Manchester United's Problem Isn't David Moyes, It's Alex Ferguson

Matt CloughFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson poses with his book 'My Autobiography' during a press conference in central London, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
Sang Tan/Associated Press

David Moyes’ issues at the Manchester United helm have been well-documented. Many have been quick to jump on the former Everton boss's back, citing a lack of experience and trophy-winning pedigree as to blame for the very real possibility of not qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 19 years. However, an equal portion of the blame deserves to be shouldered by his predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Numerous theories as to why Moyes has simply not found his feet on the hallowed ground of Old Trafford have been posited since their stuttering start to the campaign began looking less of a blip and more a permanent state of affairs.

The aforementioned squad issues, along with injuries to key players such as Robin Van Persie, have meant that even Moyes’ venerated predecessor would have struggled to craft a title challenge from the current lot.

Many have criticised Moyes for lacking decisiveness in the transfer market over the summer. The as-of-yet unimpressive Marouane Fellaini would have cost several million pounds less had the former Everton boss acted sooner and activated the Belgian’s release clause, and several areas of weakness went unaddressed.

However, following the details of the Juan Mata transfer saga being revealed, Moyes is at least somewhat pardoned—his ostensible inactivity being explained by Ed Woodward’s pursuit of the Spanish playmaker throughout the summer window.

Truthfully, Moyes was in a classic Catch-22 when it came to the transfer window. Had he spent big and bought new players wholesale, he would have risked accusations of needlessly spending to bolster a title-winning side and betraying the Manchester United way. Ferguson and other United managers—such as Matt Busby—have traditionally focused on youth and supplemented the side with the occasional big money signing.

Jon Super/Associated Press

As it’s turned out, Moyes didn’t spend, and he has incurred the wrath of the United faithful for not spotting the obvious (with hindsight) deficiencies in the squad—an aging central defensive pairing, a lack of creativity in the middle of the pitch and a striker with a long history of injury woes.

The undulating form of this season may prove to be something of a blessing in disguise in the long term, as it’s made abundantly clear the need for a squad overhaul.

His tactics—particularly United’s reliance on crosses (Fulham’s Dan Burn likened the approach to Conference-level football)—have also come under scrutiny, with many suggesting a more centralised approach featuring Shinji Kagawa. However, this is again Moyes merely towing the party line and persevering with a style used by Ferguson. The only difference is, without the success, the flaws are more obvious. 

So what is the root cause of Manchester United’s suddenly faltering form?

Of all the contributing factors, one that has escaped much press attention is the role that Ferguson continues to have at the club. The squad may have been aging. (Former United captain Roy Keane was quick to lay the blame at Ferguson’s door for the lack of exciting youth in the team.)

Some of the players—notably Wayne Rooney—may have been disillusioned, but few have drawn attention to what Ferguson has done since hanging up the hairdryer.

Firstly—and arguably most damningly—was Ferguson’s updated autobiography, released late in October. As well as shedding light on his tempestuous relationship with Wayne Rooney—and painting him in a none-too-flattering light—he risked potentially destabilising the squad in other ways, such as opening old wounds and recounting Keane’s disparaging remarks about Rio Ferdinand made to MUTV in 2005.

With so much having happened at United since Ferguson last took to paper, it’s hard to blame anyone for not resisting a bit of salacious gossip, but there seems to have been little mention of the problematic nature of releasing such a revealing document when so many of those mentioned are still at the club. 

His presence at matches—while entirely expected and understandable—is also arguably doing more harm than good. With TV cameras unable to keep themselves from flitting back to the Scot whenever there’s any incident of note—just in case he’s finally got so angry that he’s imploded like a dying star, with the players undoubtedly aware of his ubiquitous presence—it’s hard to imagine that Moyes’ authority isn't being undermined somewhat.

Furthermore, Ferguson’s repeated assurances that Moyes is the man for the job are increasingly reminiscent of the dreaded chairman's “vote of confidence,” the death knell of many a managerial stint. It’s hard to imagine that Sir Alex would be doing this on purpose, but then again, it’s equally unbelievable that the grandmaster of mind games can’t appreciate the destabilising effects that his actions could be having on the club.

If you wanted to be really cynical, you could say that Ferguson’s apparently near-constant presence in the stands is a masterstroke of legacy preservation. By ensuring he’s never too far from the limelight, Ferguson knows that every success Moyes has will come with the caveat of his stirring farewell speech at the end of last season, urging the fans to get behind the man he recommended to the board.

Simultaneously, every failure, every last-minute defeat is accompanied by pictures of his stony visage glowering down at the pitch. It invites the thought, “that wouldn't have happened with him in charge.”

Ferguson's complicity in his role in Man Utd's downfall is a matter of conjecture, but there's little getting away from the fact that since he left the helm, Ferguson has been more of a hindrance than a help to Moyes.