As children, we learn very quickly that a blame shared is a blame halved – but in the long-term, the ruse works only with the co-operation of the co-opted. This is a lesson that must have escaped David Moyes, whose public pronouncements regularly identified unwilling conspirators, illustrating precisely why he failed at Manchester United.
Which is not to say that liability resides solely with him. Most obviously, Moyes was let down by his players; their performances were his ultimate responsibility – not excusing the indolence, indignation and entitlement that defined them.
Also at fault is Alex Ferguson, who bequeathed Moyes a midfieldless squad – a partial consequence of a takeover he welcomed. As such and with his consent, roughly £680m has left the club, its competitive status preserved only by his genius. And, before leaving, he anointed as his successor an underqualified non-genius, who, by complete coincidence, was both the cheapest candidate and one most likely to seek guidance.
Then, before the start of the season, Moyes was asked about a tricky opening month, and rather than accept the challenge, he challenged the integrity of the system. It was, apparently, ‘hard to believe that’s the way the balls came out of the bag’, deflecting accountability even for the sentiment by citing the authority of his predecessor, who had told him that ‘those sort of things happened’. But that authoritarian predecessor infused accusations with purpose, aiming to influence results, rather than quell criticism of their poverty in advance.
The gripe evidenced a lacking confidence, not just in his ability, but that of players used to overcoming obstacles far more significant. In any managerial context, workers desire the trust of their boss – particularly in sport, where confidence is paramount, and all the more so in football, a simple game shaped principally by attitude, not tactics.
Only last week, Brendan Rodgers acclaimed Steven Gerrard as Europe’s best midfielder in a ‘controlling role’ – a sentiment beyond the credulity of all but the only man needing to believe it. Similarly, Diego Simeone, whose Atlético Madrid side has surprised Spain as much as Rodgers’ Liverpool have England, recently commented that ‘sometimes it’s not the better team that wins, but the team that’s more convinced’.
In the event, United began the season with a resounding victory, asserting after the game that ‘I’ve just to try and do what I’ve done over the last ten or eleven years’ – precisely what those suspicious of his appointment feared. Under him, Everton were often a tricky engagement, but rarely were they dazzling and frequently did they disappoint at the crucial juncture. At United, his task was to deliver success with swagger, its generation an entirely different skill to cajoling unexpected results.
Sure enough, as opponents improved, performances deteriorated. After a humiliating going-over from Manchester City, Moyes admitted that United aspired to play like them – a team they had bested by eleven points the previous season. And when, in the following weeks, he developed an embryonic crisis, rather than reaffirm his faith in his players, he emasculated them further, contending that ‘to win the Champions League you have to have five or six world-class players … we’ve not got that yet.’ Plenty members of his squad might have wondered how he knew.
Then immediately after Everton won at Old Trafford – a feat that Moyes never managed – he was promising to ‘make it difficult’ for Newcastle, the next visitors, reflecting not just his demeanour, but solipsistic policy of downplaying expectation. Another defeat did thus ensue.
Next came a short run of largely unconvincing victories, one in which Danny Welbeck – a young, local talent – was instrumental. Moyes’ response was to publicise a recent private chiding for not training as hard as Wayne Rooney, an allegation strongly refuted.
This disparagement resurfaced after Welbeck missed a goalscoring opportunity in the first leg of the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. ‘There have always been questions about his finishing when he gets in,’ offered Moyes, ‘and you would back that up with the other night.’ Or you would reinforce his morale by pointing out that he boasts the league’s fourth best scoring rate excluding penalties.
Rooney, on the other hand, was retained against his will and Ferguson’s strongest possible advice. But, had he been allowed to join Chelsea and gone on to win the league, the lines of blame would be clear. So, Moyes elected to fellate his ego with constant praise, complicit in the subsequent award of a new contract promising further incredible riches, over a far longer term than is justifiable.
Another singled out for tribute was the comically inept Marouane Fellaini – again in effective defence of Moyes’ own position. His acquisition, delayed until the final moments of the transfer window, was based on a preference for the certainty of someone he knew not to be good enough, rather than taking a chance on a player more suitable, with whom he was less familiar.
That gambler’s instinct was one Moyes never seemed likely to develop. Instead, Ferguson was emulated via swipe, and the speculation that he would also have struggled with an ageing squad. But, true or not, this misses the point; the job of a manager is to coax a collective best, not diffuse responsibility for a previously unfathomable worst.
Yet, despite it all, Moyes enjoyed prominent vocal backing – which still did not exempt those providing it from tacit criticism. Anyone baffled by the 81 crosses sent over against Fulham was lacking ‘a football intelligence’, and the Old Trafford crowd was held partially responsible for the worst results it had witnessed since 1978. ‘There’s a bit of expectation,’ went the explanation, ‘a bit less pressure away. We’ve lost a few home games after being a bit gung ho.’
This sums up Moyes’s time at United best of all. That ‘gung ho’ approach was not an imperfection but an obligation, and blame for confusing the two, in both word and deed, rests with one man alone.