Manchester United and David Moyes: what went wrong?

The 10-month soap opera has drawn to an undignified end. David Moyes’s short reign at Manchester United is over, and the kings of English football for the last 2 decades look to the future with anticipation. The brand is still strong, the club is still rich and the legions of fans they have amassed the world over will stay, for a while at least. Missing out on Champion’s League football might make it harder to attract the class of players they need to reverse their fortunes, though.

However, with all signs pointing to a large turnover of players for United this summer, a lack of Champion’s League football might be something of a blessing come this time next year. While their rivals are likely to be involved at the sharp end of the Champion’s League, their stars can focus on the league, much as Liverpool have been able to do this year. They face a Chelsea side this weekend who have semi-final ties with Atletico Madrid either side of the weekend’s encounter. While Brendan Rodgers will pick his best team for Liverpool’s biggest challenge between now and the end of the season, José Mourinho faces an unenviable balancing act between domestic and European glory. Still, it is hard to view this season as anything but a failure for the club as a whole. Exactly where the blame for a disappointing season lies is less clear, and depends on a number of factors very few people outside of United really have any idea about. It’s hard to argue that Alex Ferguson left the team in good shape.

This post reviews the United squad, concluding that the defence and midfield are beset with problems. The best-case scenario for the defence is that at least two of Smalling, Jones and Evans make a step up to become world-class centre-halves, but this a long way from certain. In midfield, Januzaj and Mata are the only bright sparks, and Mata has yet to show the form that he did in his first two seasons with Chelsea.  None of this tells us why David Moyes’s year has been quite as painful as it’s turned out to be. There are several possible explanations – the truth is likely to be a combination of all of these.

It is important to note that David Moyes was not the only new face at United this year. In fact, surprisingly for a team that looked in need of an overhaul 10 months ago, there were more off-the-field changes than on-the-field changes. As well as the well-publicised retirement of manager Alex Ferguson, his brother and chief scout Martin Ferguson also retired, along with chief executive David Gill. In short, the three senior personnel responsible for player acquisition all departed at the end of last year. With a squad overhaul imminent, the wisdom of this surely has to questioned. Of course, the Gill and Martin Ferguson decisions are likely related to Alex Ferguson’s decision, but the situation is not the best for success.

A level of continuity would have benefited Moyes. Searching for the right players is not an easy process, especially not when the season is over. Moyes will have been relying on his evaluations of players from when he was at Everton and the evaluations of the United scouts. With all due respect to Everton, it’s unlikely that many players they were interested in turned up on the United radar. Completing a squad overhaul without the guidance of the former chief scout is a challenge that Moyes simply didn’t need. One also has to wonder whether, in the months prior to his retirement, Martin Ferguson will have been focused as single-mindedly on a squad overhaul as someone who knew they would be continuing with the club would do.

Similarly with the chief executive role, new man Ed Woodward has plenty of commercial experience, but not so much on the footballing side. With Moyes presumably spending most of his time frantically searching for the talent to renew his squad, the last thing he needed was any unnecessary complications in transfer negotiations. The bizarre Ander Herrera saga indicates that Woodward might have been less than the reliable presence Moyes needed. Any one of these hurdles might have been insignificant with two experienced hands to help them along, but the combination of all three proved problematic for United.

With some many holes in the squad to fill, United needed to move quickly to identify talent, bring it in at the right price and move on the improving other areas of the squad. Time after time – with Fabregas, Fellaini, Herrera, Baines and others – it was clear that the club were not operating with the fluidity and efficiency that we expect from top sides. Pursuing players who had no intention of joining, failing to take advantage of buyout clauses, non-existent offers and “insulting” offers were just some of the mistakes made by United over the summer; none of these are signs of a club operating competently in the transfer market.

When it comes to coaching, as well, there was a distinct lack of continuity. Gone were many of the experienced hands who had helped Ferguson, such as Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, and in came Moyes’ own men, such as Steve Round and Phil Neville. We don’t know precisely why this happened, whether the likes of Phelan and Meulensteen left of their own volition or were pushed out by Moyes. Of course, Moyes wanted to put his own stamp on the team, but with a 6-year contract, there was more than enough time to do this without sacrificing continuity.

The rhetoric surrounding that contract contrasts, as we can see, with the off-the-pitch reality. While United emphasised the importance of stability, they simultaneously changed many things off the field. Exactly who drove this huge raft of changes should determine where the blame lies. If Moyes insisted on overhauling everything, then he must assume much of the blame. If the changes were beyond his control, then his sacking looks increasingly unfair. If they were beyond his control, we have to ask whether more effort could have been

Even so, Moyes has never seemed like a tactical genius of a football manager. At Everton, he seemed at his finest when forcing square pegs into round holes, improvising without a striker with Cahill playing off Fellaini. His sides never really excelled against the top teams nor played with the style of, say, Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea. Roberto Martinez has taken a very similar group of players and has them playing more attractively, more creatively and more successfully. Everton’s players have spoken about Martinez’s superior tactical ability, which is damning for Moyes.

As the top seven mini table shows, David Moyes’s struggles against top sides have followed him to United. A measly six points and and one win from 12 games against the top seven is far below where United need to be. Most notably, it compares incredibly unfavourably to Roberto Martinez’s record with Everton. These struggles can be interpreted as part of David Moyes’s lack of tactical inventiveness, and a creative deficit within the midfield. While United have the sheer quality to brush past lesser opponents, when faced with players of a higher quality who are tactically more organised, they have little to offer.

All in all, the decision to hire Moyes does not look like a good one. The conditions that Moyes had to work in were certainly not ideal. If those conditions were of his own creation, then he has no-one else to blame. It seems unlikely, however, that Moyes insisted on a complete behind-the-scenes overhaul. It’s likely, however, that other figures at the club are more than happy for the public to blame him rather than take responsibility themselves – Ed Woodward in particular. The reality is that no-one at United comes out of this season with much to celebrate. The higher-ups have looked both incompetent and inconsistent by hiring a tactically limited manager yet not even giving him the tools to succeed. They have preached stability and consistency with the 6-year contract offered to Moyes, yet with all the changes of the field and Moyes’ short reign, they have practised anything but.

Moyes himself has probably ruled himself out of an appointment of a similar calibre in the future, barring a roaring success with a smaller club. It is not the failure to qualify for the Champion’s League that has cost Moyes his job, it is the manner of that failure. Not only are the club a long way removed from the Champion’s League places, but they have never played like a team who are a few signings away from being competitive. Their record against the top sides speaks for itself, and Everton’s fantastic season under Roberto Martinez has done Moyes absolutely no favours at all. Manchester United have officially begun their search for a new manager, though I suspect that began a while ago in reality. The problems at the club go far deeper than who is at the helm though, and whoever the new manager is will need more of a chance to succeed than Moyes has been given.

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