craved. Late April 2014, after 10 months in charge, David Moyes finally gone to dancing, if not on the streets of Salford, then a surfeit of social media. Moyes’ dismissal ended an anarchic period at Old Trafford; the brutal deconstruction of an experienced manager. History will long remember Moyes for his ineptitude in a job that was always too much, and the club for a shocking lack of a post-Ferguson succession planning. With the Scot’s Sunderland at Old Trafford this Christmas, memories flood back of time many want to forget…
It was telling that even after a morale-boosting victory over Swansea City last weekend, José Mourinho still felt compelled to address what he believes to be the biggest problem at Manchester United. The Portuguese alluded to what he believes are “some cultural issues, influenced by a situation that has been going on for a few years,” before controversially singling out some members of his squad. Simply put, Mourinho feels that some players aren’t giving him enough.
July 1, 2013. A man with greying auburn hair walks into an oversized office in South West Manchester. He’s dressed smartly. The one thing everybody notes about him is the courtesy with which he greets people. He surveys the scene: a large clock, a panoramic window looking out onto a dozen green fields, intersected by goalposts and white lines, scattered with scores of teenage footballers.
Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?
The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.
Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.
Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.
Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.
The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.
Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.
Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.
This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.
Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.
Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.
Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.
Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.
The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.
Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.
Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.
Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.
Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.
The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.
And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.
Manchester United’s victory against Premier League strugglers QPR increased the Reds’ total to 40 points this season. It was United’s 22nd game of a mixed campaign. Much has been made of the total after 21 games – just 37 points – the same amount David Moyes’ side had amassed at the same time last season. So who has really done better – Moyes or Louis Van Gaal? Read More
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.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
David Moyes was rarely in total control during 10 chaotic months in charge at Manchester United. Ryan Giggs, it turns out, very much was. Still, all good things come to an end and the period of rejoicing over the 50-year-old Scot’s dismissal ended on Saturday when Giggs led United out at Old Trafford to rapturous applause. “The end of an error,” said the banner. The beginning of a new era.
However much Old Trafford enjoyed Giggs’ managerial bow it appears unlikely that the 40-year-old winger, who is still on the playing staff until June, will be offered the job permanently. At least not unless four positive results in the next two weeks increases the popular clamour for a decision in Giggs’ favour to fever pitch.
Instead, Dutch veteran Louis van Gaal is the bookmakers’ favourite to land the job, with informal talks having already taken place between the parties. Other potential appointees include Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancellotti, and Juventus’ Antonio Conte. There is little chance that Jose Mourinho, rejected by United’s board last spring, will head north this time around, while Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have seemingly ruled themselves out of contention.
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.
As if the season wasn’t chaotic enough for those at Old Trafford, Liverpool is set to win the Premier League for the first time, while Manchester United is in a desperate fight for Europa League qualification. Little wonder that United’s 2-0 defeat to Everton proved to be the final straw, ending David Moyes’ disastrous 10 month tenure at Old Trafford. Moyes, however, has inflicted damage far greater than United’s lowly league position and whomever the new man proves to be – he will face much headache in getting the Reds back into Europe.
Moyes’ seemingly fruitless transfer activity over two windows has nonetheless complicated the upcoming summer market. United will have to build from a position of little strength.
In David de Gea the Reds boast one of the finest goalkeepers in the world. Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone will provide solid backup if Anders Lindegaard leaves in search of games. The back four, however, is in need of a complete overhaul. Nemanja Vidić is leaving for Internazionale and Rio Ferdinand will be squad filler at best even if the veteran lands an unlikely contract extension.
There are question marks about each of United’s younger defenders. Phil Jones has played himself into first team picture in his preferred central position, although Jonny Evans has failed to grow into a top class defender – or one who is consistently fit. Chris Smalling lacks the distribution and composure needed to start every match. It leaves United in need of star recruits, especially with Ferdinand’s unclear future and Evans’ tendency for injuries.
Despite suspicions that Moyes doesn’t trust United’s right-back Rafael da Silva has kept his first choice status when fit. Yet, the Brazilian’s poor injury record necessitates new cover at right back, although – depending on the manager – Antonio Valencia might be converted into a full time defender.
On the other flank Alexander Büttner certainly needs to be replaced – the Dutchman having failed to convinced anybody he has the quality to make it at United.
Meanwhile, long-serving Patrice Evra is nearing his ‘Gary Neville against West Bromwich Albion moment’ and could find himself on the bench next season even if the Frenchman is awarded a new deal. Quality left-backs are a rarity and United United might have to settle for Fábio Coentrão depending on the market climate this summer.
As it has been the case for almost a decade United’s major problem area is in midfield. The Reds have far too many ‘number 10s’ and too few ‘number eights’. Without new recruits in wide areas United’s new manager will be forced to field only playmakers behind the principal striker and rely on full-backs for width. Ashley Young, Luis Nani and Valencia’s mediocrity is now long established.
Whatever the method of providing width United can provide little protection in the engine room, with Michael Carrick and Maroune Fellaini both poor this season. Marauding full-backs require cover, although United’s surfeit of playmakers relieves the central pair of any attacking requirements. Theoretically United could get away with a functional midfield next season, although Tom Cleverley, Anderson and, sadly, Darren Fletcher are simply not of the required class.
Carrick is as good a deep lying playmaker, but lacks mobility and drive. The link to Toni Kroos is interesting as the Bayern Munich midfielder is mobile enough to carry the ball on his own. Although Kroos is ponderous in possession that isn’t a concern with three fleet-footed playmakers deployed ahead of him.
In the likely event that Kroos is a fantasy United’s biggest problem is finding Carrick a partner. Fellaini is far too ill-disciplined to be trusted in key games regardless of his physical qualities. And should the new manager rely of his full-backs for width he will need a central midfielder tactically savvy enough to fill in gaps as they appear.
Indeed, there is a scenario in which United’s defensive structure could be sacrificed to indulge Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. United will need a defensively capable midfielder – Fletcher in prime would do nicely.
In fact Carrick and Fellaini are far better suited to a midfield trio – supported by a genuine box-to-box player who can move with the ball at his feet. How United could do with Yaya Touré. It is a role Anderson often played, although to little effect, while Thiago Alcântara was supposedly lined up before Moyes decided against signing the Spanish midfielder.
Yet, United face multiple conflicting transfer requirements. Remodeling the defence will be costly – and central midfield might just have to wait. Again.
In addition, there is little option to provide direct running from the flanks. Welbeck lacks the finesse to be truly effective out wide, and despite the youngster’s introduction this season the experiment with Januzaj in such role has failed to date. It is mooted that Marco Reus has a transfer release clause in the region of £30 million.
Up front Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are aging and lack the mobility needed in most modern football philosophies, while the team’s requirements elsewhere limits the amount of money that can be invested. Danny Welbeck’s presence and the rise of James Wilson from the academy ought to be enough to maintain a decent strike force – even if Javier Hernández chooses to leave.
Then there is the problem of Rooney’s fitness, which has again been questionable this season, and the player’s first touch that has long deserted United’s number 10. However, Rooney has been effective up-front – his poor tactical discipline tending to unsettle the opposition. In a season when van Persie has turned into a relatively immobile poacher, the Dutchman might benefit from a more energetic partner in close proximity. Kagawa lacks forcefulness, while Mata was ostracised by José Mourinho as the Spaniard tends to slow down tempo.
At Goodison Park, United conspicuously exploited the middle as if Moyes was responding to criticisms of his over-reliance on the flanks. Everton, however, remained confident that Büttner and Smalling would pose little threat – packed central areas to prevent the Reds from playing through the middle, and then hit United on the counter. Both goals came by Everton attacking Evans and Jones from angles.
Everton exposed in one game both Moyes’ failings and United’s weaknesses.
Still, whatever United’s transfer activity there is something to work from next season even if there are many gaps. United may still be able to provide genuine attacking options from full-backs, while Jones, Evans and Smalling can at least maintain a higher line than Vidić and Ferdinand.
Up front each of United’s strikers have the technical skills to double as number 10s, while Mata and Kagawa are proven goalscorers. At least at other clubs. There is plenty of potential creativity there.
United certainly cannot afford any further upheaval next season. The league table is justification enough for dismissing Moyes. Not only has the former Everton manager failed to take the reigning champions of England into the Champions League, Moyes has left behind a squad that prohibitively limits his successor’s chances. This is a mess that now calls for a top class manager.
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.