With the news that David Moyes has been sacked, here’s a broad look back at Manchester United’s nightmarish season.
When Moyes was appointed with a six-year contract, the board’s seeming aim was twofold: a stable continuation at the top with another British manager who had, as Jonathan Wilson said in a recent Football Weekly podcast, done pretty much everything a British manager could do in the Premier League to qualify for the position; and a manager who would oversee the entire structure of the club, encompassing the youth setup as well as the seniors, and not someone who would merely be the first team coach. Both of these aims ruled out Jose Mourinho, a man definitely not renowned for offering stability and who is seemingly only interested in the 25-man squad. But more importantly, United sought to recapture the lightning in the bottle that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. He was famously given more than 3 years – an unthinkable amount of time for even the smallest top flight club today – before he turned it around at Old Trafford. Fergie himself made the point in his final game in charge that Moyes needed to be backed. Even when it was deep into the season and with very disappointing results , everyone still appeared ready to do exactly that – support the manager.
What nobody, not even the most rabid Liverpool supporter, could have foreseen is how United never came close to picking up any semblance of momentum or consistency. A couple of wins against the likes of Hull and Norwich would inevitably be followed by a dispiriting defeat against a top-half side. As early as the match at Liverpool in September, you could see that this was not the United side of last season, even though the players were essentially the same. That they weren’t playing for Moyes the way they did for Fergie in this new era was understandable. But as the season wore on, we could see that Moyes just could not get his players to put in the shift. Whatever extra motivation or fear factor that was in place under Fergie was gone, and Moyes could not find anything to replace it. Players were running half a yard less, reacting half a second too late, and that turned wins into draws and draws into defeats.
A drop in performance and results was always expected. That’s why Fergie told the crowd to stand behind Moyes, and why he was given a six-year contract. It was all about long-term planning, about the lesson taught by the ‘3 years of excuses and it’s still crap’ schadenfreude. But even accounting for that drop, United’s fall this season was so precipitous, the bad performances so shockingly regular, that we couldn’t help but wonder what was going on with Moyes. To go from champions by 11 points to 7th position with zero hope of European football didn’t so much suggest mediocrity as outright incompetence, an active and pervasive absence of a clue. What made it doubly intolerable was that deep down we knew that Moyes is not crap, that despite all the snide comments about Roberto Martinez outdoing him at Goodison Park we’ve always known that Moyes was a decent person and a good manager who did a great job at Everton. It’s like a car crash, United fans’ worst possible nightmare unfolding as Moyes’s pinched face visibly and rapidly aged like Julian Glover in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In a logical world, this should not have happened. United should not have been this bad, and Moyes should not have been this beleaguered. For all the talk of Fergie leaving a squad badly in need of restoration they were still champions, and there were still great players. But as the bad results piled up, the season from hell gathered momentum, and before the fans knew it Moyes’s catastrophe became almost preordained. His every utterance was seized upon as the mark of a loser; his miserable inability to approach big games with anything other than avoid-defeat-at-all-costs mentality became a target slung around his drooping shoulders; and the disquiet amongst the playing ranks became louder by the week.
The choice that the United hierarchy had faced since it became painfully apparent that the club would not qualify for the Champions League (and this was obvious long before the defeat by Bayern) was an obvious yet difficult one. If they continued with Moyes, they would have had to allow him to buy an almost entirely new team, with no guarantee that the new season will see the players start playing for him properly. The board needed to back him to a level unheard of in the modern game just to get things moving in the right direction, and this was all the more difficult because Moyes didn’t have a trophy-winning track record. The other choice, taken by the Glazers today, was to admit that they cannot accept the wait and the uncertainty, and replace him with someone who could presumably make a more immediate impact. Doing so represents the waste of a season as well as an embarrassing recognition that the revered Ferguson and the club leadership made a mess of things.
The blame game will continue to rumble on for a long time. Hindsight dictates that Ferguson made an error of judgment in handpicking an unsuitable successor, but this time last year it was thought eminently sensible, the right way of doing things, the United way (whatever that is). The farcical transfer window that saw United pursue several unrealistic targets only to end up overpaying for Fellaini contributed to the air of incompetency at Old Trafford before Moyes even had a chance to begin his reign proper. The Glazers’ leeching of club profits to service their debt, which in turn meant that United never spent to the level they could and should have done, will once again be the object of intense and angry attention. The inexperience of vice-chairman Ed Woodward will continue to be a popular topic of discussion. The players who so obviously were not enthused about playing for their new manager deserve opprobrium. Ultimately, however, everything comes down to the manager. Rightly or wrongly, it’s the manager who carries the can, and when we look back on United’s 2013-4 season it will be the story of Moyes’s failure.
On a final note, the business of finding the right manager is a funny and often illogical one. People will point to Moyes’s lack of trophies and experience in managing at the very highest level, but football history is also not short of managers who seemingly come from nowhere to achieve glory. Josep Guardiola had only managed the Barcelona B team for a year before stepping up; Antonio Conte’s resume had two promotions with Serie B teams on either side of a sacking at Atalanta before he became Juventus manager. Closer to home, Brendan Rodgers only had a promotion with Swansea and a reputation as a young, highly-rated manager that saw him taking charge of Liverpool , but is on the verge of a truly incredible title this season. It’s difficult to predict how a manager will do, but in a way it’s not dissimilar to how a newly promoted side will often outperform an established Premier League club that’s been treading water. Compare the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland, stuck in a rut and fighting relegation every year, negativity spreading ever wider, with Swansea and Southampton who comfortably shot up the table after making the leap up to the top flight. Moyes arguably stayed too long at Everton: his approaches to games, his mentality, his handling of players, all were solidified during the 10-year period at Goodison. Perhaps things would be different if Moyes had made the move earlier in his career, when his ideas would not yet have been entrenched in keeping a lesser club competitive, and his experience less focused on maximising limited resources. Perhaps.