TRANSITION : A Series Of Understandable Mistakes

Welcome to the WATBB feature “Transition”. This series takes an in-depth look at Manchester United’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson years, looking at each of his successors and analysing what went right, what went wrong, and how close or how far the club have kept to, or strayed from, its identity. This week it’s the bumpy first few weeks under David Moyes.

Read Part Two here.

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If the club did have a success that summer it was the retention of Wayne Rooney. The definition of success, however, must be explained in this instance. United rejected all further offers from Chelsea before the end of August, and so, true to his word, David Moyes did not sell Wayne Rooney.

This was a victory of conviction but not as emphatic as the manager would have liked; for, by now, there was not exactly the shock and upset about the possibility of a Rooney exit as there had been back in October 2010. Rooney didn’t start in any of the last three games of the 2012/3 season and his place in the United first team had been under question since he was dropped for the second leg of the Champions League 2nd round tie with Real Madrid.

There were in fact many supporters who believed Fergie had delivered a nice welcome present for the new manager; the opportunity to accept an offer for Rooney and start a new era. The forward’s drop in form over the second half of that last season under Ferguson had been notable; in a game at Swansea three days before Christmas, Rooney put in arguably his most disappointing performance in a red shirt, and never picked up again for the rest of the campaign. However, with a frustrating transfer window drawing to a close, it is easy and understandable to see why David Moyes would have felt a move to Chelsea of all teams would have been perceived as a very poor move from United. They would have theoretically strengthened a rival, and United would look as if they were forced into selling.

So Moyes stood firm; the following February, however, when Rooney was awarded a new five and a half year contract worth a reported £300,000 a week, eyes were watering throughout M16. By then, Moyes’ reign was close to untenable anyway, and the deal was seen by most supporters as a financial nightmare for the club. Rooney’s stock had fallen sharply to the point where the club would have been lucky to receive an offer of £15m for him — so in what scenario did it make sense to make a commitment to pay him that sum each year for the next six? The Rooney Conundrum, as it shall henceforth be described in this book, was one which would dog the following management set-ups; by February, as stated, time was all but up for Moyes.

So, where did it all go wrong for David Moyes at Manchester United? To briefly return to the theme of understandable errors of judgement, it is worth mentioning the appointment of staff on his arrival. In the world of football management, coaches take their trusted staff with them into new jobs all the time. Yes, there is the cliché of ‘jobs for the boys’, but if a manager has been successful, then invariably, they will stick to their trusted methods.

David Moyes had done well enough at Everton so that his name was always in the frame for big jobs when they came available and so, when it came to moving to Manchester United, who had been ruled by a single man for more than a quarter of a century, it is reasonable that Moyes would have wanted people around him who were familiar with him and therefore loyal to him rather than with and to Manchester United Football Club. He needed people he could trust and so those were the ones he employed.

Likewise, there was a perception from some that Ferguson ruled the roost to such an extent that some members of staff at United were undeserving of their role. Mike Phelan, the long-serving assistant, was let go, following years of well-intentioned ribbing from supporters about wearing shorts and putting out the cones. Rene Meulensteen, upset at the Phelan decision, decided he too would leave. These were two crucial members of staff, but clearly, two members Moyes felt were dispensable.

It would be wrong to say these decisions immediately made a mockery of the “cut from the same cloth” comments or that they created a contradiction of the idea of consistency, because change happens in football. Coaches get hired and fired. Ferguson had a number of different assistants over his tenure. Still, there’s absolutely no point denying that with hindsight it was the wrong call and that the cracks which began to appear, appeared almost instantly. 

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…a significant reason for why it worked more often than not, and why Ferguson was so skilled in eking out every drop of longevity in his more talented veterans, was not only the timing of the rest periods, but the foresight and the astute squad management that Ferguson had in abundance.

Within a week, Moyes ruffled more feathers by banning chips from the club canteen. The issue infamously made its way into Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography #2Sides where the defender said “We loved our chips, but Moyes comes in and, after his first week, he says we can’t have chips any more.” 

Moyes later responded. “Yes, I did ban chips,” he said in 2015. “It was because a couple of players were overweight and I didn’t think chips were good for their diet.”

Again, there was nothing theoretically incorrect with Moyes’ decision, and it seems a petty thing to cause a disconnect, but what the example shows us is that the new manager had not taken the time to sit down and discuss changes with the senior players. Perhaps he didn’t need to; what he said went, after all. But from this basic misunderstanding deeper problems formed. Moyes’ ‘my way or the highway’ philosophy had a significant effect on Ferdinand in particular, so, when examining what went wrong, perhaps he is the best place to start.

Ahead of the tour of the Far East, Moyes admitted he would use the time to get to know the players. “I don’t know if it is useful to be away for three weeks but it is useful in terms of getting to know the players,” he said. “They will get to know me and how I work, which is important. There are also two or three young players I might get a chance to look at. I am looking for Warren (Joyce) to give me direction on that and who should be pushed towards the first team. Maybe in some of the games I will have the opportunity to seeing them.”

One would presume that managers would get reports about their new squad and in Steve Round, Moyes had an assistant who was supposedly ahead of the game when it came to tactical analysis. It would have taken the most casual of observations of United’s team-sheets from the previous campaign to notice something about the use of some of the senior players, most notably Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick.

The only time any of those players played consecutive games was when games were a week apart and even then it wasn’t all of the time. At only one point in the season did Ferdinand and Carrick  respectively play consecutive games where the matches were closer than a week apart (that is to say, only once did either of them play a weekend and then a midweek game consecutively) and when they did, a long rest awaited them. Ferdinand and Carrick, when they did play, were exceptional in that last title-winning season. And, of course, when they did play, it tended to be together, and in the more important games. 

The successful strategy was the consequence of years of work, for decision-making to appear so effective that to the observer it seems painfully simple. It didn’t always work, of course, because Manchester United didn’t win every game and every trophy.

But a significant reason for why it worked more often than not, and why Ferguson was so skilled in eking out every drop of longevity in his more talented veterans, was not only the timing of the rest periods, but the foresight and the astute squad management that Ferguson had in abundance. He was able to plan rests for key players and schedule it into the fixture list well in advance. Perhaps this was a luxury afforded to him by the job security his past success had earned (which, by way of direct comparison, was not something Moyes could count on). It was, nonetheless, the sort of thinking that kept Ferguson ahead of his peers.

There can be no doubt about it; Ferguson would have complained about the tough fixture schedule at the start of the season and he would have felt it necessary to play Ferdinand and Carrick in consecutive games against Chelsea and Liverpool. One wonders if both players would have played in the opening league game against Swansea City, though. A draw at home to Chelsea and a limp away defeat to Liverpool were obviously upsetting but Moyes was not about to be damned for his failure to win those games.

He responded by bringing in Fellaini from Everton, his sole signing of the summer window, and Fellaini was straight into the squad for the first game after the international break.

How United might line up against Crystal Palace was an interesting one considering they had their first Champions League game in the midweek against Leverkusen and then an away game at Manchester City. When the team win, it would seem unfair to question the manager’s selection. United did win 2-0 though the performance was not exactly inspired. Fabio started at right back, after Phil Jones had played there since the start of the season.

Not eyebrow-raising on its own, but it was rather surprising to see Rafael missing out; the Brazilian had seemed to have made the right back position his own after being one of the best players the previous season, and now, couldn’t get a game for love nor money. Ferdinand and Carrick were both made to play the full ninety minutes against Palace and again against Leverkusen in a game United won 4-2.

So far United had got away with it but it was always likely that it would catch up with them, and so it proved to be on one of the most painful occasions possible, against Manchester City. The visitors looked leggy and tired against a vibrant City team which lead two-nil at half-time and scored two within five minutes of the restart. A late Wayne Rooney consolation could not paper over the cracks. United had been dreadful and the hiding had been coming. 

Moyes’ response for the next league game? Nemanja Vidic was rested and Patrice Evra was dropped from the team to play West From at home. Surrounding Ferdinand and Carrick were Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Alex Buttner and Anderson. In those situations you hope the calming influences will win over but that was not the case; the veteran pair instead looked sluggish and out of place, slow to react to the erratic performance around them. Rather unfairly, their performances were singled out for criticism, and on the face of it, it wasn’t difficult to see why. 

For Ferdinand, however, the repercussions were devastating. He had been the one constant in the club’s worst start to a season since well before Ferguson’s first title winning campaign and unfortunately, though the manager hadn’t done him any favours, he was the figurehead and bore the brunt of the finger pointing. He’s old. Slow. Past it. The solution was obvious, he must be dropped.

The truth, of course, was that Ferdinand was still capable of brilliant defending. In this writer’s opinion, Ferdinand is the finest centre-half to wear the Manchester United shirt, and in the opinion of many more, he walks into a “Best ever United” XI. It is not an unreasonable argument to suggest he’s the greatest English centre-half of all time. He didn’t go from being a title-winning centre-half to a liability in just six months. Does Moyes avoid culpability here? Maybe, on account of not quite knowing the player as well as the previous manager did. But then again, that’s simply good management.

Following the defeat to City, Moyes pulled in the squad to deconstruct the loss and run through why and how. His message was not clear to the players. “You heard a lot of guys complaining: ‘I just don’t know what he wants’,” Ferdinand said. “He had me doubting everything.”

To further compound the defender’s misery, following the West Brom defeat, Ferdinand was hauled in to watch another video. This time, not of the game, but instead of Everton’s Phil Jagielka. Moyes felt that Ferdinand — a six-time Premier League winner, a European Cup winner, with over four hundred appearances for United — could benefit from how to adapt his game to play like his former skipper at Goodison Park. It demonstrated a significant misunderstanding from Moyes about the defender he had at his disposal. Ferdinand may not have been as imperious as he was in 2008, but he had not reached Gary Neville’s level of self-awareness where he himself knew the game was up.

The scenario had echoes of Dave Sexton pulling Gordon Hill into his office after training one morning and forcing him to watch tapes of the Hungarian wingers of the 50’s— principally, their hard-working attitude. Sexton seemingly did not realise the value of Hill’s natural game, even when the evidence of him being the team’s top goalscorer from the wing made it easy to see. Hill, to give a modern example, had a goal record comparable with Cristiano Ronaldo’s at United, and didn’t even take penalties. Instructing him to be defensive showed a basic misunderstanding of the manager; but, as always, the manager rules. Hill was sold and Mickey Thomas was brought in; the perfect summary of the difference between the Docherty side and the Sexton side. As George Santayana said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Instead of utilising him properly, Moyes — unwittingly — burned Ferdinand out, creating a significantly premature and sad conclusion to his Old Trafford career. The defender was brutally cut from United’s starting XI, brought back for the occasional game before being recalled for a run in the late winter when confidence at the club was rock bottom. Moyes then told Ferdinand that he would not be playing in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich as the team trained in a public park in Germany — a moment the player described as one of the lowest of his career.

With his reputation damaged to the extent he knew the incoming manager would probably not renew his contract, Ferdinand signed a deal at Queens Park Rangers. It did nothing to restore any glory. On a tight pitch, in a team who were forced to defend for the entire game, Ferdinand was required to be more of a Vidic. He wasn’t.

Ferdinand left with the blessing and good wishes of United fans, unlike Vidic, who left under a bit of a cloud when it was announced in early March that he had signed for Inter Milan. Vidic had become disillusioned with life under David Moyes but the timing of the announcement, from the club captain of all people, coming at a stage when United were making a desperate last throw of the dice for Champions League qualification, was, for some, an unforgivable show of disloyalty.

Time was almost up for Moyes, but the way Rio Ferdinand was handled was a case study for everything that went wrong for the Scot in those few months; the understandable misunderstanding, the questionable decision of resolution and the poor man-management which undermined all the work Sir Alex Ferguson had done. 27 years work undone in roughly 27 weeks. 

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