So are Manchester United now an average, mid-table side? Well the age-old of saying of the table never lies suggests that, well, yes, indeed they are. Okay, I’m a Leeds United fan so I’m probably being biased; they are slightly better than that… but lying 8th going into November; it’s only just.
Okay, you might read that and think it’s a ridiculous comment to make – how can the reigning champions that can boast a strike partnership of Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney seriously be classed as mid-table? And you’d be right, on paper Manchester United are far better than mid-table, but as Sir Bobby Robson once said: “you don’t play football on paper, you play it on grass.”
Lucid as Robson’s words were, the message he was conveying was very astute – no matter how good a team looks on the back of the match day programme; the only thing that truly matters is what happens once that white line is crossed and the whistle is blown. And throughout modern football history, this is where Manchester United have, for want of a better phrase, got it done. They have become synonymous in the Premier League era with not just winning when they play well, but consistently picking up the 3 points on offer even when they under perform. But not this year… After 9 games, United have already lost 3 and drawn 2 (including an abysmal 2-1 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion). Compare this to 5 losses in the whole of last season and some questions need to be asked.
The obvious one then, is what has changed? What has caused Manchester United to go from being right in the mix, lying one point behind early leaders Chelsea going into November 2012; to one year later, following a hardly convincing 3-2 victory over relegation threatened Stoke, finding themselves languishing in mid-table obscurity? Well, on the field; other than the second retirement of barely featuring, already-on-his-way-out Paul Scholes; the signing of a 20 year old Uruguayan full back who will probably not feature; and a seemingly rather desperate deadline day capture of Sideshow Bob lookalike Marouane Fellaini; not much. In fact, looking at that you’d have to say the squad has improved from last year – on the face of it United haven’t lost anyone of note, and added a midfielder apparently possessing £27.5 million worth of talent to their line-up. So surely something else has changed at The Theatre of Dreams, something else must have contributed to football fans questioning whether United will even achieve Champions League qualification in 2014, when the last time they finished outside the top 4 was back in 1991 before the Premier League even existed. Oh wait, of course. David Moyes.
In the summer of 2013 Manchester United swapped one Glaswegian for another and David Moyes stepped into the shoes of old whiskey nose himself, and became the manager of the reigning Premier League Champions. This was obviously a huge upheaval as Ferguson had been in charge at Old Trafford for an insurmountable 27 years. However, Moyes came in having served as Everton’s manager for 11 years; as someone out of the same mould as Ferguson, as someone who would not upset the applecart, and as someone who would keep the tradition of this oh-so iconic club going. Well, United probably got all of that, but what they didn’t get, something that should have probably been top of the list, was a good manager.
For years at Everton, Moyes was lauded for his consistency, style of play and achievements. But what did he actually achieve? A quick dust down of the trophy cabinet at Goodison reveals a blank return from Moyes in his 11 year tenure. In fact, other than a League 2 title with Preston North End more than a decade ago when Moyesy was just a rookie, the only piece of silverware he has ever lifted was this years Community Shield – which I’m not even sure counts. Okay okay, so he’s not won any trophies… we can forgive him right? I mean, he’s barely had a budget to work with. Well, in actual fact, in the last decade Moyes’ Everton have been the 10th highest spenders in the league with only Villa and Sunderland spending more and winning equal: zilch. Fine, so he’s not won anything and spent a fair bit, at least his results have always been consistent? Erm, go on then, I’ll give you that; in fact, the consistency and dependability of Moyes’ teams is probably what he is commended most for – back in 2002/03 (his first full season in charge of The Toffees) Everton finished 7th with 59 points, fast forward a decade to the 19th of May last season and Everton pulled the curtain on a season where they finished 6th on 63 points. But is that really something to write home about? The fact you’ve essentially gone nowhere and won nothing in a decade. In fact since 2006, aside from a 2009 FA Cup Final, every season of Everton’s has pretty much been a carbon copy of the other – the will-they-won’t-they saga of Champions League qualification (they won’t), and the ultimate finish of somewhere between 5th and 8th in the league table. Hell, with that all laid out, had David not had the world’s most patient chairman in Bill Kenwright there could’ve been P45 on it’s way Casa Moyes.
You know what, that’s probably an exaggeration, I actually know a few Everton fans and the general consensus is that they all worshipped Moyes when he was the gaffer at Goodison (I think the term “Moyesiah” was even floated). And it was pretty much a guarantee that Everton were never going to be relegation threatened with Moyes at the helm; but the thing is, Everton were equally never going to take that next step and play European football on a Tuesday and Wednesday night. The reason being, Moyes himself and his negative, defensive tactics against the top teams. Get this, in his 11 year tenure at Goodison Park, the Scot failed to notch up even one away win against the so called ‘traditional top four’ of the Premier League; namely Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. To lay it out, that’s 43 games and 0 wins – some record that. And In my opinion it’s this negativity; in his tactics, and maybe even his ambition; that has led to me querying whether Moyes was in fact holding Everton back as apposed to the common, yet ultimately flawed ideology throughout the media, of him leading them to overachievement.
You only need to look at Everton this year under Martinez to see how Moyes could indeed have been preventing his team from realising their potential. Renowned for his free-flowing attacking football, Martinez has got Everton playing a slick passing game – and the results are backing up the play. After a stuttering start of 3 draws, Everton are now 2nd in the form guide winning 5 of their last 6 games, including a 1-0 win over Champions-elect Chelsea. And it’s not just an altered style of play, Martinez and imposed changes in personnel down at Goodison. Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley have been a couple of stand-out players this season, and both have started every Premier League game for The Toffees so far – but these two guys are not new signings that Martinez has brought in, they’ve both been at the club for a number of years. Coleman in particular has had to play second-fiddle to Tony Hibbert for the majority of his career under Moyes – Hibbert being a man who since making his debut in 2000 has never bagged himself a senior competitive goal (that’s a barren spell of 316 games!). And okay, Barkley is still a young lad at 19, but he’s bloody good, and in my opinion will go to Brazil this summer. In any event, even if you don’t rate him, anybody with an ounce of football knowledge knows he is better than a 35 year old Phillip Neville. Yet Barkley appeared in a first-team Everton kit on less than 10 occasions last season, with Moyes instead opting for good-old reliable Phil to be solid, pass it sideways, and create approximately 0 goal-scoring opportunities from just short of 30 appearances.
Okay, if I’m honest, I’ve never really rated Moyes that highly, with the team he had at Everton I always thought they should have challenged the top teams way more than they did. Yet instead of this view being shared, Moyes spent his 10 years at Everton revelling in the praise and eulogy of the football community. But with a higher profile job comes higher scrutiny, and since he took the hot seat at United other football fans starting to question the Scot, with #MoyesOut trending in just about every country that can access a twitter account. Nonetheless, was Davey holding his Everton side back? Well, looking at how both Everton and Manchester United have started the season this year, I’d like to say yes. The most interesting scenario now will be what does Moyes have in his locker to get Manchester United back to winning ways (and not just a 4-0 League Cup victory against Norwich). Ferguson said to the Old Trafford ‘faithful’ in his departing speech that “your job now is to stand by our new manager.’” If United’s performances don’t improve – you have to wonder just how long the fans will adhere to Sir Alex’s wishes.