David Moyes making the right noise
Perception can be crucial in sport; and though Manchester United’s quick and rapid demise has been evident for all to see, the speed in which David Moyes can circumnavigate the club back towards the top of Premier League is the subject of much conjecture. What helps us form that opinion or forecast is the evidence we have available and after a rocky start, Moyes is finally discovering that the pen can sometimes be mightier than the sword.
After United’s 1-0 defeat at Anfield in September where they barely launched a second half attack to come back into the game, David Moyes declared it as the best he’d seen his team play to date. Later that month, following his team’s capitulation at the Etihad, he warned there were more days like that to come for supporters. These were hardly encouraging words and projected the sense of uncertainty that supporters were perhaps not expecting to feel; yes, there had been a change in manager, but Moyes had taken over the Champions, hadn’t he? He’d taken over a squad in perfect balance according to Sir Alex Ferguson, too.
Without knowing the end of the story it’s still not conclusive how much of the above is fair and how much Moyes might have felt like he was wearing the Emporer’s New Clothes just a few weeks into his reign at Old Trafford. This team and squad was ostensibly fantastic and had a roll of honour to justify their prestige yet Ferguson’s brilliance had spurred the club onto achievements almost beyond their potential.
In that respect, Moyes was facing criticism early doors and that was simply because he wasn’t Ferguson; unfortunately, there is no hiding place and Moyes learned that however unjust, his task was to replicate the success and to do so quickly. Supporters were patient with him yet felt uneasy about the way he was, at times, too frank (saying the squad needed a higher number of world class players to realistically compete for the Champions League) or too contradictory in saying that he’d seen signs of improvement in a squad that was still flattering to deceive in their late autumn unbeaten run.
Ahead of Newcastle’s visit to Old Trafford, Moyes publicly hoped his team would “make it difficult” for the Magpies, to the horror of United supporters everywhere. There is a famous story about the days of Tommy Docherty’s reign at Old Trafford where he wouldn’t even give team talks for home games, such was the belief that his team would win. His coach, Tommy Cavanagh, would bring in the team sheet of the opponent, screw it up and hurl expletives as he hurled the crumpled piece of paper into the corner. It didn’t always work; United weren’t always infallible at home, but it was this kind of attitude that endeared supporters to their club, the arrogance and belief that they could outplay anyone. The message was simple – you need to worry about us, we don’t need to worry about you.
That’s not to say that due planning wasn’t carried out, it just wasn’t necessary to air it publicly. Moyes’ comments pre-Newcastle came back to haunt him as United, in fact, didn’t make it difficult.
Even following the defeat to Spurs which left United with an uphill battle to even qualify for the Champions League this season, and the defeat to Swansea which saw United eliminated from the FA Cup, supporters maintained hope and belief that Moyes was the right man. A first leg defeat to Sunderland and another battering at Stamford Bridge - a game in which United’s frailties and weaknesses were aggressively exposed – left Moyes with no other option than to do what he did.
Earlier in January he had defiantly insisted that the best players in the world still wanted to join Manchester United. To the outside world these were comments that sold papers; to supporters, they were words to observe carefully. Were they simply words, another reinforcement that perhaps the manager ought to undertake one of the media training courses that the club put their young players on? Was it the truth, something as prophetic and fundamentally honest which followed the Manchester derby?
While it’s still too early to make a definitive judgement, what Moyes did in signing Juan Mata for a club record fee was make a huge statement that might well prove to be a turning point. It isn’t known whether this was his intention but it could have proved to be a very clever move in the chess game which is known as the latest chapter in the Wayne Rooney Contract Saga. Mata’s arrival and subsequent comments that he’d been at a great club but thought ‘Wow’ when he heard of United’s interest illustrate that perceived step up in stature which Moyes had been keen to convey and will likely not have been lost on Rooney, whose primary motivation seems to be playing for a team who will at the very least finish in the top two.
It may well be coincidental and nothing more than a theory but the timing suits it nicely enough to suggest that Rooney has paid due attention to the perception of the transfer being a step up regardless of the current situation of the league.
What the conclusion of the transfer did do was finally confirm that Moyes had gotten a grasp of the power of perception and how he could use that to his advantage; the signing of Mata was a watershed moment in that it flexed United’s muscles and prompted speculation that they are set to make a number of similar signings. Suddenly, it could prove to be the case that players will be queuing up to be the figurehead of the United revolution. As has been noted with every forecast in this piece, that is open to interpretation and will only be proven or disproven over time. One reservation that was shared by some when Moyes was chosen as Ferguson’s successor over Mourinho was that the Scot was less of a natural talker; less flamboyant, less likely to convey the glamour of Manchester United. Much of that concern could be said to have been well founded given United’s struggles this season but it may well be that Moyes is turning a corner where that is concerned.
The one guaranteed conclusion for United supporters to take out of this is that Moyes is serious when it comes to attracting the big names and that he will be ambitious when doing so, as long as he is backed with the funds. Another is that Moyes can attract the players as manager; perhaps Sir Alex used some of his own influence but that can only been as a positive in the rebuilding process and one piece of help that Moyes will surely be only too happy to call upon.
The theory outside of Old Trafford is that Mourinho felt Mata was a player he could afford to lose; that the transfer fee would prove hugely beneficial in Chelsea’s attempts to stay within the confines of the FFP regulations, and that the player might well prove more influential to Chelsea’s hopes of winning the title as a United attacker in big games to come.
It’s a strong theory with much credibility but it doesn’t take away the fact that for Moyes and Manchester United, the signing was as much about perception as it was about acquiring the player. It’s no coincidence that this column has seen a resistance to stick to a solid judgement one way or the other so it’s with that same trend that it concludes; only time will tell whether United will now walk the walk after David Moyes has talked the talk but having failed to do so on both counts so far, it will be interesting to see how England’s biggest club react to the power of simply saying all the right things.
Wayne Barton is not expressing the views of Setanta Sports.