Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Manchester United’s David Moyes has the toughest job in the sporting world

Manchester United's new coach David Moyes has failed to fill the leadership vacuum left by Alex Ferguson's departure

Two days ago as a clinical Olympiacos FC comfortably beat Manchester United in Piraeus for a possible place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, the steep descent of the world’s most famous football club appeared complete.

The Red Devils, who are now 15 points adrift of league leaders Chelsea in the Premier League, have had continued problems in midfield and defence. What’s worse, they have lost out in the transfer market as well, with the world’s most valued players appearing to shun the club because of new coach David Moyes’s dour style of play. United are hurting at the top having scored only 43 goals in 27 games as against the 70 that Liverpool have, or the 69 that Manchester City have scored. According to a ranking by the Bleacher Report, the top three partnerships upfront this season in Europe include Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge who play for Liverpool, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani for Paris Saint-Germain, and Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo for Manchester City. Manchester United’s combine of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney is at number five, which is a fair index of the team’s position in Europe.

Manchester United’s fall from grace points to the key role of leadership in the sustained success of any institution. It is now clear that its legendary coach Alex Ferguson, who retired last year after 26 years in charge, had been the binding force that drove the club to its success. His departure has left a vacuum that Moyes has failed to fill. The jury is still out on Moyes though. It is, after all, far too early to judge him. Under Ferguson, who was the subject of a Harvard Business School case study for his leadership style, United won nothing for four years after he took charge, with only the FA Cup win in 1990 turning things around. But Moyes inherited a successful club, one that had just won the Premier League at a canter. The hard working Scot, more used to holding operations at Everton, was expected to keep up the good work. Instead, he finds his strategic sense and his sharpness being questioned both on and off the field. At Everton, Moyes had a limited budget but modest ambitions and a record built over 11 years. The team did well under him, often surprising the top teams and staying in contention for silverware without ever really making it. But at United, the expectations from him are infinitely more demanding, requiring the skills of a juggler with the cunningness of an ace poker player.

Soccer, unlike other team sports like cricket, has little role for an on-field captain. The game is much too fast-paced and the captain far too involved to be able to handle tactical decisions. The manager, under these circumstances is the chief strategist and tactician rolled into one. All but die-hard fans will find it difficult to name the captain of league leaders Chelsea (John Terry), though we are all familiar with the role of José Mourinho as the team’s manager.

And that’s where Moyes has been found wanting so far. His capitulation to Wayne Rooney, who’s just snagged a new £300,000-a-week contract, despite the presence in the team of a wonderful playmaker like Juan Mata, points to his growing desperation but also his lack of negotiating smarts. His post-match statements have been honest but they reveal a man who isn’t in control of his own players. The senior players don’t look to him with the same fear and awe that Ferguson inspired. So even pathetic performances like the one against Olympiacos or against Manchester City earlier in the season, are quickly forgotten. That doesn’t augur well for his future or that of the club.

Ferguson’s guiding philosophy for Manchester United was always that no one was bigger than the club, exemplified in his famous spat with poster boy David Beckham who subsequently left the club. Ironically, Manchester United’s alarming slump, following Ferguson’s departure, would seem to indicate that he was bigger than the club.

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