These preseason rigors appear to be based on a piece of 19th-century wisdom: “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” The science of physiology has moved on since Nietzsche coined the phrase. These days, not everyone believes that running until you vomit is the best way to develop football fitness. For fast-twitch players whose game is based on speedy bursts, brutal endurance runs may do more harm than good.
Jose Mourinho, brought on for his second stint at Chelsea a month after Moyes was hired by Manchester United, has a different approach: “At Chelsea … the way they used to develop an aerobic condition was putting players through 12 sprints of 100 meters each. The way I use to develop an aerobic condition is three against three, man to man, in a square 20 meters by 20. It’s completely different.” Frank Lampard remembers Mourinho’s fitness coach, Rui Faria, saying: “If I am working with a concert pianist why would I make him run around the piano until he drops? Will it make him a better pianist?”
United’s players soon noted the difference between Moyes’ training methods and Ferguson’s. Wayne Rooney: “We’ve done a lot more running: long running, quicker running, sharper running.” Rio Ferdinand: “I think the intensity has gone up … it has been very hard.”
The new methods became a matter of controversy in the summer when Moyes said of Robin van Persie: “We have overtrained him this week to try and make sure we built up his fitness but he has never complained about a thing.” The comment drew criticism from at least one high-profile fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, who predicted that such overtraining would lead to a recurrence of van Persie’s past injury problems. As it turned out, van Persie has missed nearly half this season’s games due to injury. It might be purely coincidental, but it doesn’t look good.
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Of course, United supporters didn’t care what Moyes did to the players in training as long as they were still the same dominant Manchester United on the field. Obedient to Ferguson’s command, they urged the new boss on with a new song: “Come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s boys!”
They knew that Moyes’ Everton teams had seldom played like Fergie’s boys. They were tough, methodical sides that were always hard to beat but often struggled to win. Lacking the wealth that enabled United to attract some of the world’s most talented players, Everton compensated with togetherness and tactical cohesion. In the simplest possible terms: They worked hard in defense and when they won possession, they would get the ball to wide areas and cross it.
United supporters hoped that once Moyes was working with Fergie’s actual boys, he would adopt a style of play more in keeping with their status: open, attacking, ambitious.
Instead, to their dismay, United now look more like Everton.
It’s not just that their headline figures are eerily similar to those of Everton at the same stage of last season. (After 31 games, they have 48 goals and 51 points, while last season’s Everton had 49 goals and 52 points.) The change in style can be seen in almost every statistical indicator. Shots per game, pass completion, percentage of possession, through-balls, and the proportion of the play in central areas of the field have all declined.
A side that was famous for macho vigor and intensity now appears slow and sluggish, despite all that hard preseason running. Swift attacking interplay has given way to ponderous, almost robotic movement. Liverpool have won plaudits for their speed, and perhaps that is reflected in the fact that they have scored eight league goals on the counterattack, more than any other side. Chelsea, another team built for speed, are second in the counterattacking table, with four. United have scored one counterattacking goal all season.
They do, however, lead the league in crosses per game.
The tactical nadir was reached on Feb. 9 with a 2–2 draw against Fulham, who were managed by Rene Meulensteen, one of the United coaches dismissed by Moyes the previous summer. On that astonishing evening, United crossed the ball 81 times, which was a record for any team in the top five European leagues since Opta began recording the data in 2006.
That table makes interesting reading. Conventional football wisdom might lead you to think that a high number of crosses is an indicator of dominance in the game. Yet when you look down the list of matches where one team has produced an exceptionally large tally, you notice that none of the top seven entrants won the game in question. You have to scan down to eighth place and Manchester City, who struck 68 crosses in the 3–2 win against Queens Park Rangers that sealed the 2012 league title, to find the first team for whom the barrage coincided with the desired result.
It could be that such a freakishly high number of crosses is a symptom of a kind of nervous breakdown within a team that has collectively lost faith in its plan and forgotten how to play football.
For the home crowd, the sight of United persisting with their failing strategy was like watching a beloved relative methodically smashing his head against a brick wall. Fulham’s 6-foot-7 central defender Dan Burn remarked, “I haven’t headed that many balls since the Conference.” “It was straightforward—get it wide, get it in. If you’re well-organized it can be easy to defend against,” gloated Meulensteen, who would be sacked five days later due to poor results—another sign that away results at Old Trafford aren’t held in the same regard as they once were.
Moyes reacted irritably when confronted with the crossing statistics after the match. “You need to have a football intelligence, a football brain, to understand first of all,” he said, instantly ensuring that the journalists’ reports would become 10 percent more caustic. This is the problem David Moyes has had all season. There has been too little evidence of his football brain, and rather too much of his tin ear.
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While advances in sports science and analytics have made football management more technical than ever before, the job remains essentially about people skills and communication. Those are still the keys to that mysterious thing called inspiration, and in a football arms race where everybody is eating the right things and (mostly) training the right way, inspiration can still make the difference. It was Ferguson’s gift that, whether by bullying or cajoling or encouraging, he was invariably able to push the right emotional buttons, to think of the right thing to say at the right time.
Moyes has shown a sixth sense for pushing the wrong buttons. As United have reeled from defeat to defeat, bewildered by the sudden disappearance of their powers, crying out for inspiration, Moyes has shown himself incapable of rising above leaden clichés cluttered with disheartening qualifiers.
“We just didn’t get to the required standard.” “I take responsibility, it’s my team and we have to play better.” “We have to try and do something about our league position.” “It’s a long journey here and this is only the start of it. It is just going to take a little time to get it sorted.” Moyes-speak is the rhetorical equivalent of 81 crosses against Fulham. Imagine Winston Churchill had promised not “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” but to “hopefully try and work hard to make life difficult for Mr. Hitler.”
That word “hopefully” has become a kind of verbal tic. Every sentence that includes “hopefully” admits the possibility of failure. Would the voice of Milton’s Satan have echoed through the ages if he’d exhorted his evil army with the cry: “What though the field be lost? All is hopefully not lost.”