Who’s to Blame for the Collapse of Manchester United?

The stadium scene.
March 28 2014 6:31 PM

United We Fall

Is David Moyes to blame for the collapse of Manchester United? Or is it all Sir Alex Ferguson’s fault?

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Embattled Manchester United manager David Moyes.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

David Moyes’ account of the day he got the Manchester United job foreshadowed so much that was to follow, in a way that seldom happens in real life. 

Moyes says that last April he was out shopping with his wife, Pamela, when his phone rang. 

“Where are you?” said Sir Alex Ferguson. 

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“I’m out with my wife,” said Moyes. 

“Can you drop over to the house?” said Sir Alex. 

Moyes, the longtime manager for Everton, wondered what Ferguson wanted. He told Pamela: “It’s either he wants me to take somebody on loan, or he’s come to buy one of my players.”

Moyes left Pamela at a local shopping center and drove to Sir Alex Ferguson’s mansion. He was nervous because he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. “I’d never ever go to a meeting with Sir Alex with a pair of jeans on. ... I can’t do this!” he remembers thinking.

Sir Alex ignored Moyes’ casual outfit and got straight to business: “I’m retiring. Next week. You’re the next Man United manager.” 

“So I didn’t get the chance to say yes or no,” Moyes later said. “As you can imagine, the blood drained from my face.”

Two things strike you about Moyes’ story: At no point was he in control of what was happening. And when he sought to describe his feelings when he learned he had been handed the biggest job in English football, he reached for a cliché that signifies terror.

* * *

The metaphor might not have been adroit, but it was at least truthful. Lately the blood in Moyes’ face appears to have gone on permanent leave. The cameras love to linger on the pale, haggard figure in the Manchester United dugout, eyes round with dismay beneath hairless brows whose wrinkled skin betrays every twitch of anxiety.

The horror is unrelenting. Nothing works. 

Last Tuesday, Manchester City came to Old Trafford. Knowing that City at their best are an irresistible attacking force, Moyes had devised a tactical system that he hoped would prove an immovable object. Everyone knew this was United’s last chance in domestic competition to show some defiance, to salvage some tatters of pride from the wreckage of the season. 

City kicked off and swarmed forward. In 25 seconds, they had four players in United’s penalty area. In 35 seconds, David Silva had their first shot. In 41 seconds, Samir Nasri had a second shot. In 43 seconds, Edin Dzeko sent a third shot high into United’s net. It was the fastest goal any visiting team had scored at Old Trafford in the Premier League era. 

The match finished 3–0 to City, making 2013–14 the first season in United’s history when they have lost both home and away to their rivals, City and Liverpool. They are guaranteed their worst-ever points total in the Premier League, having already suffered a record 10 defeats, and they will fail to qualify for the Champions League (if they don’t win the whole thing this year) for the first time in 19 seasons.

United are 18 points behind the league leaders, Chelsea. They have scored 18 goals at home, the same total as Fulham and Cardiff, who occupy the bottom two places in the table. For every three goals United have scored at home, Manchester City have scored eight. 

Over the past 15 seasons, United have won on average 77 percent of their home matches, taking 46.7 points at home out of the 57 available in a season. In the past five seasons they have been even more dominant, taking on average 50 out of 57 points at home. This season, they’ve won 40 percent of their home matches, taking 21 of 45 points.

Forget barbarians at the gates. They’ve come through the walls and the city is in flames.

* * *

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Sir Alex Ferguson lifts his final Premier League trophy in May 2013.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

A few weeks after the scene in Sir Alex Ferguson’s house, the knight stood on the pitch at Old Trafford with his 13th Premier League trophy, basking in the crowd’s acclaim for the last time. He took a microphone and issued his final command: ”Your job now is to support your new manager!” 

With hindsight, it was a curious thing to say. The “job” of fans, if they can be said to have a job, is surely to support the team rather than the manager. Such was the authority of Sir Alex, however, that it seemed normal at the time.

Normal, at least, compared to the news that football’s most decorated manager would be succeeded by the trophyless David Moyes, which had provoked widespread astonishment in the world of football. The gist of that astonishment was simple: “Not Mourinho!?” 

Jose Mourinho had won 16 major trophies since 2003, five more than Ferguson had won in the same period. As Chelsea manager from 2004 to 2007, he had won two titles and taken on average 2.35 points per game, the best rate in Premier League history. Along with Pep Guardiola, he was plainly the outstanding coach in world football. Unlike the Bayern-bound Guardiola, he was available. For United to have overlooked him in favor of a manager who had won nothing seemed perverse. 

Since Alex Ferguson didn’t make mistakes, the decision had to make some kind of sense, and a process of rationalization swiftly kicked in. Even Mourinho’s biggest fans had to admit that he was … trouble. He had never stayed at any club for longer than three years. He was a specialist in strife and conflict who made enemies wherever he went, then took malicious delight in crushing those same enemies. He had been banned from technical areas all over Europe. He had once gouged a man’s eye in a touchline scuffle. The only reason he was available is that his position at Real Madrid had become untenable after several senior players turned against him. And while nobody could dispute that he had been successful, his style of football was cold, cruel, and devious. 

The rationalization continued: Ferguson, the old fox, understood what Manchester United needed better than anyone. United were already a machine for winning trophies. They didn’t need a self-proclaimed genius to teach them what they already knew. They didn’t want an unstable, preening narcissist to storm in, use them as a vehicle for his own glorification, and storm back out again, leaving behind God knows what kind of mess.

No. What was needed was a loyal custodian who could be trusted to keep the United machine ticking over. A man who respected the values that had brought so much success. A man who understood what it meant to serve something greater than himself. That man—how the scales have fallen from our eyes!—was David William Moyes. 

* * *

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David Moyes in happier, preseason days.

Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

At the beginning of July, the club released photographs of a beaming Moyes sitting in his new office at the club’s training ground at Carrington. His desk was tidy, his Manchester United mouse pad ready for action.

It was from this building that Alex Ferguson had ruled English football, the spider at the center of a vast invisible web of connections and control. He exercised absolute power over the club he managed for nearly 27 years, but his influence stretched well beyond the limits of his own domain. Other British managers competed for his favor; they knew a word from him could make or break careers. Referees and journalists were terrified of him. He left most of the training to his coaches and spent his time gathering intelligence from far-flung corners of the empire, speaking to contacts on one of as many as nine mobile phones.

Ferguson believed he had left David Moyes with a winning hand. “It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so,” his retirement statement read. “The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”

It’s clear now that the squad and the youth setup was only the hardware of the United system. The software that made it work was all in Ferguson’s head. How do you hand over the keys to a kingdom of the mind?

* * *

Moyes’ first major initiative was to dismiss Ferguson’s coaching staff and install the technical team he’d brought with him from Everton.

He had a reputation as a hands-on coach who pushed his players hard in training. According to Phil Neville, who played for Moyes at Everton, players sometimes ran so hard in preseason training that they vomited. “The Horse Shoe” was a Moyes preseason institution. Neville describes it as “a series of sharp runs that cover distances between 100 meters and 300 meters and there is barely any time to catch your breath in between. By the time you are on your eighth sprint, your legs feel like jelly and buckle, while your lungs are burning. The manager, meanwhile, simply laughs as you collapse.”

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