Football Taught By… David Moyes

In football it is a very rare event that a manager is handed one of the best jobs with a squad packed full of potential and on a high.

The nature of the industry means that at least 95% of managers generally have a few problems to fix when taking on new work, as the previous tenure had to end for whatever reason, and a strong element of that reason would be a lack of success.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recognise this introduction as the opening to the entry to this series regarding Dave Sexton. But it also accurately describes the situation that David Moyes inherited in 2013, when he accepted the offer to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.

What happened next was enough to fill a book (and I wrote it, so I should know), but let’s just concentrate on the key moments, which bewilderingly enough took place in the space of less than a year.

Moyes explained that the ‘blood drained from his face’ when he was offered the job, but he was nonetheless brave enough to take it, though the bravery is applied somewhat retrospectively knowing what we now do.

The state of the squad he inherited has often been debated. But his new team included the most promising goalkeeper and right back in the league. He had tons of experience all over the pitch, valuable squad members and a very handsome striker collection. He would need to deal with the midfield, as Paul Scholes had just retired, and there was probably a requirement for another winger, but the medium to long-term attention would surely be focused on the defence, with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra reaching the end of their careers.

The Manchester United job is unlike any other in football but Moyes prepared as though it was just the same – so with him came his trusted staff, and out went Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, who were crucial in the day to day running of the club.

Moyes did not have conversations with players about their routines or long-term plans – he came in with a predetermined idea of what the squad was like, possibly shaped by media reputation. Rafael, who had established himself as a regular, was out for Phil Jones, who was making a name for himself as a holding midfielder at the time.

Ferdinand and Carrick, used to rotation by Ferguson to manage their frames, were flogged like the proverbial dead horse in the opening weeks of the season, and when results and performances dipped, Ferdinand was deemed to be culpable. Moyes infamously showed him videos of Phil Jagielka’s defending to help him improve.

That wasn’t the only comparison with the Sexton era. After trying but failing to land a stylish midfielder, Moyes went to the totemic Fellaini, who represented a culture clash with the brand of football United normally played. Additionally, the better moments of the era also came when the squad seemed to return to its instinct and what it knew best – the teachings of their predecessor – to get them out of sticky situations.

Moyes’ United started well, winning the Community Shield and then on the opening day of the season at Swansea. Wayne Rooney was seen celebrating one of the goals away from the rest of the team – he was being linked with a move to Chelsea, under the stewardship once again of Jose Mourinho.

Results crashed. No wins in big games, and then, capitulations as teams who had not won at Old Trafford for generations began to pick up wins. West Brom. Newcastle. Painfully, Everton.

Senior players were marginalised. The experience of Ryan Giggs sacrificed for the young legs of Adnan Januzaj. Januzaj was played relentlessly, almost a throwback to ten years earlier when Moyes was criticised for relying too much on the talent of a teenage Wayne Rooney. Januzaj was not a teenage Rooney – and no veteran Giggs either.

Moyes began to show signs that he was not at ease with the public profile. “Newcastle are coming to Old Trafford and we are going to make it as difficult for them as we possibly can,” was followed by a post-match admission that he was afraid to take off a clearly unfit Van Persie because of potential press criticism.

By the turn of the year, United were in a deeply unfamiliar rot. So long one of the top two, supporters were used to the Ferguson transitions only briefly taking them into third – now United were scrambling for a Champions League place, and losing ground with that modest ambition.

Moyes arrested the slide by signing Juan Mata for a club record £38m. Mata, a great player and even better person, had no obvious place in the United system, so he like Fellaini became symbolic of a mess.

The League Cup seemed as though it might prove some salvation. United were on the verge of qualifying for the final on away goals after extra time of the second leg of the semi final (a mouthful) against a Sunderland team who were perennially battling relegation. Sunderland levelled through former United defender Phil Bardsley in the 119th minute.

There was still time for Hernandez to make it 2-1 to United – taking the match to penalties. Thus ensued a spectacularly poor shoot out where Welbeck, Januzaj, Jones and Rafael all missed to hand United a painful defeat. You might argue it spared them a more public humiliation against Manchester City at Wembley in the final.

Speculation raged about who would come in, as players began to plan for the future. In February Nemanja Vidic announced he would leave. Would Toni Kroos come in, in the summer?

We would never know – results caught up with Moyes, and when defeat at Everton mathematically ended hopes of a Champions League finish (in addition to exits from all other competitions in varying degrees of humiliation), Ed Woodward decided to end the Moyes era less than one year into a six year plan.

Ryan Giggs came in as a short term caretaker until the end of the season. He had hopes of the job on a permanent basis, but by the end of May, he was told he’d be assistant to new man, Louis van Gaal.

Major Decisions and Transitions

You could argue that Moyes’ biggest impact was the removal of trusted staff, only because he did not have the chance to oversee a squad overhaul. His decision to try and rule with an iron fist was admirable in one respect, but as his own staff were clearly in awe of their new players, it would surely have served a greater purpose to develop relationships from the ground up. Phelan and Meulensteen would have helped that. Instead, many top names became alienated.

That was exacerbated by his idea of the team who won the title and how they won it, as it did not appear to match up to how they’d played the previous season. So, as some veterans and squad players became used to long periods without games, they began to look to the future elsewhere.

The one who was definitely going to stay was Wayne Rooney. He was given a huge new contract that seemed a concern to all – still with a fair bit to prove, but no longer the player you should build a team around, one could argue this was the first major financial mistake United inflicted upon themselves in the post-Ferguson era.

In a sense, one of the biggest impacts was what Moyes didn’t do, though this was not his fault. By the summer, a number of major names departed, meaning that no single manager had been able to stamp authority in the way that Tommy Docherty did when Charlton, Law and Best all left.

So when Giggs retired and Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evra departed, it was hardly seen as a statement by Van Gaal, who had little choice in the matter. An opportunity had been lost, which, when you think about it, sums up the David Moyes era in a nutshell.

For years many would complain that Moyes wasn’t given nearly enough time to do a job which obviously required more work than nine months would allow. That is fair, but it’s also fair to say that the major decisions all seemed to go against him, and he did not quite seem to have sound judgement when it came to the money he was given to spend on new players and contract renewals.

The Tactics

There was nothing incredibly adventurous about the David Moyes reign. He largely went with a 4-4-2, even at one point abandoning an effort to shoehorn his first signing, Fellaini, into either the midfield or the attack.

And, even when signing Juan Mata, one of the best number tens in England, the former Chelsea man was played predominantly from the right wing, as Moyes appeared to have brought in a square peg for a round hole, a matter complicated even further by the subsequent decision to hand Wayne Rooney a brand new contract which effectively guaranteed his own place in the team.

Moyes’ shortcomings were more on selection than they were tactical, but it’s fair to say that the former Everton man did not showcase any invention in the latter regard. Considering United already played 4-4-2 as a general rule, one could say he shared some similarities with the club’s tradition, but that was about it – the signing of Fellaini was an indication that even in the finite world of football formations, some ideologies are very conflicting, and there was little evidence that ever suggested Moyes had his finger on the pulse of what made Manchester United.

The players

First team

De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra, Zaha, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs, Welbeck, Van Persie

Subs : Smalling, Valencia, Anderson, Kagawa, Januzaj

Last team

De Gea, Smalling, Evans, Jones, Buttner, Mata, Fletcher, Carrick, Nani, Kagawa, Rooney

Subs : Hernandez, Valencia, Welbeck

Most memorable game

Well, wherever you start or end with this, it’s hardly ever a selection that reflects well on David Moyes. There was just one game which seemed to have a foundation of hope, and that was the 4-2 win against Leverkusen at home (followed by a 5-0 win in Germany). These were the rare glimmers of light that didn’t indicate things were doomed.

Take for example the 3-0 win over Olympiakos – it was only good because of the disastrous first leg, and had United’s players invoking their experience rather than direction.

The 2-0 win at West Ham in March featured an amazing Wayne Rooney goal from near the halfway line, but it came six days after Liverpool won 3-0 at Old Trafford, a result which put Moyes’ reign on life support. It also showcased the wonderful backing the manager received, as the fans were in incredible voice.

The plug was pulled at Goodison, where one fan dressed up as Death complete with a scythe. And so it was probably that final game which is the most memorable of the Moyes reign, in terms of the capitulation and symbolism. His former side, coached by Roberto Martinez, were invigorated and would finish above United for the first time in 30 years. The champions, soon to be dethroned, were listless and lethargic, a sorry shadow of the team who had won the title by April the previous year.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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