Sunderland visit Old Trafford on Boxing Day. In a parallel universe, they would go there with David Moyes three-and-a-half years into his six-year deal as Manchester United manager, offering the stability and longevity he brought Everton, achieving to the backdrop of the “Chosen One” banner at the Stretford End.
It is a scenario that feels plucked from the realms of fantasy. Moyes may still believe his contract should have brought more security but he is in a minority who did not realise United’s worst season for a quarter of a century merited dismissal. His fate was to spend just 295 days in charge. It now ranks as the shortest reign at Old Trafford in 84 years. The first line of his obituaries will contain the phrase “former Manchester United manager.” One with a laudable career elsewhere will be defined by disappointment, by being the man who was not Sir Alex Ferguson, the successor who brought no success.
His first return comes with Sunderland in the relegation zone. Moyes’ career has arguably never recovered from being appointed, let alone sacked, as United manager. He has the air of a man traumatised by his past, a luckless individual who accepted the Sunderland job and found the funds had dried up and returns to Old Trafford with United forging their finest team since Ferguson retired. Sunderland are 12/1 outsiders to give Moyes a victorious comeback.
Yet in a way he is vindicated. His record – seventh place, with home-and-away defeats to each of Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton and a solitary win against top-six opponents in a season where United mustered 25 fewer points than in Ferguson’s last campaign – remains unacceptable. The manner of some setbacks, such as the meltdown from the penalty spot against Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final or conceding at home to City after 43 seconds, was damning. Moyes was trapped in a tactical straitjacket, forever trying to play 4-4-1-1. He was miscast as a United manager.
But distance has revealed mitigating factors. Perhaps it has shown some strengths. Even as he was sacked, Moyes, whose scouting was invariably assiduous, was regarded by his employers as a fine judge of a player. He only signed two first-teamers for United and the first was Marouane Fellaini, whose capacity for clumsiness continues to make him a scapegoat. Yet Juan Mata, who Moyes bought despite advice from others on the coaching staff, has shown more staying power than many envisaged. While rarely seeming truly trusted, he has delivered vital contributions for both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese has belatedly produced United’s best midfield in years with Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba. Moyes tried to buy the Spaniard. He identified the Frenchman as a target, only months after Pogba had left Ferguson’s United. He pursued an interest in Luke Shaw, too, and the left-back began last season appearing intent on realising his potential before the horrific double leg break that has derailed his career.
Manchester United’s Juan Mata and David Moyes (Reuters)Reuters
Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that Moyes’ inheritance was unenviable. The same group of players had procured 89 points the previous year but, stripped of Ferguson’s ability to intimidate opponents into submission, deficiencies became apparent. The need for a major overhaul was confirmed after Moyes’ departure.
He failed to get as much from those players as Ferguson did. But so, too, have most of their subsequent managers. Of those who have left Old Trafford, perhaps only Patrice Evra, Javier Hernandez and Nani really went on to better things. Many have slipped back, into mid-table or relegation-threatened clubs or lesser leagues or retirement. Robin van Persie is a case in point, a player who scored fewer goals for Moyes than Ferguson, but more for either Scot than for Van Gaal.
Unlike his replacement, Moyes did not win a trophy. His league position was lower. Yet his win percentage was marginally higher and his Champions League record was far better. His team, albeit with Ryan Giggs in charge for the final four games, scored more goals in his one league campaign than in either of Van Gaal’s two; his first year brought 64, Van Gaal’s second a mere, miserable 49. The football got worse after Moyes’ sacking.
The slow start endured by Mourinho, the serial trophy-gatherer, underlined the scale of the rebuilding job required. Even the Portuguese, the man who often makes an instant impact, came to the conclusion time was needed. By the time the summer transfer window closed, United’s transfer outlay since Ferguson hung up his hairdryer came to around half a billion pounds. At least Moyes’ underachievement, with just £64.6 million spent in his tenure as Ed Woodward struggled to sign, was comparatively cheap, even if an inability to land his major targets does not amount to an excuse.
It is undeniable that decline began on Moyes’ watch, just as it is irrefutable that both results and the style of play were nowhere near good enough. It is possible to argue that the single worst decision since Ferguson left was the 2014 awarding of a five-and-a-half year contract worth £86 million to Wayne Rooney, hamstringing United for the foreseeable future.
But some of the Chosen One’s choices stand the test of time. The failure of Van Gaal, a supposed managerial Galactico, casts his own failure in a different light. So, too, the early struggles of Mourinho, the man United hailed as the greatest ever. Moyes merits a little more understanding. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the more the years go by, the more it appears that his was the impossible job.