One of the signatures of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign was that no one player was ever allowed to become bigger than the club; Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, even Cristiano Ronaldo were all moved out when they threatened to become larger than Manchester United. However, although a hallmark of Ferguson’s tenure was an excellent aptitude for managing the egos and influence of players, if there was one figure who did eclipse the club during Ferguson’s career was the Scot himself. Ferguson transformed United during his time at the club into perennial title winners, a powerhouse who have become the most successful English club of the Premier League era. His influence was huge, Ferguson dominated every aspect of Manchester United; he was famous for knowing everyone involved with the club, from the youth sides to the groundsmen. Together with Gill, Ferguson turned United into a global brand, able to constantly rebuild teams despite the loss of star players to both transfers and retirement.
When Ferguson announced his retirement, it resonated throughout the whole club, and fans knew that there would be repercussions, that Ferguson’s departure would be detrimental to the team and that any replacement would have their work cut out replicating the Scot’s success. However, with Moyes appointed early on a six year contract, it is fair to say that most in the Red camp were optimistic; Ferguson had handpicked his own successor, Moyes had a summer to prepare for this the biggest of all football jobs, and success and stability would continue at Old Trafford. What followed was a summer of doubt, of whether United could acquire their transfer targets and retain Wayne Rooney. With a difficult set of fixtures, everyone knew that United may struggle this term, but few could have predicted that eight games in, Manchester United would be wallowing in eighth place and already eight points off the pace in the title race. A Manchester United win at home used to be a safe pick for an accumulator, but not this season. It raises many questions; are these poor performances simply a hangover from losing Ferguson? Or a result of deeper, underlying problems? And if this is the case, did Moyes inherit these problems, or is he the cause?
The answer is probably a combination of all of these issues. Moyes did not by any means inherit a classic Manchester United side. Despite winning the league at a canter last season, United so often conceded early and relied on late goals to snatch draws and even wins from the jaws of impending defeat. These last minute victories are gone this term, without Ferguson driving the side on through sheer force of will and personality, Manchester United have dropped far too many points this season, with their form epitomised by the last minute equaliser conceded to Southampton this weekend. That Moyes cannot inspire the same performances from the United team is concerning, but not surprising, a deeper issue is that Moyes seemed to fail to realise that he had inherited a side in transition and in need of serious investment, or at the very least augmenting with youth. Only Marouane Fellaini was brought in, and in terms of youth, with the exception of revelatory Adnan Januzaj, opportunities have been few and far between, with Wilfred Zaha relegated to the bench, and the talented pair of Powell and Lingard farmed out on loan. It is a similar situation to Moyes’ tenure at Everton, when he would have his one protégé (Rooney, Barkley), but would be generally hesitant to rely on youth. Players’ performance, or recent lack of, is not just down to the departure of the inspiration that Ferguson used to bring either. It has quickly become apparent that despite preseason, Moyes is still not sure what his best side is, or how best to deploy some of his players. It seems odd that United spent so much of the summer pursuing Ander Herrera and Cesc Fàbregas and yet is reluctant to use Kagawa, who is very much in the same playmaking mould and has oft been lauded as amongst the best players in the world by former manager and Champions League finalist Jürgen Klopp.
The effects of Manchester United’s struggling performances at the top of the table have been twofold, blowing the title race wide open, and making the fight for European places even fiercer. Ranked as even Champions League place outsiders, Arsenal continued their irresistible run of form with a 4-1 win against Norwich and top the table after eight games. Despite a draw against Newcastle, another outsider, Liverpool, find themselves not far behind, only two points off the pace and third on goal difference. Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham have all had their road bumps so far this term, but all won this weekend and are firmly in the running as potential Premier League champions. Throw into the mix Manchester United, and you have six teams who would all consider finishing outside of the top four a failure. The likes of Southampton, Everton and Newcastle are likely to fade over the season, but will all have designs for a Europa League spot and be keeping a firm eye on the top four. All the teams in the top positions will have their own ambitions; for Arsenal it is to end a trophy drought, for Everton to avoid slipping following Moyes’ departure, Liverpool want a return to past glory days, whereas Southampton having spent big will expect considerable progression. For Manchester United, the expectation is always the same, to win trophies, and whilst it is of course too early to rule out United retaining their title, the Red Devils certainly can’t afford to lose much more ground. The fact of the matter is, United fans had been expecting a post-Ferguson slump and would certainly forgive Moyes for a trophyless first season, but he will need to inspire his side to close that five point gap to fourth, and quickly, because for Manchester United to miss out on Champions League places would be an unmitigated disaster.