Moyes’ departure exposes the extent of United’s malaise

Released just over 24 hours after his sacking as Manchester United manager, an event which brought blessed relief for fans and players alike, David Moyes’ statement on the matter was short but revealing. The six paragraphs reflect perfectly the qualities which appealed to Sir Alex and the board when making the decision as to who should follow the great man’s quarter century reign at Old Trafford. Respectful, dedicated, hardworking and loyal, the integrity, honesty and work ethic of the former Everton man have never been in question. However, the final two sentences reveal the fundamental issues which undermined his tenure from the very beginning:

“I have always believed that a manager never stops learning during his career and I know I will take invaluable experience from my time as United’s manager. I remain proud that I have led the team to the quarter finals of this year’s Champions League and I remain grateful to Sir Alex Ferguson for believing in my ability and giving me the chance to manage Manchester United.”

Perhaps Moyes’ greatest failing during his brief, painful time at the club was his complete inability to learn or adapt, despite his best efforts. He left the job with no better understanding of the demands of the position than when he first stepped into his office at Carrington last July. This is perfectly illustrated by his last line, in which he expresses his pride at taking United to the 1/4 finals of the Champions League, an achievement which should be the minimum requirement for any manager at the club. In the Tuesday papers several journalists recount a story in which the players mocked Moyes for reading a self-help book on an away trip. There is no question that he wanted to better himself and improve his own performance, but without grasping what the players and fans of modern day United demand there could be no positive progression. Fundamentally he failed to shake off the thinking which allowed him to achieve relative success at Everton, the mantle of the plucky underdog with modest ambitions and tactics and training aimed at nullifying the threat of the opposition rather than taking a game by the scruff of the neck. Moyes never grasped that what worked at Everton was never going to be appropriate for a giant like United or adjusted his own ambitions to the level required of him at Old Trafford. This, added to his indecisiveness both in the transfer market and during matches and his total failure to identify and correct his own faults meant that his tenure was doomed to failure almost from the very beginning.

It is becoming apparent that many members of United’s hugely successful squad had their new manager sussed from very early on. Used to the highest standards of preparation and discipline, some appear to have been dubious about Moyes’ appointment in the first place and concerns about his tactics, man management and ability to inspire were fully realised as pre-season and then the competitive campaign panned out. Perhaps the most revealing tale reported this week involves the manager presenting a DVD of Phil Jagielka as an illustration of how he wanted his centre backs to defend. Defenders with the ability and experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic must have been, quite reasonably, incredulous and one wonders how on earth Moyes ever came to the conclusion that using an above-average player as an example for highly decorated, high-class footballers was ever a good idea. If true, it was an act of staggering naivety. It also appears that most of the squad were unsure as to their roles on the pitch and, with little consistency of selection, where they figured in the manager’s thoughts going forward. From the outside it often appeared as if there was no plan at all. Moyes himself spoke of the “plan” he intended to implement “when the time is right”. Quite when that would have been is anyone’s guess. It has also been suggested that some were riled by perceived favouritism, particularly involving Wayne Rooney, and that there were few coherent standards of discipline. The fining and dressing down of Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling after their recent night out at the start of four days off contrasts with reports that one player escaped punishment after arriving at training an hour late after a night out and in no condition to take part. By the end, the majority of the squad appeared to have checked out of Hotel Moyes and were looking for a sharp exit. Perhaps the news that local lad Danny Welbeck is considering leaving the club, added to the dismal defeat at Everton, was the final straw for the powers that be. For the mild-mannered Mancunian United fan to want to leave, morale within the squad had to be at an unprecedented low. Unquestionably many of the players under-performed and need to accept some responsibility for this dismal season. One or two have behaved in a divisive and underhand way, making public shows of dissent and briefing journalists to further their agendas. The cause may have been just but the tactics of war were not always honourable. Regardless, the blanket decline in performances when compared to last season pointed to a rudderless, listing ship. Less than 36 hours after Moyes’ sacking it has been reported that as many as eight or nine members of the squad who were minded to leave in the summer are now re-evaluating their decisions and Ryan Giggs, now installed for a wonderful few weeks as caretaker manager, appears likely to remain at the club next season. The relief is palpable.

The vast majority of fans are delighted that it is all over and have gone from a feeling of deep despondency to genuine optimism and excitement for the matches and summer ahead. However, a small core of Reds and a handful of pundits are critical of the decision to terminate Moyes’ contract, citing Sir Alex’s plea that supporters should stand by their new manager and that he deserved time to implement his ideas. United, we are told, do not sack their leaders. We are better than that, special, morally superior. This is an argument largely of the club’s own making, a mantra they preached after installing the new man, a laudable but naive and fundamentally flawed high ground. It was based purely on the notion that the new manager would simply pick up, more or less, where Fergie left off and whilst results may decline to a degree short term, matters would improve over the course of the first season and beyond. It appears now that both the board and Sir Alex swiftly realised the folly of this approach, reportedly deciding that enough was enough after the abysmal defeat to Olympiacos in Athens. Patience is all well and good if you have the right man, but it became patently obvious very quickly that United did not. They had backed a lame horse and a degree of credit should be given to the club and Fergie for accepting that a mistake had been made, even if rectifying that mistake took far far longer than it should have. Recognising the error of judgement was easy. The performances on the pitch and Moyes’ repeated, astounding verbal gaffes made it crystal clear that he was not the right man. As results worsened and unrest within the squad grew the unravelling of the Champions of England became impossible to ignore. But identifying there is a problem is one thing. Admitting to yourself and others that you’ve messed up and acting to put that right is another. For Sir Alex, the principle driver behind the new manager’s appointment, the potential loss of face was significant. But slowly it appears that he turned, no doubt helped along by Moyes repeatedly disparaging the players he was left and alienating and isolating Ryan Giggs, perhaps the one man at United to whom the former manager has more loyalty than the man staff at Carrington supposedly called ‘Everton’. Maybe the final straw was the claim that even the great man himself would struggle with this squad, an absurdity given that Fergie had won the title by eleven points last season with this group minus nearly £70m worth of signings. The moment he turned, the game was up, the call to “stand by your manager” was permanently revoked and the magical healing quality of time and blind faith was revealed to be folly.

There are many more stories now being reported which demonstrate the extent of the malaise: the United player who in Athens shouted out that the referee should “Send him (Moyes) off, we’d be better off” within earshot of coaching staff; the eight players who failed to turn up at the suit fitting for next season, one saying that there was no point as “if he’s here next season we won’t be”. The divide between most of the playing staff and the principle core of coaches appears to have been a chasm. There was surely no way back. With former colleagues and players at Everton lining up to put the boot in it was clearly time to accept that, despite the manager blaming the players, referees and even the FA, Moyes was the man at the wheel, steering the ship towards the rocks.

Now that he has finally gone we can look forward with renewed optimism. In the short term we get to celebrate what must surely be the final weeks in the astounding playing career of Ryan Giggs, with the great man himself at the helm. Three days ago it appeared that his exit would be most unsatisfactory, ushered out the back door by the incumbent manager. Now he will be the centre of attention on the pitch (should he pick himself) and off it, in what must surely be a brief trial run for a man marked out as a future full-time United manager. In the medium term suddenly the garden is more rosy and the next few months will be full of intrigue as we welcome what will surely be a big name manager to the club. Hopefully he will bring new ideas and a progressive philosophy and be boosted by the Glazers finally following through on the annual transfer war chest propaganda and investing the club’s cash rather than throwing it away. If reports regarding a £30m deal for Luke Shaw are correct then it appears that this summer will truly be different. It has to be if the owners are to protect the value of their investment (ugh). Just how far their ambition stretches is open to serious question, but for now the important thing is to be moving forward again after nine months of backstroke. With important members of the squad now more minded to stay there is plenty of cause to be positive. There are no guarantees, but whoever Moyes’ successor is they will almost certainly make a better job of it than he did. He must surely be the easiest act to follow in United’s history.

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