The term ‘crashed and burned’ may seem quite apposite in describing David Moyes’ disastrous spell at the Manchester United helm, but at least one aspect where Moyes’ tenure differs from avian doom is in the need to locate a black box.
For never have the causes of a managerial casualty been so quick-to-hand, with entire forests-worth of paper being sacrificed in the name of the blame game. From the sacking of the coaching staff to the attitude of the players, from Moyes’ inexperience to the Glazers parasitic ownership of the club, for once it is failure, and not success, that has the surfeit of fathers.
However, (and in loosely keeping with the paternal theme), few individuals have come in for as much criticism for the Moyes’ debacle as Sir Alex Ferguson, the man generally acknowledged as being the father of the modern-day Manchester United. With Ferguson one of the few people on planet football to have believed the modest abilities of Moyes would make a good fit for the enormity of the United job, many fans and analysts have found themselves in the unfamiliar territory of taking United’s most successful manager to task over what they see as the worst of his many signings.
Indeed, many even go so far as to charge Ferguson of knowingly bequeathing Moyes a mediocre squad and being solely interested in his own legacy of reaching twenty domestic titles before his retirement last year. Ferguson, their argument goes, sacrificed the long-term future of the club on the altar of his vanity.
Whilst it’s true Ferguson left his hapless successor an underwhelming hand, it’s nevertheless far-fetched in the extreme to claim he would have deliberately played fast-and-loose with the future of the club simply to ensure his own achievements received the most favourable of light. Ferguson undoubtedly oversaw a dilution in the quality of the United playing pool over the last few years of his reign, but far from being deliberate, this dilution simply mirrored the diminution of many of his own powers.
As evidenced by United’s trophy haul over the last five years of his tenure, Ferguson’s iron-clad will-to-win and ability to wring every last drop of effort from his teams remained with the Scot to the very end. But although three title wins and two Champions League Final appearances were amassed since their last European triumph in Moscow in 2008, many believe that years vintage to be United’s last truly great side and the ones since to be poor derivatives. Through Ferguson’s sheer force of will United were able to remain competitive post 2008, but the signs of decline in many of his powers were there for all to see several years before the Scot finally called it a day last May.
In Ferguson’s prime, no attribute was as impressive as his ability to regenerate great sides whilst remaining competitive. Achieved both by identifying the best young talent available and jettisoning those no longer deemed good enough, the Scot was able to constantly refine and upgrade as he maintained a team capable of conquering whichever latest contender had come for United’s crown. Seminal signings like Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Christiano Ronaldo complemented world-class home-grown talents such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Lion-hearted – albeit limited – warriors such as Phil Neville, John O’Shea and Nicky Butt were always available to play the perfect foils to their more gifted teammates, allowing Ferguson to create that most perfect of football beasts – a thoroughbred with an insatiable appetite for success.
However, where once such filler players made for mere extras in United’s grand production, in recent years they had begun to take lead roles, with modern-day equivalents Jones, Evans, Welbeck, Hernandez and Young moving centre stage and not remaining on the periphery where their modest talents belonged. Ferguson’s ability to wring every last morsel of effort from such pedestrian players ensured United continued to pick up trophies but almost exclusively through guts rather than the previously favoured guile.
Almost as crucial as his ability to spot the right players to bring in was Ferguson’s judgement on when to swing the Old Trafford axe. Pre-2008 Ferguson rarely erred when deciding which players had exhausted their use to the United cause. Consternation may have enveloped supporters when such stellar names and fan favourites as Ince, Beckham, Keane and Van Niistelrooy were all moved on, yet all were departures that would leave Ferguson wholly vindicated. Latterly, though, this sixth sense seemed to dessert the Scot. Whilst the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Rio Ferdinand all made significant contributions to United’s last three title wins, in truth the trio were already operating at a reduced level for years and as far back as 2005 in the case of Giggs and Scholes. The Ferguson of old would have jettisoned the trio at the first sign of decline, but the Ferguson of the later years refused to let go.
Perhaps even more damaging for United was that when Ferguson did decide to cut loose in the later years it was often in error. The likes of Gerard Pique, Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez all left Old Trafford and went on to play vital roles in winning domestic titles in England, Italy and Spain (and European titles in the case of Pique.) To deem one world-class player surplus to requirements is careless, to deem three as such belied Ferguson’s waning powers when it came to judging whether players were good enough for Old Trafford.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when that innate gift to replenish and improve left the Scot, but it was most notably absent for the last five years. Although successful signings such as David De Gea and Robin Van Persie were made post-2008, in truth they were the rare exceptions to what was a mostly dire transfer record over his last number of years.
Many cite Ferguson’s supposedly reduced spending powers under the Glazer regime, with one statistic showing United to have spent around £150 million less than Manchester City since 2008. But, as with all statistics regarding football finance, it needs to be taken in context. In 2008 United had a squad capable of winning that season’s Premiership and Champions League. City, on the other hand, had a mediocre, mid-table team when Sheikh Mansour bought them in September of that year. It only stands to reason that City would have had to spend more to get to United’s level.
In fact, United have rarely been the biggest spenders since the first half-dozen years of Ferguson’s reign when they routinely broke the British transfer record in their own attempt to catch then pace-setters Liverpool. Since United first achieved success in the early nineties they have regularly being outspent by the likes of Roy Evans’ Liverpool, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City, as they all attempted to close the gap. On the other hand, United – thanks to Ferguson’s canny ability to replenish great squads – never required such traumatic surgery and instead only ever had the need to make a few annual enhancements to an ever-impressive body of work.
None of which is to say Ferguson existed on chump change since the Glazer takeover in 2005. In fact, since the Americans took control of the club, Ferguson spent in excess of £300 million with most of the outlay going on players few would argue were an improvement on what he already had. Nearly a quarter of a billion pounds was spent on names like Smith, Djemba-Djemba, Anderson, Hargreaves, Tosic, Berbatov, Diouf, Obertan, Valencia, Kleberson, Bellion, Foster, Bebe, Smalling, Jones, Young, Zaha, Buttner, Kagawa, Powell and Dong. Whilst some have contributed to title-winning sides and others may yet come good, few would argue any would make it into the vintage United sides of the previous 15 years.
If any rhyme or reason can be discerned from Ferguson’s transfer dealings over his last five years in the job it would be in an apparent shift in focus from the foreign market to the domestic one. But as Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa and later Kenny Dalglish in his second spell at Liverpool discovered, buying British usually guarantees little more than mediocrity, a word that better describes the current United squad than any other.
With David Moyes breaking all sorts of the wrong kind of records in his short, error-strewn reign, few would argue he came anywhere close to meeting the required standards at one of the world’s biggest clubs. However, Moyes – and his successor – can point to a rather large caveat for below par performances in the shape of the current United squad. It is a squad where mediocrity reigns supreme and world-class players are notable only by their absence. It is a squad that was assembled by a manager who in at least some respects had long since lost his golden touch.