On Jan. 7, 1990, the then-plainly titled Alex Ferguson is widely credited as having his job saved by a late goal from Mark Robins to hand Manchester United victory in an FA Cup third round tie against Nottingham Forest. Almost 24 years later to the day, in the same round of the same competition, his successor may well have received another nail in a coffin that is being ever-more hastily constructed.
The FA Cup no longer holds the importance it did in the early days of Ferguson’s reign and a victory over Swansea City at Old Trafford would have done little to assuage his growing number of critics. But a defeat, and especially the nature of it, could yet have profound consequences.
What was once a fortress has now become an opportunity for visiting teams to end years of misery, with West Brom, Everton, Newcastle, Tottenham and Swansea now all having won at Old Trafford this season, the latter four of them in United’s last six home matches alone. As Liverpool found out in the 1990s, an intimidating home arena where opponents are almost beaten before taking the pitch is difficult to build up, but can disappear in the blink of an eye.
Against Swansea the patter was now all-too familiar. Charged with the responsibility to break the opposition down on their own pitch, United lacked the required invention to do so. Let’s be clear that Moyes is far from the only man to blame for the obvious lack of quality in United’s squad. It has been clear to those who look beyond results that since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2009, United’s remarkable continued success has been built increasingly on Ferguson’s acumen rather than the talent of the players at his disposal.
Ferguson, perhaps playing the good company stooge as the club’s owners’ debt repayments continued to be questioned, claimed that there was no value in the transfer market. What is undeniable is that United stopped competing, with the short-term fix exception of Robin van Persie, for the best players in the transfer market. It has been several seasons since United had the best squad in the Premier League, never mind in Europe.
Yet, the fact is that United did win the Premier League by 11 points last season and they now find themselves 11 points off the pace. That is a drastic turnaround in fortunes. The squad is far from terrible and has been enhanced from last season by the return to form of Wayne Rooney, the emergence of Adnan Januzaj and, supposedly, by the £27.5 million signing of Marouane Fellaini.
It is far too easy to put this down to a season of transition and absolve Moyes completely of blame. It is doing him a disservice to do so. If a Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola had been handed the responsibility of replacing Ferguson, it is difficult to believe that either would be excused in the same way. Moyes was chosen as the man to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world and has to be judged on that basis, regardless of the more humble achievements that earned him the job.
Other clubs and other managers have handled seasons of transition while still keeping the team competitive. What’s more, if this is a season of transition, what exactly is Moyes transitioning the club toward?
He balked at the opportunity to revamp the squad last summer, citing that he didn’t have enough time either to evaluate his own squad or potential transfer targets. Had he not watched enough of United to know which players he figured were worth keeping around? Had he not watched enough football in general to know which players could enhance his squad? His lack of decisiveness, which was showed up again in handing Nani a five-year contract yet hardly playing him, could lead to United missing out on a Champions League place, with quality players hard to come by in January.
If the transition is in the club’s playing style, then it is difficult to see what Moyes’ aim is. One of the reasons that United have been so much more impressive away than at home is that Moyes is a reactive manger. At Everton and, to a lesser extent, on the road with United, you can succeed by focusing on the strengths of the opponents. But far more proactivity and an idea of how to maximize the strengths of your own side and to construct attacking patterns to break down the opposition is required when leading a club of Manchester United’s stature at Old Trafford.
Yes, United are lacking in quality, in central midfield in particular, but Moyes’ tactics hardly reek of inspiration either. Often deploying a flat midfield four, United’s approach this season has regularly amounted to getting the ball out wide and hitting hopeful crosses into the box. Shinji Kagawa has not done himself justice in the main, but his plight has come to embody the stodginess of United under Moyes. If his former manager Jurgen Klopp had tears in his eyes at Kagawa’s role last season, the sight of the Japanese playmaker regularly being required to plod up and down the left touchline this term may well have rendered him inconsolable.
Arguably the biggest knock against Moyes’ time at United, though, comes in his handling of his squad’s fitness. It was well known that at Everton the Scot employed exhausting pre-season training methods to try and maximize the fitness of his squad. Moyes was also well known in his time at Everton for regularly overseeing slow starts to the season.
The quotes from Moyes’ former captain Phil Jagielka last summer on the difference in training methods under Moyes’ successor Roberto Martinez were telling.
“This pre-season has been drastically different," Jagielka was quoted in the Daily Star. "Normally you're working a lot harder off the ball -- you're running around and the balls rarely come out.”
There was perhaps little surprise when early into Moyes’ reign there were reports that Robin van Persie, the man who had years of fitness problems before seeming to eradicate them in the past two years, was unhappy with his new manager’s methods. Of course, we cannot know for sure how much Moyes’ training regime bares the blame for Van Persie’s injury problems this season. What is plain for all to see, though, is that Van Persie has not been seen since being required to play the full 90 minutes on his return from injury and then suffering a reoccurrence in the next match. That United’s other key player, Wayne Rooney, is now out having also been left on for a full match after coming back from injury -- with Moyes even admitting that the forward needed a rest -- is immensely troubling.
United’s owners may look past the results in Moyes’ first season, but what appears to be a negligent attitude to the club’s prime assets must surely register.
Moyes is a capable manager, let’s not be mistaken. What he achieved in making Everton an almost perennial top 10 side during his 11 years in charge and getting them to finish in the top six on five occasions is deserving of much respect. But “capable” is not the description required of a man to lead Manchester United. It is hard to ignore the fact that no other top club, clubs with less pressure than at United, decided that Moyes was the man to lead them forward. It is also true that Moyes was hand-picked by his predecessor without, seemingly, any conventional process being undertaken to evaluate a list of candidates. Had that been done, it is hard to envisage Moyes coming out on top.
Moyes is deserving of much sympathy. His face on the sidelines after recent Old Trafford defeats belies that of a good man, and a good manager, who has been handed a difficult task and is sadly out of his depth.
Having handed him a six-year contract, albeit it is hard to imagine there not being break clauses inserted, it will take a failure of huge proportions for Moyes to be sacked before he sees out a single season. There could yet come a point, though, where the situation becomes untenable for all concerned, including Moyes, if results continue to head downhill and the fans’ patience, as was suggested by their reaction at the final whistle on Sunday, is eroded.
Moyes will likely be grateful to be on the road for a Capital One Cup semifinal first leg against Sunderland on Tuesday that has assumed ever more importance. The League Cup features at the bottom of United’s list of priorities but a trophy of any description, especially with the final coming so early in the season, could bide him time.
If Moyes was to be dispensed with in the midst of the season, then United will not have to look far for a man to come in and steady the ship. As happened when the last great Manchester United manager, Sir Matt Busby, stepped down, Sir Alex Ferguson, the favorite with some bookmakers to be the next permanent boss, could yet find himself back in the hot seat. The old adage states that you should never go back and in the long term the move may not bode well for United, but in the short term things can hardly get any worse.