A case of mistaken identity

We are getting to the business end of the season, as the Americans like to term it. With eight or so games left in it, we are probably looking now at where everyone will be (with some exceptions) come the day of the last game. That spells good news for some and terrible tidings for others.

There have been so many stories this season, but for my money I’d say the biggest of them all is United’s calamitous first season under the guidance of David Moyes. If you wonder what that sound you hear is, it’s the sound of knives sharpening in the hands of pundits, fans and, most importantly, decision makes at the club.

I read an article today with highlights of an interview held with United legend Paul Scholes. In it he largely defends Moyes and his approach, but he points out how the teams he played in always had the confidence to win any match. If you think you can win and believe that no matter the scoreline you’re still in with a shout, then chances are you will win.

I think if anything has characterized the teams under Sir Alex Ferguson, it is that. I don’t see any fight in this United team.

Sir Alex was at United for a long, long time. A lifetime, nearly, it could be argued. He instilled values and traits into his teams that have become integral to what it means to be a United player. For instance, you need to work hard. If you’re not willing to track back and defend when under the cosh, then you’ll get yanked from the squad and experience the full heat of a proper SAF hairdryer treatment. Also, you play at pace. Speedy wingers go way back well before Giggsey or even George Best to the likes of Charlie Mitten and Billy Meredith. Pacey wingplay is signature United.

More important than any of these, though, is the fighting spirit. Under Ferguson, you always felt the Red Devils were going to win, even when down by two or three. Especially at Old Trafford.

Tuesday’s loss was their sixth defeat at home this season. That is more than they’ve lost at home in the previous three years.

I am no Red Devil, but I know Moyes’ coaching style well as an Everton fan. Moyes is known to favor certain formulas and believes the game ought to be played a certain way. He is a coach who puts his mark on his squads, to the point where you know you are playing against a team coached by the Glaswegian.

Contrary to popular belief, he is a big believer in the passing game. Three seasons back you could have argued that Everton were playing like a budget Arsenal, with lots of cute passing in midfield and decent finishing. We did okay in the league, got into the latter stages of the Europa League, a decent if somewhat limited by budget squad that played pretty attractive football for the most part. So the accusations that Moyes is a believer in the long punt from the back are somewhat far of the mark. He was a defender in his playing days after all, and would certainly have expected that his defenders defend first, and by any means necessary. Everton did often hoof the ball from the back but that was never a tactic of Moyes’ per se. What it was evidence of was that the team were being massively outplayed and they were out of ideas. It was a sign that the players were discouraged.

Watching United this season has given me the oddest sense of déjà vu. It’s not the style of play as much as the look of the players. That look of acceptance. Acceptance of the inevitable.

We haven’t got what it takes to win.

But then, there have been some signs of life. One could argue that United’s second leg Champions League victory over Olympiacos was something of a return to the United of old. There was plenty of fight and belief there. Then they went on to play the Hammers and won convincingly against a proper long ball merchant in the shape of Wet Ham boss Sam Allerdyce. The longest ball in that game resulted in a magnificent goal. Rooney put in a man-of-the-match performance and things were looking, if not up, at least a bit more than horizontal.

Which is exactly where you could locate United after their latest violent depantsing at the hands of noisy neighbors City.  As in flat on their backs. To say United were outclassed is today’s Captain Obvious moment.

The Beeb’s Phil McNulty puts more succinctly than I ever could: Manchester United look like a team bereft of ideas and in total disarray. Moyes’ time at United is beginning to look more and more like Roy Hodgson’s short and miserable tenure at Liverpool. The owners at the time had far less stomach for what was going on at the club than it appears the Glazers do at United.

But here, too, we could look at some of these similarities. Hodgson followed a manager in Rafael Benitez who had achieved a degree of legendary status at Anfield when he led the ‘Pool to Champions League victory back in 2005. The rationale behind Hodgson’s selection at the time was that he was a “safe pair of hands.” He turned out to be a massive flop, who was quickly replaced by a proper Liverpool legend in the form of Kenny Dalglish. The former went on to coach Fulham and is now the boss for the Three Lions, and the latter had a successfulish, shortish tenure on the red half of the Mersey before being replaced by Brendan Rogers. And what a season the Koppites are having.

I don’t know why Sir Alex chose Moyes to be his successor, to be honest. David Moyes is a very decent manager. He knows how to make a lot out of a little, he has an eye for a bargain and he has big shoulders and a calm demeanor. These do not seem to be high on the list of must-have personality traits to steer a club like United toward continued success.

What it does tell me is, and this is purely speculative, that Sir Alex saw the storm coming and needed someone who knew how work with less than ideal resources. And to perhaps take the fall for something he should have done himself for a while. The last five to six seasons have not been the best for United in terms of recruitment. The team now looks in bad shape, with three out four of their starting backline seemingly headed for the exit door, a midfield full of willing workers but short on pure, world class talent. Mata is a great acquisition, but he isn’t playing in his preferred number 10 slot. That’s Rooney’s world. Mata playing on the wing is reminiscent of Moyes playing Mikel Arteta out wide in the first couple of seasons at Everton instead of dropping him in the middle where he could pull the strings. Until Moyes puts Mata where he likes to play, he will not get the best out of him.

And then there’s Fellaini, an okay player clearly out of his depths at United. It saddens me as he was a fan favorite at Everton. That he left for such a high figure (roughly $46 million) was a boon for Everton’s coffers, but struck me as very un-Moyes. I guess he had such poor luck during the transfer window, making a hash of his pursuit of Cesc Fabregas (and anyone else on his wishlist, really), Moyes hit the panic button and paid way over market for a player he knew. It’s painful to watch the lumbering Belgian flounce around the field, throwing elbows and looking very much out of place indeed.

I don’t think that Sir Alex is the kind of guy to line up a replacement who would be murdered by the pressure of the job and abjectly fail so that he, Ferguson, like Matt Busby did before him, could step back in and steady the ship. I don’t think Sir Alex had that as plan A. Or maybe it was. Maybe he wanted to put someone there in the open to get butchered in the harsh light of the cameras so that he, a knight of the realm, could swoop back in and stick the hairdryer in the face of the Glazers and demand proper funds for a total squad overhaul, probably something he’s been itching to do for a few years now. It’s been a bit of a rumor that the Glazers have been floating more and more stock to raise funds for a big splurge this summer.

The most likely scenario is that Sir Alex saw Moyes in a positive light for what he had accomplished at Everton and thought he was young and resourceful enough to take on a big job like United’s hotseat. He thought he had the measure of the man.

He did not.

It is my opinion that Moyes is not exactly either of these. He is a decent tactician but he is not resourceful enough and clearly does not know what his best team is nor how to motivate them. They are a dejected looking bunch, from the manager on down, and things are looking dire indeed for the Chosen One.

The real question here is, who is? Who out there can get this team to pull its collective finger out and make something of this season to forget?

The only viable solution in the short term is Sir Alex Ferguson himself. He is available and would know how to motivate this batch of troops. I would be loathe to urge for the ouster of Moyes but it appears there are rumblings from above already. Perhaps he bit off more than he could chew, they will say.

I still hope they give him another season. It is a fair thing to say that the job was bigger than Moyes had anticipated. He would have said so himself. I think he has the right temperament for this job, but he will need better players and better staff. I can understand he wanted to bring across the same guys he had with him at Everton, but he also needs new ideas, and fast. Steve Round is decent bloke but I wonder how deep his tactical nous is?

Sit Alex was a gnarled man of wrought iron, but he had the likes of Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz playing second fiddle to him, managers who have had fairly successful tenures as both national and club coaches (well, in fairness, Steve “the wally in the brolly” McClaren was a rubbish national coach, but he’s done very well at club level). Moyes needs better tactical backroom staff. On his coaching staff include the names of players one year into retirement from active, full time involvement in first team football, and one still plying his trade. These blokes might have the respect of their colleagues but there is a lack of knowledge and experience in coaching elite players in order to draw the very best out of them. When top top players go on a skid, their loss of confidence can leach through the entire squad like a rash of leprosy. Moyes would have done well to bring in a few names from outside his circle of trust, men with experience coaching at the highest level.

This is a fatal flaw of Moyes’ overall: a fatal lack of adventure. He brought in staff he knew. He pursued players he knew. He wanted to bring enough of the familiar with him to ease his transition into United’s insane fishbowl world.

Problem is, Everton does not correlate in any way to United. It is a storied club, but in terms of global following, turnover of revenue and international status, he could have done no worse by going in blind and alone than hauling in Everton’s wantaways into the halls of Old Trafford.

It might be too late for Moyes. The dark clouds are circling, the jackals are baying. I am saddened by his plight and I hope that if he does go that he has the chance to restore his pride at another storied club, perhaps even his beloved Celtic. It seems a harsh verdict on a good man but that’s football. We will wait to see what awaits around the corner. I have a sense we will not have to wait too long…