Why David Moyes has endured a season of failure

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“The Chosen One”. In the Premier League history of ‘hostages to fortune’, the banner draped at Old Trafford in support of David Moyes this season takes some beating.

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And in recent weeks, a beating is exactly what it has taken, as United fans’ patience has finally started to wear thin, with a small minority even taking to the skies to prove it. Even Moyes’ biggest doubters at the beginning of the season would have struggled to conjure such a disappointing first campaign for the Scot in their imagination. Having suffered a series of drubbings from clubs at the top and at the bottom of the league, Moyes’ Manchester seem destined for the poorest finish of a side defending the championship in the history of the league.

So what can explain David Moyes’ struggles this season, and what needs to change if he is to improve?

The two big myths about Manchester United in 2013-14

1) Manchester United players are not good enough to compete at the top

First, let’s be clear that the overall quality of their playing squad cannot be held as the primary reason for United’s shocking fall from grace this season.

That United failed in the summer transfer window, and that Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal all benefited from either changing their manager, investing in their squads or both, is undeniable. Likewise, some key United stalwarts have begun to look their age (Rio Ferdinand in particular), and the squad has looked thin in central midfield for the best part of a decade now.

But none of that really explains the losses to Newcastle, Swansea, Tottenham, West Bromwich Albion, Everton or Stoke, never mind points dropped to Cardiff.

Whatever deficiencies Moyes’ squad has against those of Pelligrini or Mourinho, the Manchester United manager still enters the majority of games armed with the better, more experienced players at his disposal. The club still have one of the highest wage bills in the league – a critical indicator of player quality – and most managers would happily swap squads with him tomorrow.

Rather, too often Moyes has failed to get the best out of his United side – under his stewardship, they have appeared far worse than the sum of their parts.

2) David Moyes is not qualified to manage a club vying for honours

But, it is also ludicrous to suggest that David Moyes is somehow not qualified to manage a top club, as he lacks either the experience, or the trophy cabinet, to demonstrate his ability.

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There were certainly candidates for the United job last summer with more impressive CV’s than the Scot, none more so than Jose Mourinho, who has arguably the most impressive record of all managers currently plying their trade in global football. But successful management is about more than winning trophies – it’s about building teams, exceeding expectations and triumphing in the face of the constraints you face.

David Moyes’ 11 years in charge of cash strapped Everton yielded a win record of 42%. He built and dismantled several successful sides during this period, demonstrating a keen eye in the transfer market. Before joining United, he recorded seven top eight finishes in a row, despite a relatively modest wage bill, and a net transfer spend of just £17m during this period.

Much like Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, David Moyes has demonstrated himself to be a manager of considerable tactical astuteness, shrewdness, and determination to win. While he has clearly made mistakes since joining the club, there is nothing in his record to date which indicates he cannot be a success at United.

The real reasons for United’s underperformance

So, if the quality of the Manchester United squad is better than their current league placing, and there is nothing to suggest Moyes is fundamentally incapable of managing at the top level, what can explain their poor performance this season?

First, the club has undergone a complete overhaul in its leadership. David Moyes was not the only new senior appointment to Manchester United last summer. Ed Woodward was also put in post as the new executive Vice Chairman of the club in charge of all operational matters. For a club so used to consistency of personnel and vision at the top of the organisation, the disruption caused by this change is very likely to have had a wide range of impacts, including:

  • Failures in the transfer window, meaning no new summer enforcements were secured
  • Confusion on the training ground, as players have had to adjust to a wholesale change of coaching personnel and tactical approach under Moyes compared to his predecessor
  • Miss-steps in the media, as Moyes has taken time to adjust to his role as spokesperson to the biggest club on the planet at a time of significant change behind the scenes
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Second, the changes that Moyes has sought to implement have yet to bear fruit. Take for example, the revolution Moyes is leading internally on scouting and player recruitment.

It has now been widely reported that Moyes has transformed United’s scouting system, installing a bespoke facility that houses state-of-the-art digital technology at United’s training ground, allowing the manager easy access to data on players of all positions, ages and career trajectory from around the world, while also maintaining immediate contact with a global network of scouts.

But this kind of change will take time to filter through in to signings in the summer transfer window, and results on the pitch.

Third, both of these factors mean that Moyes has failed to identify and develop a successful style of play and tactical game-plan for his side. Faced with deploying the players he inherited (barring the additions of Fellaini and Mata), it is likely Moyes feels does not have the right personnel to deploy the high tempo, high pressing style which characterised much of his time at Everton.

Instead of pursuing his preferred style come what may – as Andres Villas Boas did with his high line defending at Chelsea and later at Spurs – Moyes seems to have compromised, leaving Manchester United often appearing confused as to how to break opposition teams down, beyond throwing hopeful crosses into the opposing penalty area. In this sense his team has not lacked quality, but direction.

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These three factors have led to a sense of crisis at United, and performances that feel extremely far removed from those that characterise the slick passing and quick breaking of Wenger’s Arsenal, the high pressing of Rodgers Liverpool, or the disciplined work ethic of Mourinho’s Chelsea. By comparison, United appear all at sea.

Yet if the factors identified above are indeed the real causes of much of United’s shortcomings this season, then there is no reason to believe that Moyes cannot ultimately become a success in his new role.

The final games of the current season, and the coming transfer window will be critical. If United can finish the season strongly, Woodward and Moyes can set about a summer transfer window armed with the lessons of the past 12 months, and build towards a clearer, and better defined team structure and tactical game-plan.

This will likely mean shedding the squad of players as well as bringing in new faces, but it will also involve Moyes shaping those resources at his disposal into a coherent unit capable of winning consistently in the Premier League.

But the pressure to get it right is most definitely on. Next season, the disruption of change will no longer provide a compelling explanation for under-performance.

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