Monday, 9 December 2013

Dreaming the impossible dream

Many will believe that David Moyes was offered the easiest choice in the world earlier this year. It is my belief that he was actually dealt the hardest choice in football (for it was, of course, no choice at all) and regardless of what he opted for he was doomed.

Moyes had before him two options.

The first was to stay with an Everton side which he had crafted into a disciplined, under-rated side which was, in my estimation, the best coached team in the league. It was the received wisdom that without significant injections of cash that Moyes couldn't take this Everton team much further. I still believe this to be true. Moyes had taken the team as far as he personally could and it has taken a different manager with a different outlook and a different imagination to spur Everton on (I cannot see, for instance, Moyes have securing Lukaku and Deulofeu on loan).

The second was to move to the league champions, one of the biggest clubs in the world, and, in doing so, replace the most successful manager in history. Anyone with any sort of ambition had to take the job even if, in due course, the job is likely to destroy him. (As I said in this long piece when Ferguson retired: ''He leaves his club with the biggest managerial decision of all time. They have to replace a man who has redefined and dominated English football and who has developed a cult of personality over two decades. I don't envy the club nor do I envy the next man in the dugout. Few in football have the ability to challenge for four trophies at once whilst the world looks on. Fewer still can do so in the shadow of the giant. Almost all choices look bad this afternoon. Replacing an all-time great is never easy but never has it been so hard').

I stand by that.

If I had been in charge of Manchester United I wouldn't have appointed Moyes or, for that matter, any of the other pretenders to the throne. A less popular but I believe wiser choice would have been to manage what everyone acknowledged would be a difficult transition gracefully. If they weren't going to follow the Boot Room method by promoting Phelan or Meulensteen it may have made sense to adopt a managed transition. This method would have seen a very experienced and well-respected manager to come in for one to two years to slowly shepherd the team away from the Ferguson era and begin to rebuild. Four men spring to mind for that sort of role - Hiddink, Hitzfeld, Lippi and Heynckes. They've seen it all, done it all, and are big enough to withstand the unique and gargantuan challenges of the post-Ferguson era. In two years time a move to a younger man would be the obvious choice. But they didn't do that and they backed Moyes.

To return to his choice: if he had chosen to stay at Everton he would forever have been marked down as a man with no ambition. The man who was frit. No doubt for evermore he would have been associated with, and defined by, that decision. The next big club to come calling - Spurs, Arsenal, or Chelsea - would have been put off. Not taking the United job would have become the defining moment in his career. He would have either stayed with Everton for life or drifted downwards.

He had to, therefore, take the United job and it was, and is, a poisoned chalice.

Moyes is a fine manager and, as far as I can see, a fine man. He has, however, been dealt the devil's own hand. He can hardly win. The only way to succeed would be to have won the league, which was always unlikely (and is all but impossible now), or to win the Champions League. The European Cup offers him his one shot at salvation. As Liverpool and Chelsea have shown in recent years the best team in Europe doesn't always win the Champions League.

Moyes inherited a team that had won the league championship but most observers acknowledge that was more obviously down to the gumption of the man in the dugout than the men on the pitch. Ferguson was the difference last year and had been for  a number of years. It was his brilliance, his guile, his sheer force of personality that dragged this United team to the league title. No other manager could have done that as we are seeing. As I noted in an interview with Republik of Mancunia: 'I do think though that Ferguson was the main difference in recent years and him missing will be a huge factor. It is my view that he would have won the league last year if he'd managed Arsenal, Chelsea, or City. I just don't think the managers of those clubs would have inspired this United squad to the title'.

If that is true then there should be little surprise that United have struggled. Their manager is worse than the man who had the jacket last year. At Chelsea and Manchester City they've strengthened in the dugout whereas other clubs - Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal - have the benefit of varying levels of incumbency.

We shouldn't beat about the bush here. He hasn't inherited a golden vintage - like the teams of 1992-94, 1999-2001, 2002-04, and 2007-09.The first choice centre-back pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand aren't what they were. Evra, who has enjoyed a little of a renaissance under Moyes (presumably the threat of Baines' arrival has sparked this), is nearing the end of a fine time at United. Jones and Evans are fine players but problems elsewhere mean they aren't paying together as often as they should.

Most obviously, however, the midfield is a problem and has been for some time. Between Carrick's signing in 2006 and Fellaini signing in 2013, Manchester United signed surprisingly few central midfielders - Possebon, Hargreaves, Anderson and Powell. Others, such as Kagawa, have signed but are expected to play in a more advanced role.

Other than Carrick United have relied on the ongoing genius of Giggs, the return of Scholes or Phil Jones being played in central midfield (rather than centre back). It is difficult to overstate just how much they have missed Darren Fletcher in recent seasons.

Ferguson didn't have a blind spot here - he did try to sign midfielders - but he didn't prioritise it. United needed a midfielder more than Robin van Persie even though the Dutchman has been magical. Not only did he not prioritise the signing of midfielders he let talents leave. Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison were allowed leave seem out of kilter with his approach even if they can be explained. Pogba would walk into the United team today whilst Morrison would be a useful squad player.

No, Ferguson didn't solve the ultimate riddle - how to replace Paul Scholes - and now it is down to Moyes to solve. Ferguson tried he was linked to any number of fine midfielders over the last few years but none actually signed on the dotted line. Xavi in 2007, Steven Defour in 2009 (and again last year), Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2010, Wesley Sneijder from 2011 onwards, Daniele de Rossi in 2011 amongst others. Moyes has enthusiastically joined in this hunt before signing Fellaini he was said to be sniffing around players of the calibre of Fabregas, Thiago Alcântara, Ander Herrera, Mesut Ozil and de Rossi.

It seems that Fellaini was a tick box signing. Manchester United neededa midfielder, Fellaini was a midfielder, Fellaini was the player Manchester United needed.

Even if you look past the glamour players listed above such as Fabregas one wonders if Manchester United's midfield would not have been improved by signing any of the following - Gary Medel, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, Etienne Capoue, Matthieu Flamini or Paulinho who were all available for less (and in some cases far less!) than Fellaini.

Fellaini is a good enough player but he isn't, in my view, a Manchester United class player or - if he is - he should be a squad player. It is telling, and no doubt worrying for fans, that he was the glamour signing of the summer. The amount paid for him is the sort of thing United fans used to taunt Liverpool fans for over the Dalglish era signings.

Elsewhere the squad seems full of players who could easily fall into that bracket of fine players but not top drawer.

Valencia - once smoothly and quietly terrifying - is now good enough. Nani can be, at his finest, superlative but can also be anonymous. Tom Cleverley may develop into a fine player but increasingly he seems to be dining out on a series of games a few seasons ago. The point of Ashley Young is yet to be determined although scientists at CERN are confident of a breakthrough in due course. Anderson has never amounted to the supreme player he looked like he might become - he is half the player he used to be even if, at points, he looks like twice the man.

There is still plenty of talent in the Manchester United squad - de Gea, Rafael, Welbeck, Jones, Hernandez, Evans, Janujaz, Zaha - allied with the evergreen Giggs and supernatural talents of Rooney and van Persie. The team will likely bounce back and will, in my view, still be in the mix for the top four at the end of the season.

Moyes has inherited a good, but not great, squad and one that needed, and still needs, significant investment. That will likely to take a number of seasons which, of course, no fan wants to hear. That transition was always going to be tricky enough and fans drenched in success were always going to be impatient. We should be understanding of the man's plight.

He should be held to account for his own errors though. As well as the panic buy of Fellaini his decision to sack Ferguson's backroom staff and bring in his own men was always likely to backfire.

Whilst it is understandable for him to want to surround himself with trusted lieutenants, it was an error to purge Manchester United of its backroom staff. Eric Steele, Mike Phelan, and Rene Meulensteen all left the club this summer. These men knew the club, knew the pressure and knew the players. The understood what playing on four fronts meant. They had significant Champions League experience (not something the Moyes' men had). They could have been an invaluable resource for Moyes but, instead, Moyes went for his own men.

Whether this has bred resentment from the players I do not know but it isn't exactly how any other large-scale successful business would operate - transitions would be made, valued experience would be a sought after  like a precious commodity and new individuals would be brought in over time rather than wholesale.

It seems to me that Moyes realised that Ferguson's presence pervades everything at United and he thought that some of that presence had to be eradicated. Bringing in his own backroom staff was one way to do so and would mitigate the ''Mr Ferguson used to do it a different way'' factor but, to me, it made his task far more difficult. He is having to adapt to a new sort of football club as are his own men - that wouldn't have been such a problem if he'd trusted Ferguson's men. Continuity matters in times of change.

Moyes is a keen student of football. It is astonishing that he hasn't learnt from history. Empires in football do not last forever. But whilst empires in football often crumble when there is a change at the tiller it isn't a rule written in blood - Celtic after Stein and Liverpool after Shankly show that success can continue.

In the English game there seem to be three obvious historical examples in the English game. Sir Matt Busby leaving Manchester United and being replaced by Wilf McGuinness, Brian Clough replacing Don Revie at Leeds United, and Bob Paisley replacing Bill Shankly at Liverpool.

Moyes isn't Clough in this case (and Manchester United will be thankful for that) but he seems more obviously reminiscent of McGuinness than Paisley. One wonders if the murmurs I've seen on some United fora about ''Ferguson being back after Christmas' link back to that chastening experience post-Busby.

What Liverpool did successfully in their glory years was to support the manager with a trusted team of advisers who knew the club inside out - the next manager came from within that group but the wider group's continuity was valuable - Fagan was a Liverpool legend before he managed the team whilst Moran, Evans, Bennett and Saunders all played huge roles in keeping the juggernaut moving.

Ferguson didn't create a Boot Room culture in exactly the same mould as the one built at Anfield but there was a strong culture similar to the Boot Room. Steele had been with the club for five years, Phelan had been at United for over a decade, and Meulensteen (bar a year at Brondby in 06/07) had been at United since 2001. That sort of knowledge of the club, of the players, of the expectations would have been invaluable for Moyes during this tumultuous year. Instead, he chose to get rid of it - against Ferguson's better judgement.

Whilst Moyes has managed to
 rid himself of some of the presence of Ferguson, Ferguson himself has hardly helped matters. He seems to be at every game. The black dog on Moyes' shoulder. Banquo's ghost in the stands. Ever present. Ever watching. Every eye in the ground looking at the master when the apprentice toils away. They are all thinking, for we are all thinking, he would sort this out. He would know how to get the best from these boys. He would be beating Newcastle. He wouldn't have signed Fellaini. He knew what he was doing.
Every time the team is losing, drawing or not quite clicking the crowd and the cameras turn towards the Emperor. They await his thumbs down response. They look for every hint of a reaction.

Even when the team is in the ascendancy the cameras focus on a pleased Ferguson rather the triumphant Moyes. Wouldn't he be winning by more? With more panache? With more brio? It would, in my view, have helped Moyes enormously if Ferguson - even with his new role at Manchester United in mind - limited his time at games. It would have helped even more if Ferguson had decided not to publish an autobiography early in the season.

And what next?

A few folk are already betting that Moyes won't see out the season or will walk next summer. That would be an odd choice given the overhaul of backroom staff that happened this summer. Managerial churn, despite Chelsea's continued success, is a recipe for mediocrity. It would be further odd if the board gave him money to spend this winter - he has to be allowed time to rebuild the team. There are difficulties, of course, with a transfer window six months before a World Cup. No player with one eye on that tournament would move beforehand unless by doing so they were going to get more game time.

There's no doubt that Manchester United have started the season poorly by their own high standards. Yet there are things in Moyes' favour. van Persie and Carrick will come back to fitness and Rooney is playing beautifully. Moyes' teams tend to excel after Christmas and they are generally well coached and conditioned - that will come in time although it will be too late for a tilt at the title. Whether the fans and the players will wait is a different matter.

Ferguson walked out, on that sun-kissed Lancashire day at the end of last season, to the strains of 'The Impossible Dream'. It summed up what the grand old man had achieved.

Sadly for Moyes he is now living it.



elliott said...

Moyes' team is not playing that badly - they just can't get a bounce. I think he's found his best XI with Kagasawa and Rooney, but the problem is our squad players aren't on form to beat mid-tier teams.

dearieme said...

They shoulda hired Benitez.

His troubles include the fact that Rooney is in good form, which usually presages a spell of lousy can't-even-control-the-ball form; that RVP gives off an air of utter pissedoffness; that Jones seems injury-prone; that Baines is out injured, which would make him an odd signing; that Welbeck can't score; that sweet pea seems out of sorts; etc, etc.

Cooperman said...

the man utd one is interesting i think it is fergies fault and moyes

1) Fergie didnt carry on his one big signing a summer thing. E.G he should of bought someone as an understudy for rio 2 years ago.

2) The board should have said to him thanks be a director but its our choice next manager not yours

3) Moyes should of kept mulensteein and another coach for a season to bed in etc

I dont think moyes will get sacked because of 3 reasons 1) FERGIE 2) It will cost loads to pay off him and his staff as on 6 year deals and 3) who else is there. guus hiddink perhaps.

dearieme said...

Can I just be clear?

1) I am delighted to see the back of Sir Odious.

2) I would love to see ManU (or anyone else) play some of the lovely football of a few years past.

3) Ha, ha, ha, ha, gurgle gurgle, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.