Manchester United have underperformed this season and, as with all underperforming teams these days, much of the blame has been laid at the door of the manager, David Moyes. Some of the criticism is justified; in the summer, the Scot inexplicably turned down the chance to enter negotiations with Mesut Özil (also true of Sir Alex Ferguson, in 2010), with a doomed pursuit of Cesc Fabregas followed by the desperate £27.5million purchase of Marouane Fellaini. During Moyes’ first few months at Old Trafford, the Champions have been consistently pedestrian and open, with very few signs that the Ex-Everton boss knows the tactical adjustments he must make. However, it isn’t all the new manager’s fault; injuries have punctuated Moyes’ debut campaign and lacklustre individual contributions haven’t helped his cause either. However, a lot of Moyes’ problems can be traced back to his predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Firstly, some myth-busting is required. It has been widely claimed that Ferguson’s presence at nearly every one of United’s matches this season has affected Moyes, but this is nonsense. Ferguson has been portrayed as an intimidating presence, as if scrutinising his successor’s every move, but the reality is very different. Moyes has used Ferguson as a vitally important sounding board, to help him adjust to the demands of his new role. Furthermore, the fact that he was recommended to the Glazers by Ferguson has spared Moyes’ credentials even greater scrutiny.
However, the squad Ferguson has left Moyes possesses some major issues. The recently retired Glaswegian’s motivational genius allowed the Reds to paper over an incredible number of cracks; most notably in central midfield. Michael Carrick is United’s best central midfielder, but, despite his nomination for PFA Player of the Year in 2013, doubts persist over the ex-West Ham man’s ability to dictate the toughest of matches. Meanwhile, the supporting cast that Ferguson assembled for Carrick all possess flaws. Ryan Giggs shouldn’t merit a place in the engine room at the age of 40, Tom Cleverley has endured turgid first half of the season, Phil Jones’ belongs at centre-half and, while Darren Fletcher’s return to health is a boost for Moyes, the Scotland captain has always provided graft over guile. As well as being Ferguson’s swansong, the 5-5 draw at the Hawthorns in May also marked Paul Scholes’ retirement. It is important to note that the Ginger Prince’s first attempt at hanging up his boots was curtailed due Ferguson’s inability to use the transfer market to improve the weakest area of the side.
Two players who have been prominent in the frenzy of the January transfer window serve highlight mistakes Ferguson has made, that have certainly not helped Moyes’ cause. In 2008, the Scot paid £35m for Nani and Anderson, who looks set to complete a half-season loan move to Fiorentina; his career having stagnated majorly under both Ferguson and Moyes’ guidance. In his recent autobiography, Sir Alex lamented the difficulty of replacing Paul Scholes, but such an outlay surely represents a major attempt to do just that. It is this writer’s view that the Brazilian international possesses the required ability to fill such a breach, but it is much more widely held that major fluctuations in both his weight and form meant he was never going to do so. Either way, Ferguson’s big-money attempts to rejuvenate the central midfield area (which also included Owen Hargreaves) were unsuccessful, just as Moyes’ purchase of Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be. Both men have failed to rectify United’s biggest problem with big money moves, but it is Moyes who has been much more fiercely criticised.
However, this isn’t even Ferguson’s biggest error in the transfer market. It is incredulous that Moyes has reportedly travelled to Turin to scout Paul Pogba, given that his predecessor let the Frenchman leave the club, for free, in July 2012. The Frenchman consequently nailed down a regular place in Juventus’ Serie A winning side and his performances have been so impressive that he recently fought off competition from Mario Gotze, Isco and Raphael Varane, amongst others, to be crowned UEFA Golden Boy 2013, awarded to the best young player in Europe. His rise has been so meteoric that United would almost certainly have to break their transfer record to felicitate an unlikely return to Old Trafford. At the time of his departure, it was perceived that Pogba was demanding too much, both in terms of match-time and salary, and Ferguson ruthlessness was heralded. However, it appears reasonable that a player capable of walking straight into Juventus’ title-winning side should demand at least an opportunity in a side with a glaring weakness in the centre of the pitch. It is also astounding that Ferguson did not see, or was so prepared to surrender, a talent that must have been obvious, working with Pogba on a daily basis. The cases of Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Roy Keane, amongst others, show that Ferguson usually shows players the Old Trafford exit door at the right time, but he handled the Pogba situation poorly. Not only did Sir Alex share Moyes’ inability to bring in a player capable of revitalising United’s midfield, he let one go, almost unbelievably, for free.
On the pitch, Manchester United have underperformed in many areas this season; their attack has been largely laboured and impotent while opposition sides, especially visitors to Old Trafford, have generally found themselves with time and space in which to play. The response from most quarters has been that these issues have solely manifested themselves during Moyes’ first few months in charge, but the reality is that the same cracks were showing on Ferguson’s watch.
It has been said by some that the influence of the cautious Moyes, unable to shake off his “small-club mentality” has turned Ferguson’s previously swashbuckling side into a shadow of their former selves. However, United’s success since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 has been built more on willpower and stealth, as opposed to marauding attacking play. That United produced some of their best football of the season during the first half of their 3-0 defeat of Aston Villa, after which they were presented with the Premier League trophy and Ferguson suggested this side might be his best ever, went some way to skewing the way in which they have been viewed in recent years. Since 2009, most pre-season previews stopped predicting the Reds to win the league, with the popular view being that this United team was far inferior to those of days gone by, not to mention those of some domestic competitors.
Ferguson’s final United side lacked an attacking identity, instead muddling through seasons due to the strength of character and experience in the side. Last season, they won 15 of 30 victorious games by a single goal, but even these games varied in style. In encounters such as the 3-2 win at Southampton and 4-3 home defeat of Newcastle, the Reds conceded early goals, creating an urgent need to attack. However, United often showed caution and a lack of quality, beating all three promoted teams, West Ham United, Reading and Southampton by just a single goal in their respective encounters at Old Trafford. United’s consistency was astounding, all the more so because their attacking flaws were so latent. It is hardly surprising that Moyes’ side looks similarly uninspired, and the Scot needs time to construct his favoured attacking identity.
Similarly, it has been touted that the attacking freedom afforded to Old Trafford’s visiting sides this season is a recent development. However, during the 2011-12 season, FC Basle and Athletic Bilbao outplayed United on their visits to Manchester, both scoring three goals in the process. Neither side can be deemed a European superpower, yet United were unable to provide an answer to their technical quality, allied with supreme confidence, as they endured a disastrous campaign on the more technical European stage. The following season brought progress from the group stage, but the fact that Ferguson felt a counter attacking approach, even at home, represented his side’s best chance of victory against Real Madrid exemplified many of their flaws. These results on the continent immediately provided United’s domestic challengers with all the evidence they needed to suggest Old Trafford is no longer the fortress it once was, and so it proved. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have both won on their last two visits to The Theatre of Dreams, scoring thirteen goals in the process. Chelsea outplayed the Red Devils twice at Old Trafford last term, deserving better than a 2-2 FA Cup draw in March to go with their 1-0 triumph, a matter of weeks later. The Premier League’s lesser lights were generally slightly slower to procure such confidence, due in no small part to Ferguson’s intimidating presence in the dug-out. However, three of last season’s bottom eight; Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United and Stoke City took the lead at Old Trafford last season. Even if teams didn’t arrive with the confidence to attack, they would usually gain it at some point during the game, as they realised United would give them the opportunity to cause problems. This was exemplified by the fact that United were on the back foot by the end of all three aforementioned matches with the Premier League’s new boys. Ferguson’s retirement has provided visiting sides with the belief that they can execute their attacking game plans to get a result at Old Trafford, but the same was equally true during the final chapters of his tenure.
Following the presentation of his 13th Premier League title, in response to a question linked to the quality of his current side, Sir Alex Ferguson said “nostalgia plays tricks on people’s minds”. This quote is especially pertinent with regards the perception of his final years in charge of Manchester United, in contrast to the current reign of David Moyes. Amongst the undoubtedly deserved tributes and eulogies attributed to the outgoing Scot, it has been largely neglected that he left behind a squad possessing major problems. This article is not designed to claim that Ferguson wasn’t a brilliant manager; it should rather serve as a tribute that he inspired such a flawed squad to achieve such major success. It is rather to point out that the issues with which Moyes is currently struggling confounded the Great Man too, thus Ferguson must share some of the responsibility for Manchester United’s current malaise.