David Moyes spoke publicly prior to a match last year about how he and his side planned to “make it difficult” for his opponents. Had the Scot still have been in charge at Goodison Park, eyebrows would scarcely have been raised. That is, other than by those Everton fans who had become a little disillusioned at the apparent stagnation of their side’s progress.
Manchester United supporters had become used to the dominance of the Red Devils at Old Trafford under Sir Alex Ferguson. Ron Atkinson’s side in the 1980s also had a swaggering self belief—sometimes unfounded—but passed on to them by their larger than life manager.
There are even stories from the 1970s that Tommy Docherty dispensed with the ritual of pre-match team talks for home games. The opposition had to worry about United, not the other way round.
It was, therefore, a surprising concession for a Manchester United manager to make, suggesting that his strategy was to keep lesser opponents at bay.
So far this season, we have witnessed a United side shorn of their usual self-belief. A side struggling to feel anything more than relief at a good result, let alone hold any hope that it might breed confidence. Does the Scot's admission that day betray a character flaw that United can ill afford?
Moyes built a fine reputation at Everton as a manager who was doing an admirable job under difficult financial circumstances. What his sides lacked in flair, they made up for in endeavour and sheer hard work.
Michael Cox of The Guardian wrote about the tactics that Moyes employed at Everton around the time he was confirmed at the new Manchester United manager.
He noted that Moyes was regularly seen at matches around the country, weighing up future opposition with a view to tailoring his side so they could “nullify strengths” and “expose weaknesses.”
This regular shape-shifting could become a negative approach, though, opined Cox. “Moyes has often frustrated big sides in the Premier League” but “he has rarely beaten them.”
Further tactical nuances were noted. The strategy of creating “overloads” in wide areas, two-versus-one and three-versus-two, are examples. Not to mention, there's his preference for crosses at the end of attacking moves.
All have been features of his time so far at Manchester United.
Following the two-all draw against Fulham last month, Moyes was questioned on the incredible amount of crosses that his side had made during the match. His reply, per BBC Sport, was “...a lot of people would say that one of the big things about Manchester United is that they do play with width, it's in their genes here."
That may be true, but another feature of United’s play is that they have always been able to mix their means of attack. At the moment, the side look bemused, confused and unable to put into practice a winning game plan.
It is not only on the pitch that things look in disarray. A summer spent chasing an unimpressed Cesc Fabregas was followed by the January signing of Juan Mata. The Spaniard is a fine player, but he does not look like he fits into any real strategy and bears the hallmarks of being a player bought opportunistically.
If Moyes has yet to work out his plan for Manchester United, though, it appears that flaws in the football club board’s plans have been exposed.
The succession to the throne at United would surely have been discussed at length long before Sir Alex finally announced his retirement, wouldn’t it? Yet Ferguson himself appears to have had the task of choosing his successor when that day arrived.
The club felt unable to pass on the baton to a present member of the staff. The coaches had little experience in the hot seat, and a new pretender such as Ryan Giggs was not yet ready, although his appointment would have bought a substantial amount of time from supporters not wanting to castigate a club legend.
Surely then, the handover ought to have been simple. The top position at one of the world’s leading clubs ought to have gone to one of the world’s very best coaches. Jose Mourinho had made himself available.
Mourinho almost guarantees a certain amount of success, and not many coaches around the world hold quite the same amount of cachet amongst players as he does. He, like Ferguson, can get that extra level of performance from footballers who will give their all for him, or be shown the door.
David Moyes appears to have been chosen with the plan in mind of trying to carry along as normal. If anything goes wrong, blame it on a “transitional period.”
Stability, then, is the usual reason given. What better way to ensure stability than to continue to compete? Yet Mourinho still divides opinion, and United are left with “transition” and a situation that would be intolerable at most other top-level European clubs.
Sir Alex Ferguson often spoke of his loyalty to his staff, never more so than when faced with calls from supporters eight years ago to quit in protest at the Glazer takeover, per the Daily Star.
The appointment of Mourinho would certainly have resulted in backroom changes—yet Ferguson’s eventual choice, Moyes, was apparently advised not to make any—another act of loyalty.
As widely reported, though, Moyes has attempted to be his own man. He had other ideas and a plan, resulting in him snubbing, ignoring or defying Sir Alex’s pleas (depending on which publication you read, the Star, Telegraph or Express).
Therefore, with his own team in place, we have to believe that David Moyes has a strategy ready for this giant of a club. Even though he signed on a six-year contract, time could be running out for him to implement it.
Last Tuesday’s result in Athens might just have forced the board to make sure they have their contingency plan ready on this occasion.