Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once declared that “my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch.” By the time he retired, Ferguson had eclipsed Liverpool in the overall English title race, finishing with thirteen league titles to push United past Liverpool by a total of 20-18. He also won four FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions League titles, and managed over some of the best attacking football of the era. By enjoying sustained periods of incredible success and deploying some of football’s most exciting talent, Ferguson transformed Manchester United into the biggest club in England, and one of the biggest in the world.
Upon his retirement in 2013, however, Manchester United appointed Everton manager David Moyes as his successor. Moyes had always done an exceptional job of maximizing his limited budget to keep Everton somewhere between fourth and eighth during the majority of his tenure, and had won Premier League Manager of the Year three times for his efforts. With a shared Glaswegian background and similarly tough style, many, including Ferguson, felt Moyes was his ideal successor. Manchester United fans expected more success than fourth to eighth place finishes from Moyes, but hoped he would similarly maximize his resources and continue the long string of successes the club had enjoyed under Ferguson.
Under Moyes’s leadership, Manchester United have nevertheless had far less success than under Ferguson’s, punctuated by an abysmal performance in their 3-0 loss to Liverpool on Sunday, March 16th. After Ferguson’s determination to knock Liverpool off of their perch, it seems Moyes is allowing Liverpool to climb back onto it. Liverpool currently sits second in the English Premier League, just four points behind Chelsea for first. Manchester United, in contrast, sits seventh in the table, an astonishing eighteen points out of first, fourteen points behind Liverpool and even three points behind Everton. While few doubt his desire or motivation, there is a great deal to be desired in his tactics and player selection so far at Manchester United. While they remain one of the biggest clubs in football financially, when it comes to on-field matters, Moyes appears to be transforming Manchester United into a smaller club like Everton, rather than growing to fit the expectations set for Ferguson’s successor.
With largely the same squad as Ferguson had to win the Premier League last year, United has already lost nine games in 29 Premier League matches so far, compared to just five in the entire previous Premier League season. United have lost to five of the six teams above them in the standings, remaining undefeated against only Arsenal from that group. While Moyes has guided them to a strong record against teams in the lower half of the table, his consistent record of losing against the top teams marks Moyes’ squad as one that remains outside the top teams in the league.
Without the Premier League title as a realistic option, Moyes still had three other opportunities for silverware this season (outside of winning the Community Shield in August, a trophy with little value to fans or team owners): the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Champions League. Manchester United lost to Swansea 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup, failing to win a single game in the tournament. In the League Cup, they at least made the semi-final, but could only tie Sunderland 3-3 on aggregate over two legs and then lost a penalty shootout 2-1. Their 3-0 victory in the second leg against Olympiakos to send them into the Champions League quarterfinals was a promising development, and encouraged United’s fans. However, now matched up against Bayern Munich, their chances look slim.
Their remaining status within the competition is crucial, however, to maintain the long-term hopes of Manchester United fans. The Champions League remains the standard for success, yet with their current seventh place standing, they sit twelve points out of fourth place, the final spot to qualify for the Champions League next year. This means that unless they win the Champions League, the team will fail to participate in the tournament for the first time since the 1995-1996 season. Being unable to do so would cause significant damage to their continued aspirations as a big club in English and European football. It may also hurt their chances of attracting top transfer targets, who may choose other teams over United in order to play Champions League football. By failing to attract big stars, Manchester United may fail to secure the talent needed to improve to at least fourth in the table in subsequent seasons, starting a tailspin that would progressively lead them further and further away from their vaunted big club status into the next tier of smaller teams in English and European football. An unexpected Champions League victory, however, would act as an immeasurable boost to the confidence of both Moyes and United, and ensure his future well beyond next season with the club.
It is important to note here that even Ferguson required four years to win his first trophy. Manchester United actually finished in eleventh in three of his first four seasons. Instead, Ferguson was allowed time to grow in the role, develop long-term strategies for building the team and implement his plan. Moyes’ lack of immediate success does not therefore automatically make his managerial tenure a failure, nor does it alone immediately mark Manchester United as a smaller club. Moyes, however, took over after a far greater period of success than Ferguson, as well as in a different era of football, both of which places greater expectations for immediate success, making his tenuous situation as much one of expectations as results . His on-field strategies and tactics, however, remain the legacies of a much smaller club’s mentality, and must change to guarantee long-term success.
Most of the squad remains intact from what he inherited from Ferguson, with the biggest changes coming through the additions of midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata. Alongside existing players like Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, as well as emerging star Adnan Januzaj, it would seen Moyes has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal to field an exciting team. Moyes has instead clung to antiquated tactics that served him well at Everton, but fail to use his players in their most effective roles. Moyes clearly favors passing the ball out to his wingers and crossing the ball into the middle of the box to score, yet his squad possesses neither the elite wingers nor the tall strikers adept at headers to fit this style. The squad’s only true out-and-out wingers are Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, none of whom are ideally suited to such a style. Valencia once excelled at such play but is no longer in his prime, Young prefers to dribble into the middle of the field to shoot and Nani remains inconsistent. While other players, including Kagawa, Januzaj and even Rooney, have played on the wing at times, each of them are more comfortable playing closer to the middle of the pitch.
Rooney and van Persie have played together, sometimes succeeding, but often occupying the same attacking positions, and do not work best together as a striking pair. Moyes seems aware of this, and has tried to accommodate Rooney as a striker or in a midfield role, yet has often been unable to find a formation that allows them both to play in ways that suit their styles. Javier Hernandez has been relegated to a minimal role with the club, while Danny Welbeck has often performed well despite fewer starting opportunities. Under Ferguson, Manchester United often enjoyed a rotation of deadly striking options, but Moyes has so far been unwilling or unable to duplicate such a feat. Most importantly, however, is Moyes’ mismanagement of his central midfielders. Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick have recently been playing in front of the defense in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Fellaini has also often ineffectively fit into one of the two roles at times. Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj have been unable to play their preferred central position at length, and either forced out to the wing or sat on the bench. Moyes is forcing round pegs into square holes. The team is suffering visibly as a result, showing the attacking capability of a much smaller club than United was under Ferguson. Moyes should be given more time to change to adapt to the mentality and tactics needed to maintain Manchester United’s expectations as a huge club. He must do so soon, however, to demonstrate a vision for the future and clear plan to prevent United from regressing into a small club, rather than one that simply looks like one sometimes on the pitch.
He has furthermore failed to address the startling deficiencies in his defense. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are all near the end of their careers and increasingly defensively liable, yet continue to play, Evra especially. Moyes admittedly inherited an aging group in need of replacements, and January is not the ideal time to do so in most cases. He still, however, has younger assets like Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Rafael and Alex Buttner to work with in the meantime. Evans has peaked as a good defender, but not one equal to Ferdinand or Vidic in their primes, while Smalling is still growing but shows a worrisome inability to win headers. Jones therefore remains United’s best hope to replace Vidic and Ferdinand fully, but has played all over the defense and midfield and suffered several injuries. Moyes’ best move would be to play Jones in the center of defense on a consistent basis alongside Smalling or Evans, in the hopes he can still grow to become the defender Manchester United needs him to be. Buttner could similarly be given time to play in place of Evra, even if only to properly assess whether or not he possesses the quality to play consistently. While Moyes has tried to protect his weak defense with extra midfield help, his best plan of action would be to test his young defenders, phase out his older ones more quickly and shift his formation to provide more midfield assistance in attack. This would show that Moyes has his eyes on the future, and is working to implement a new tactical vision, thereby proving his ability to retain Manchester United’s big club status.
The goal remains United’s greatest strength, with David de Gea serving as an exceptional successor to Edwin van der Sar. It may be that Moyes, like de Gea needed, simply needs time to grow into the role, and that five years from now Manchester United are once again at the top of the English footballing hierarchy. With their recent league results, probable lack of silverware for the season, and, most importantly, serious tactical and player management issues, Moyes risks transforming Manchester United into Everton and thereby dooming United to the status of a smaller English club, unable to challenge for major trophies. Moyes still has the opportunity to make the necessary changes, and may well do so over the next few months, especially from a tactical standpoint. Fans who expected Moyes to replicate Ferguson’s success must adjust to having a new manager who must be given time to adjust to his new environment. Whether Moyes can make these changes with more time, however, or should be sacked soon in favor of another candidate is still up for intense debate. Whatever the decision, it must be made soon, before it is too late and Manchester United is forever stuck in middle of the table limbo.