Seventh in the Premier League and out of the FA Cup at the third round; 2014 hasn’t begun well for David Moyes. Then again, the second half of 2013 wasn’t so great either. Blame it on bad luck, blame it on officialdom, blame it on that most hollow excuse: a period of transition. Whatever happens, don’t blame it on David Moyes, or the changes that the former Everton manager has brought to Manchester United over these past six months.
At least that is the collective, moderate, wisdom – one that demands Moyes is given time. Time to rebuild a squad devoid of world-class quality. Time to impose his own philosophy. Time to prove that despite a lack of trophies over more than a decade as a manager Moyes is a manager of United-calibre. Time to become the man anointed Sir Alex Ferguson’s success.
Moyes follows United’s most successful manager, a man who had become dictator perpetuo during 26 years in charge. From the grass-roots to the boardroom, Ferguson seemingly controlled all in an environment that has proven difficult for his successor to navigate. Meanwhile, Moyes has been manager for less than two percent of Ferguson’s reign and, significantly, the 50-year-old was proffered with just a single summer acquisition of note in Marouanne Fellaini.
It is a period during which a prescient Ferguson demanded supporters “get behind” the new manager, albeit in a soliloquy delivered last May that contained little of real substance.
Yet, United’s fall since the summer has been a drama so deep that it is hard not to be shocked despite Ferguson’s appeal. Four Premier League defeats at Old Trafford have left the Reds without guarantee of a place in the Champions League next season, let alone any realistic chance of retaining the title. The abject manner in which United exited the FA Cup at home to Swansea City on Sunday only serves to enhance a growing negative impression of Moyes’ regime.
It may be a period of transition, but the most significant changes since Moyes was appointed last summer have been of the Scot’s own making. There has been a transition in coaching, playing style and managerial approach – none of which have borne any fruit and may well have been destructive to United’s cause. As the Guardian’s Daniel Harris once put it, the only changes since the summer have been Moyes’ coaches, Moyes’ player, and David Moyes.
Changes in coaching were replete this summer, with vast experience and proven quality leaving for a greater unknown. Rene Meulenstein, Mike Phelan and Eric Steele made way for Steve Round, Phil Neville, Jimmy Lumsden and Chris Woods in a purge that has not yet proven successful. Meulenstein is now manager at Fulham, via a brief spell with Anzi Makalaka in the Russian Premier League. Steele joined Derby County in the autumn and Phelan remains unemployed.
There has, meanwhile, been significant transition in United’s tactical approach and playing style, with Ferguson’s patient, if indefatigably dull, approach to football over the past three seasons devolving to a far more basic system that emphasises crossing, in an entirely predictable formation.
While true that United’s football has lacked real quality for some time, it is a misnomer of grand proportions to suggest that a new approach hasn’t been introduced this season. Indeed, the data suggests that United’s hit-and-hope style is born not of poor form, or transition, but a deliberate strategy.
Then there is the change in managerial style, with Moyes at once obsequious, defensive, and conservative. If it is a deliberate attempt to baffle both the media and opposition it is yet to bear any positive response. Yet, formations and personnel have become predictable, playing favourites selected, and creative players too often eschewed in favour of the functional. Long gone is Ferguson the gambler, to be replaced by Moyes the reticent.
Moyes is accountable for much of the above, but his role in strengthening a squad palpably in need to refreshment is seemingly limited only to rejecting those targets previously identified, or in Wilfried Zaha’s case, already acquired. It is a reputation for diligence hard earned at Everton, and seemingly playing out in full at Old Trafford.
Moyes’ now infamous Finch Farm wall of 1,000 transfer targets and research-heavy approach to the market, which was once such an asset at Everton, now appears anachronistic to a United squad desperate for immediate new blood. The doomsday scenario in which the Reds drop out of the Champions League is real, with the club potentially spinning into a negative vortex where it is increasingly difficult to attract leading talent. After all, with just 34 points from 20 games United is currently off-the-pace normally set to make the Premier League’s top four.
Still, it appears increasingly unlikely that United will do significant business until the summer, with Moyes claiming both an urgency to bring new players to the club this winter, and a contradictory belief that it is impossible to do so in the January window.
Despite United’s predicament, Moyes is not yet willing to abandon his cautious approach to the market. At least not this winter.
“It won’t change how we go about things. January is not an easy month to purchase in,” said Moyes after United’s latest defeat.
“Most of the business will be more towards the summertime, rather than January. We’ll keep looking but if one of the targets comes around, or one of the targets that we’re looking at changes in January, then great.
“There is no point in me hyping it up because the players we would like to bring in are probably not available in January, not because we don’t want to do it. I said I would try but probably would be doubtful in January, because of the window.”
It is a belief that surely underplays the gravity of United’s situation, with the side five points adrift of Liverpool in fourth place and reliant on either a strong second half to the campaign, or failure on multiple competing fronts.
With United bereft in central midfield, gun-shy up front, and error-prone at the back, there is no guarantee the side’s form will improve over the next five months. Hope, after all, 1qis no strategy.
True, United’s primary targets may be cup-tied in Europe, although there is little claim to parity with Europe’s finest – Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – in any case. And premium players may command an excessive fee in the mid-season window. Yet, it is no stretch to argue that short-term pain of squad disruption or financial impropriety is outweighed by the consequences of Premier League failure.
That is an equation that Moyes and Ed Woodward must solve this winter.