The Reds were a team that dominated in England and Europe for two decades, but whose fortunes suddenly dried up. Now, their wait for another league title extends to nearly two-and-a-half decades.
In the worst-case scenario, United find themselves in this exact same spot. Their time at the top with Sir Alex Ferguson is behind them, and now they might be on the cusp of a downturn that will see a prolonged absence of silverware at Old Trafford.
The root of this change, of course, is the retirement of Fergie and the appointment of David Moyes. The highly respected Scot was chosen by the other highly respected Scot to continue his legacy at Old Trafford, but so far Moyes has not risen to the occasion. On first inspection, it appears to be the equivalent of Michael Schumacher handing the keys to his Ferrari to someone who has just passed their driving test.
United now find themselves 18 points behind leaders Chelsea and 90 minutes away from being eliminated from the Champions League by Olympiakos, a team they had never failed to beat before this season.
It is interesting to note that Moyes' league record with the reigning champions this year is almost identical to what he achieved with Everton at this point last season (as per ESPNFC on Facebook). Perhaps this is his points ceiling, regardless of the team he is coaching.
If Moyes was in charge of any other major European side, he would be gone by now. But United have painted themselves as a team who do not make knee-jerk managerial sackings, and Sir Alex Ferguson laid a burden of duty on supporters during his emotive final speech at the end of last season (via The Guardian):
I'd like to remind you that when I had bad times here the club stood by me. All my staff stood by me, the players stood by me, you stood by me, and your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.
Anyone who criticises Moyes' awful start at Old Trafford is instantly reminded that Sir Alex Ferguson also took his time to get going. This is, essentially, the only reason that the club feel obliged to stand by their man at the moment.
But how exactly did Fergie get on when he was appointed on 6 November 1986?
Well, Manchester United were languishing in 19th place (of a 22-team league), having picked up 13 points from their first 13 league matches. Suffice to say, this is a more precarious position to take control of a team than as reigning champions.
Fergie had 29 games left to play of the 1986-87 season, which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of league games David Moyes has taken charge of.
Here's how SAF fared in his first 29 games in charge:
|Sir Alex Ferguson's first 29 games in charge|
Ferguson did have a difficult start at United, losing his first game in charge 2-0 away at Oxford. He then oversaw a 0-0 draw at Norwich before experiencing his first win in English football at home to QPR on 22 November.
Fergie only won one of his first six matches in charge, but after a loss at Wimbledon in late November, his fortunes changed for the better. He went on a streak of only losing once in 13 games, bringing United up to 13th by mid-March.
He would finish his first 29 games having climbed eight places in the league, while picking up 43 points and a positive goal difference of seven.
Fergie also guided United to the fourth round of the FA Cup (Moyes exited in the third), but they were out of the League Cup before he took over.
Considering the fact that United lost six of their first eight games under Ron Atkinson in 1986-87, this is a very impressive turnaround and a strong indication that his methods and famous discipline were having a positive effect.
Now, let's see David Moyes results after 29 league games:
|David Moyes' first 29 games in charge|
As you can see, Moyes has acquired five more points than Fergie, as well as earning three more wins and 10 more goals.
On this basis alone, one must conclude that Moyes is having a better start than Ferguson. Any United fan contemplating tearing down the younger Scot's "Chosen One" banner should look at these numbers and think twice about it.
But of course, there are so many extenuating factors that would suggest Moyes is not improving on his predecessor's start.
Fergie took over a side threatened with relegation, rather than one looking to retain their title. In the 1980s, the level of scrutiny and money involved in the game was a fraction of what it is today, meaning each loss now has much greater repercussions for the future. And one need only look at the performances of the players on the field to realise that this United side is on a downward trajectory, rather than the upward direction in which Fergie steered the sinking ship.
In Ferguson's second season, Manchester United finished second in the league, a jump of nine places on the previous year.
It is for this reason that Moyes should be given more time, but in the modern financially leveraged climate, United may not be in a position to afford their new manager the same cushion that they gave their old one.