“Four straight wins is a great record to get... but obviously they are coming to Old Trafford and we are going to make it as hard for them as we possibly can”. This was the decisive moment I knew David Moyes was going to be a failure at Manchester United. His opponents? Not an upcoming Champions League tie against Barcelona or Real Madrid, but Newcastle.
Here was the manager of the reigning league champions talking about a home game against a mid-table side as though they were the underdogs. What confidence is that supposed to inspire in his players? I don’t know what is more striking about the comment: that it showed he completely failed to grasp the mentality of the club, that he totally misunderstood what was expected of him in his job, or that he wasn’t aware of the negativity that such a comment could create in his team. I think it’s mostly the latter. The 54-year-old Scot has a recent history of engendering a mindset of defeatism and negativity at his clubs.
Newcastle would go on to win the game, their first at Old Trafford in the league in over 40 years. Clubs visiting Old Trafford had lost their fear. Part of this was inevitable as Ferguson brought with him a respect cultivated over many years, the notion that a team can be defeated before the game even begins. These were always going to be difficult shoes for ‘The Chosen One’ to fill.
Yet he did himself absolutely no favours with his pessimistic comments and cautious football. “I don’t know what we have to do to win”, he said after United lost at Stoke. But the worst comment of the lot was surely against his side’s great rivals Liverpool, an opponent Moyes is used to having as his biggest of the season (and losing) from his Everton days. After a lacklustre performance in losing 1-0 to their neighbours in September Moyes praised his side for “limiting Liverpool to very few opportunities”. This may be acceptable at Everton’s level, but not when Manchester United have just lost to their bitter rivals without creating many chances themselves. Restricted them to few chances? You've just lost to Liverpool! Compare this to Ferguson’s early press conferences, promising to “knock Liverpool off their perch”. Moyes just couldn’t manage his situation, bringing a small club mentality to arguably the biggest of the lot.
His negativity in public continued into his spell at Sunderland. He seemed ready to throw in the towel on Sunderland’s season as early as August. After defeat at Middlesbrough, just the second game in, Moyes was already admitting Sunderland were going to be “in a relegation fight”. Great inspiring words, there. Then he seemed to take every opportunity to criticise his players in public. Was he trying to protect himself? Or put pressure on the board to allow him more money?
Either way, comments like “we’re not getting good enough players out there” and “we’re probably paying the price for not recruiting earlier” sends the pure and simple message to the players that he doesn’t believe in them. I don’t want the manager of the team I support speaking about his players in this way. He set them up to fail, and fail they did.
Defenders of Moyes will say that he had an impossible job at Sunderland. Yes, their squad was poor. They’d been circling the drain for a while but under Moyes they never had the same rallying cry that even Gus Poyet (whose side went on a remarkable run of beating vastly superior teams to survive) and Paolo Di Canio were able to inspire. Then came Sam Allardyce, whose dogged determination and strong will rubbed off onto Sunderland’s players instantly. They, too, showed they were capable of getting the big results necessary to stay up.
Then along comes Moyes, with largely the same group of players, and the whole thing falls as flat as a soufflé taken out of the oven too early. Why is this? A big reason must surely be the climate of negativity and lack of belief that Moyes brought to the team. There was not a trace of the defensive discipline and team fight the same players were able to show just months earlier under Allardyce. Would Sunderland have gone down if Allardyce had stayed? I would seriously worry about the same mindset permeating at West Ham were Moyes to join.
Aside from the negative attitude and failure to read his environment, Moyes has also been found lacking in game management too. His substitutions are almost exclusively like-for-like. You’d be hard-pushed at United and Sunderland to find an example of an inspired tactical change transforming a game. Indeed, beyond bringing on Adnan Januzaj on the wing, any attacking-minded change is hard to locate in Moyes’ locker at all. His Everton side was functional and rarely ambitious enough to win a big game (remembering the FA Cup Final in which goalscorer Louis Saha was taken off at 1-1 and replaced by James Vaughan to hold up the ball more). He continued this approach to make Manchester United bafflingly negative and Sunderland scored just 29 goals last season.
I get that West Ham need to stop shipping goals, and Moyes’ record of tactical caution might suit us, but we risk disaster if we are too guarded and unwilling to take risks. Premier League defences are substandard this season. We need someone who can exploit that whilst also enforcing a bit of discipline.
A manager, no matter what club he’s at, needs to be decisive, confident, proactive and able to read and react to a situation. Unfortunately, Moyes doesn’t fit the bill. His lack of conviction at United can be encapsulated in a comment he made after the Newcastle defeat, in which he admitted he was too scared to take off Robin van Persie, because he was worried about what the fans would have said. As a fan, it’s always nice to feel like your voice is heard. But in this situation, the manager is the expert. He shouldn’t care about what anyone else thinks or does. Does Mourinho? Does Allardyce?
Then there’s the question marks about the level of coaching. Moyes made a perplexingly huge mistake in removing key Manchester United backroom staff, the crucial ingredients to United’s long-held success. Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and Eric Steele had accumulated over 20 years’ experience at the club, working with world class players day in, day out.
Their replacements were Moyes’ own team. First, there was Steve Round, a man whose coaching was so archaic and negative that even Gareth Southgate couldn’t tolerate him at Middlesbrough. Moyes deemed Round, with his background in working under Allardyce, worthy of taking over attacking duties at Manchester United. He now works for Aston Villa. Are we really to trust Moyes’ judgment?
Then there’s Phil Neville, highly rumoured to be joining Moyes at West Ham. If his coaching is anything like his punditry, the players should prepare themselves to not learn a lot and be perpetually bored. Between them, they managed to take United from a world-class coaching set up to trying to teach Rio Ferdinand, one of the greatest centre-backs in world football for a prolonged period, how to learn from Phil Jagielka.
As an aside, Moyes for a while now has looked stressed and defeated. Nothing went right for him at United; it didn’t work out at Real Sociedad and he spent most of his time at Sunderland appearing to wish he were somewhere else. His “slap” comment aimed at reporter Vicki Sparks bore all the hallmarks of someone under intense stress lashing out and regretting it straight away.
Would West Ham refresh him, give him the chance to reinvent himself? Perhaps. But it seems – to me at least – that the evidence is pointing to the same happening here as we’ve seen from him recently. Primarily, he lacks the dexterity to fully read the situation he’s in, and this was his single biggest failure at both United and Sunderland. His comments indicated an innate negativity which in turn engendered negative mindsets at both clubs. Bringing that atmosphere into this West Ham climate would be a complete disaster. But then maybe he's learnt from his mistakes.
When all is said and done Bilic is not the right man to turn West Ham around. We have stagnated for too long, we leak goals, and the team doesn’t look well-coached at all. But the next move is critical. Is Moyes as good as it gets? Do we really want a man who was so defeatist in his last job that he practically threw the towel in at the start of the season? Moyes comes across as an honest and honourable guy. But we can surely find a better fit than this.