The shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson is looming over David Moyes and Manchester United. The Red Devils have only won three of their opening eight fixtures in the Premier League and are now eight points behind an Arsenal team that have only lost once since last March.
Many analysts, fans and football writers have asked the question: Have United lost the fear factor they had under Ferguson? Is Moyes tactically negative? Have the players regressed? The truth is somewhere in between, with the factor of Ferguson's presence adding to Moyes' woes.
Make no bones about it; Sir Alex Ferguson is an overbearing presence at Old Trafford. The Scot deserves huge praise for his near-27-year career with United. He built numerous sides during his era and won every single trophy available. He is rightly regarded as a legend.
When the Scot announced his retirement on May 8, speculation as to who would be his successor began immediately. Many names were mentioned, but Ferguson had other ideas and personally selected Moyes as his replacement, as per the Mirror.
A delighted Moyes, in one of his first press conferences, barely put a foot wrong in telling the Mirror he hoped Ferguson would stick around.
I hope he is sitting in the directors’ box at games, because he has been so good. I’ve already called him two or three times for some advice. He’s not there to pressure me.
I’ve come to a club where success is tattooed across the badge. This club is about winning trophies and I have come to continue that. Whoever was going to take over this job knows what the manager did before. The manager before was incredible. His achievements... there are no better.
All I can do is what David Moyes has done before. I will definitely continue the traditions of Manchester United, but I have to put my own stamp on the club. I am inexperienced in a lot of those things and there are some brilliant managers who could have taken this role.
But the biggest confidence I can take is Sir Alex telling me he wanted me to be the next Manchester United manager.
Those heady days of optimism in early July now seem long gone.
The summer transfer window was nothing short of a disaster for the club. Moyes, quite rightly, identified central midfield as a problem area. United were linked with transfers for Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas and Athletic Bilbao's Ander Herrera, but for one reason or another, the proposed moves broke down.
United then turned to their new manager's former club and bought Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million, as per ESPN. The problem with this transfer is that Fellaini is a completely different style of player than either Fabregas or Herrera.
If anything, United's capture of Fellaini smacked of a lack of planning, foresight, insecurity and a hint of desperation to appease their expectant fans.
I think maybe we've got work to do to bring in players not for the squad, but to go right into the team. It's not necessarily the squad players we needed, we needed one or two who might have gone in [to the team]. ...
Going back to that transfer window, we always said it was going to be a tough one and it was going to take a little bit more time.
It does mean I may have to take a few more blows, definitely. Maybe even more than that. Maybe all season I have to take a few blows but I knew this was going to be the case because I was taking over from a great manager and it was always going to take time for me to get my own ways and change things round a little bit.
There is little doubt that Fellaini has strengthened United's weak midfield core, but they would have been far better suited with Mesut Ozil. German newspaper Berliner Zeitung even suggested that Ozil was waiting for a last-minute call from United before committing to the Gunners, via ESPN.
Ferguson left Moyes with an aging and paceless team, particularly in midfield. In short, the Scot retired at the right time.
It is testament to his greatness as a manager that a limited United won the Premier League last season. He took full advantage of Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea being mismanaged and in complete disarray. Because of that, the 2012-13 season was one of the worst on record.
This obviously hurt many Manchester United fans. Nobody wants to be told that the team you have invested your time and effort in are not as good as you thought. Moyes, however, was completely right.
But his cause is not being helped by Ferguson's omnipotent and choking presence at the club.
Around every corner, Moyes sees Ferguson's shadow. After every bad performance, he is asked if he should seek his predecessor's advice.
"No, absolutely none whatsoever," Moyes told the Daily Mail, when he was asked if Ferguson’s stature and prominence were posing problems.
I speak to him once a week. I pop in to see him after the game. ... He is a director now and I am going to use his advice. Why would I not do that? I would be a fool not to.
I’m happy for him to be here. He is not interfering.
Moyes is right; Ferguson is not interfering directly.
His overall prominence at the club is, however.
Ferguson is a regular in the stands at Old Trafford. His body language is constantly being analyzed by fans and the media alike. He has had a street near the ground named Sir Alex Ferguson Way. Old Trafford's largest stand, the North Stand, was renamed in his honor. The club even erected a statue at Old Trafford of the greatest-ever manager in 2012.
His forthcoming book is being advertised all over the ground. His "Evening with Sir Alex Ferguson" at the Lowry Theatre with BBC's Dan Walker sold out in minutes and will undoubtedly feature a segment on Moyes.
In short, there is not a corner at Old Trafford or in Manchester where Ferguson does not exist.
Following Southampton's late, late equalizer at Old Trafford, Moyes was asked by the BBC if his team has lost that famous fear factor they had under their former manager. Understandably, his retort was short.
Sir Alex Ferguson has a great history and his experience will always work in charge of any team.
But the fear comes from the team on the pitch. ... The players have always been the people that have to turn out and do it.
The BBC were right to ask about his team missing that certain fear factor. However, once again, Moyes hit the nail on the head. The missing fear factor is not from the manager; it is missing from the team.
His team are lacking their X-factor of yesteryear. Of the current crop, only Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are what would be regarded as world-class talents. Other players like Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic have seen better years, while the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Nani have always flattered to deceive on a long-term basis.
Moyes knows that his team is short when compared to Bayern Munich and Barcelona. He recently told The Telegraph that his team were well below the ideal quality to win the Champions League.
To win the Champions League, you need five or six world-class players.
If you look at Bayern Munich, they have five or six nearly world-class players. Look at Barcelona, who had it in the past and Real Madrid have maybe got it now. That's the level you have to get at to win it. We've not got that yet but what we have got is experience.
The job when I took over was always going to be that we’d have to make changes and improve as we go along, but I took over the champions of England.
I wasn’t going to come in here and say "such and such isn’t good," not at all. Everything that Sir Alex [Ferguson] has done is great. But, in time, obviously with people’s age and depending on how things go, I’ll have to make some changes.
Ferguson's continued prominence at the club, combined with United's lack of world-class talent and problems on the pitch, is leaving Moyes in a corner.
The one aspect of this triumvirate that the club has real control over is Sir Alex. When the Scot left his management position, he was rightly honoured. The "visionary," as described by Michel Platini to Goal, was immediately moved into a director position at Old Trafford. This was only right given his great contribution to the club.
However, United seem to be making the same mistakes they made more than 40 years ago, when Sir Matt Busby retired from the club. Like Ferguson, Busby was a legend, and like Ferguson, the club moved him upstairs.
Around the same time that Ferguson’s career as a manager was just beginning, the last great dynasty at Manchester United was coming to an end along with Busby’s 24-year career with the Red Devils.
When Busby announced that he was going to retire in January 1969, the footballing world shook, and speculation immediately arose as to who was going to replace him as he moved upstairs into a director of football-type role. Names like Don Revie, Jock Stein, Jimmy Adamson and Dave Sexton were all mentioned as potential candidates.
Busby immediately ruled out Revie, feeling that the Leeds United manager was the complete opposite of everything he stood for in the game. The United manager then enquired about Sexton at Chelsea, but the Blues boss turned him down as his young family had just settled in London and he did not want to move again so quickly.
Faced with going for a manager he did not know, Busby decided to look inwards and briefly considered Johnny Carey, Noel Cantwell and Paddy Crerand but decided that their lack of coaching experience went against them. Thus, he promoted Wilf McGuinness from within to handle first-team affairs.
An outstanding youth coach and a player of some repute before his career was ended at just 22 years of age, McGuinness was Manchester United through and through and had progressed steadily through the coaching ranks of the club. The Busby Babes had been nurtured by McGuinness before Busby ever got his hands on them, and so it was that the lad from Collyhurst became first-team manager.
However, while McGuinness was perfectly suited to being a coach, he was a straight shooter and lacked the cunning and guile needed to be a manager. He wasn’t interested in the political minefield of the dressing room as a coach and never tried to understand it. But as a manager, he now had to control it.
But a different story soon emerged, as McGuinness eventually found that he was only the chief coach, with Busby attending board meetings in his place and negotiating contracts with his staff and potential signings behind his back.
Add that to Busby vetoing moves for players like Malcolm McDonald, Mick Mills and Colin Todd, and all of a sudden McGuinness began to feel the world at Old Trafford moving against him. All the responsibility was his, but all the power rested with the director of football.
McGuinness failed because he couldn’t stand up to Busby. To no surprise, he was sacked one year into his three-year deal, with Busby taking over as manager until the end of the season while a shocked McGuinness stayed on until June before leaving football in England.
The following manager, Frank O’Farrell, found a United team in serious disarray and tried to rebuild it in his image, but he found his requests turned down by the board more often than not.
The ex-Leicester boss suffered the same fate as his predecessor. Except this time there was a major bloodletting at the club, with a number of coaches and even George Best being told to pack their bags. All the while, Busby was pulling the strings on the board.
Speaking to Eamon Dunphy, who was writing A Strange Kind of Glory, O’Farrell said, "I thought if Matt Busby and Manchester United are the good guys, what are the bad guys like?"
Just like McGuinness, O’Farrell was put off professional football after his poor relationship with Busby.
There are enough lessons to be learnt from McGuinness’ and O’Farrell’s succession to Busby as manager. The club should know all about the pitfalls of a legend taking over as a director and staying with the club. His very presence undermines the new manager from Day 1.
Ferguson should have recognised these dangers of taking on such a role and put months—if not years—between his retirement and return to the club. This would allow Moyes time to settle and run things his way without having to worry about his predecessor.
There is little doubt that the Manchester United job is the toughest job in English football, even without having to succeed the greatest manager in English football history. Moyes' cause is not being helped by the club mismanaging the Ferguson situation, nor by the Scot commenting upon Moyes' regime.
Speaking to MUTV, as per The Telegraph, Ferguson continued to undermine his successor with these mischevious words: "For David, winning a trophy would be a fantastic achievement. No matter what it is... We've always had priorities obviously and David is aware of that but I hope he achieves it."
The point here is that Ferguson did not have to say anything. He is, in essence, making Moyes out to be a second-class manager when compared to him.
United's draw to Southampton means that the Red Devils have not won successive home matches for the first time since 2007. Moyes was considered negative for taking Wayne Rooney off with a few minutes to go in that match. If fans cast their minds back to last season, Ferguson didn't even play Rooney, and when he did he substituted the star many, many times.
Ferguson picked his timing to retire perfectly. He left Moyes with an uphill battle from the start. Not only has Moyes inherited this situation, but he has also inherited an irresistible force and immovable object in the directors' box.
The first step in Moyes succeeding at Old Trafford will begin when Ferguson moves out.
Statistics from ManUtd.com, PremierLeague.com, Soccerbase and A Strange Kind of Glory by Eamon Dunphy
You can find me on Twitter @WillieGannon.
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