This series, “Transition”, 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. The latest instalment studies the winter of 2013 and how badly things got for David Moyes.
There was a palpable sense of the team having given up in consecutive 3-0 home defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City; losses which both flattered and humiliated United fans. By this point, the Manchester United team resembled anything but a team. It was eleven individuals who appeared to never have played together delivering a game plan that nobody seemed to understand.
“Moyes’s innovations mostly led to negativity and confusion,” Rio Ferdinand said in his autobiography. “The biggest confusion was over how he wanted us to move the ball forward. Some players felt they kicked the ball long more than at any time in their career. Sometimes our main tactic was the long, high, diagonal cross. It was embarrassing. In one home game against Fulham we had 81 crosses! I was thinking, why are we doing this? Andy Carroll doesn’t play for us! The whole approach was alien. Other times Moyes wanted lots of passing. He’d say: ‘Today I want us to have 600 passes in the game. Last week it was only 400’. Who cares? I’d rather score five goals from 10 passes.”
Judging by how the team had lined up at the start of the season, one wonders if David Moyes had selected the eleven he thought had won the Premier League and that his minor tweaks would just make them better. And, when it became clear that this wasn’t the case, the manager’s unfamiliarity with his squad showed.
It wasn’t just the players who had become bewildered by the statements made by the manager. United had two consecutive home games in December 2013, first against Moyes’ former club Everton, and then against in-form Newcastle. Moyes’ team had recovered from their shambolic start to go twelve games unbeaten, though, as well they might considering they had the benefit of a four game run at home to build momentum.
When qualification for the second round of the Champions League was assured thanks to a very impressive 5-0 win in Leverkusen, it seemed as if things were turning around. The jolt in confidence had been provided by a stunning double from Adnan Januzaj in a game against Sunderland; Januzaj was immediately thrust into the limelight of being a starter and to be fair to the young Belgian, he showed flashes of his potential.
With those three defeats in the first 7 weeks of the season, United knew that they could not afford many more losses, but that’s exactly what they got against Everton. Bryan Oviedo scored in the 86th minute of a game that United probably had the better of on the balance of it, but their inability to score meant that the Toffees registered their first win at Old Trafford since 1992. It was the second such record to fall, after West Brom’s first win at the Theatre of Dreams since the late Seventies. The loss put United 12 points behind league leaders Arsenal. Even accounting for the reliability of the Gunners’ mid-season collapse, it still seemed an insurmountable gap, and for the first time since 1990, United supporters were approaching the turn of the year watching their club not be involved in a title race.
“Moyes’s innovations mostly led to negativity and confusion…”
Objectives had been redefined. There were enough sensible heads to understand transition would be difficult, but, Champions League would be the minimum expectation. With that, United supporters had essentially been willing to give David Moyes the chance to finish in 4th, which would have then been their lowest ever Premier League position, and rebuild for the second year from there. There were still many who put the blame for the transfer mess-ups in the summer at Ed Woodward’s door. The shambolic episode where lawyers claiming to represent United in the supposed pursuit of Ander Herrera attempted to negotiate a transfer with Athletic Bilbao summed up a difficult few months.
Newcastle’s trip to Manchester came on the back of their own loss against Swansea City (which had ended their four game winning run). Ahead of the game with the Magpies, Moyes faced the press, and gave a conference which left the United support open-mouthed in disbelief.
“They (Newcastle) also had a defeat against Swansea but they have had four straight wins which is a great record to get. I know what it’s like to try and win three or four games in a row, it’s a hard thing to do in the Premier League, so congratulations to them. They come to Old Trafford and we’re going to make it as hard and difficult for them as we possibly can,” Moyes said, before defending the performance against Everton. “People who watched the game they would have got lots of belief from it,” Moyes said. “There were chances in the game we didn’t take. It could quite easily have been very different. Unless you are someone who doesn’t understand the game too much you would have seen that.”
The Newcastle game could barely have gone any worse. Yohann Cabaye scored for the visitors in the 61st minute. Robin van Persie pulled up with what appeared to be a groin injury but when Moyes made changes — and he made all three within the space of eight minutes — the Dutch striker remained on the field. He was effectively a passenger, dropping back into midfield while Januzaj and Javier Hernandez played up front.
With Old Trafford used to late onslaughts, the Newcastle team would surely have braced itself for a surge in the last half an hour, but the truth was that it never materialised. United’s response was abysmal as the game petered out in surely the most disappointing way one ever had at the famous ground in the Premier League to that point. Newcastle’s win was their first at Old Trafford for 41 years; another wretched result.
After admitting his team could have done better, Moyes said that the plan was to bring Van Persie off. He told the BBC : “I think if I’d have taken him off everybody would have said ‘what are you doing?!’ but in truth Robin had to come off after seventy minutes maximum. But we had to keep him on, we were chasing the game, we had to get a goal back.”
The bewildering statement was not bettered by his comments ahead of the last European game before the turn of the year. In his pre-match conference, the manager made comments immortalised in a tweet by the club’s official account which still gets retweeted today — “David Moyes says #mufc must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending”
Moyes still played van Persie in the next game, bringing him on in the effectively meaningless Champions League group game against Shakhtar Donetsk. The forward pulled his groin taking a corner and was subsequently out injured until late January.
At half-time of that game, Roy Keane, working as a pundit, said “They (United) don’t look like a team, just a collection of individuals running around. You can defend players for making mistakes but you cannot defend players for not tackling and not getting close to people.”
Moyes suggested afterwards that he wasn’t surprised with how poor United started. “To be honest, it’s been that way since I came here,” he said. “We need to win matches and the players responded well to that encouragement. We passed the ball much better after we had given it away terribly in the first half and that’s not like us. I didn’t think we were close enough to them early on when we gave them too many opportunities and we were fortunate not to be a goal down. I think you want to try and win the group. It was a difficult group and a lot has been said, I was inexperienced in the Champions League… so to have my first experience, I am happy to top the group. We didn’t play particularly well in the opening 30 minutes, we could have been fortunate still to be 0-0 but we missed a couple of chances just before half time ourselves. We played much better in the second half.” Moyes was asked why his team had done so well in Europe and so badly in the League. “If I had the answer I would have solved it by now and it would all be OK,” he said.
It was a disastrous few days for Moyes and United and although he publicly insisted his objectives hadn’t changed — “We’ll try to win the next match” — the mood around the club, and the support, certainly had. The most common complaint was that Moyes’ comments before the game were simply not befitting of the manager of Manchester United. Less than twelve months earlier, Newcastle’s Boxing Day trip to Old Trafford had concluded with a last gasp winner for the hosts and the United manager dismissing his opponents as ‘a wee club in the North East’.
Even if the fans were willing to cut the new man some slack and say that the previous manager had overachieved with the squad at his disposal, that was not exactly the game as accepting clear underachievement and the public demeanour of the man leading the squad was not inspiring the fans full of confidence. The Twitter account of the fanzine Red Issue reminded Moyes he was ‘not at Preston anymore’.
It had been a difficult few weeks for the United boss. Wilfried Zaha, the former Crystal Palace winger, had been Ferguson’s last signing, and arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2013. However, Zaha had endured a very tough start to life at United, too. He made his debut in the Community Shield win over Wigan Athletic but it wasn’t until the Newcastle game, where he came on as a sub, that he featured again. There was speculation that Zaha was being punished for an alleged relationship with Moyes’ daughter, an allegation Zaha actually dismissed on his own Twitter account on the day before the Newcastle game, a statement which included the comment “I’ll play when the manager thinks I’m ready.”