It was the day after Alex Ferguson’s retirement had first leaked and, as they visited Chester races, the Manchester United squad were feverishly discussing the same thing as everyone else: who would replace the legendary manager?
Almost to a man, one name kept coming up: Jose Mourinho.
David Moyes was barely mentioned.
By then, of course, the former Everton boss long knew he had the job. Moyes himself made something of a curious revelation about the day he was first called by Ferguson to discuss it.
“I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I would never normally go to his house dressed like that.”
Compare that to when Pep Guardiola was offered the Barcelona job in 2008, a point at which he was an absolute novice. His first response? “You haven’t got the balls.”
Whereas one coach was so tentative as to effectively behave subserviently to a man he was supposed to replace, the other assertively acted as if it was the club who struggled with any caution.
The difference may seem relatively trivial but it is also relevant for the current issues at Old Trafford and why the players themselves wanted a charismatic personality like Mourinho.
One of the main problems with replacing a figure like Ferguson was always going to be about presence, about persuasion.
The 72-year-old’s command had been so complete that, once it went, significant cracks were guaranteed. That was precisely why United needed to appoint someone with an absolutely bullet-proof CV as well as an unshakeable sense of self-assurance.
Since a certain amount of problems were inevitable, they required a manager who could simply point to his record as evidence they were on the right course. It is genuinely the kind of thing players respond to. It is why they wanted Mourinho. It would have no longer just been about replacing Ferguson.
Instead, we’ve seen a manager who has barely been able to articulate his disappointment. Imagine the Manchester United dressing-room immediately after the dismal 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos. Given how he has looked in the media, and how much worse every defeat has been than the previous one, what could Moyes have possibly said that would improve the situation?
People may point to the players but the reality of the modern game at the top-level is that an awful lot more needs to be in check than self-motivation to properly compete. The sport is becoming so sophisticated that the entire framework needs to be exceptional.
Ultimately, there was never all that much evidence Moyes could provide that. While he undeniably did a very good job at Everton, there was an awful lot to suggest it wouldn’t translate to a role where the requirements and dimensions are radically multiplied. The entire approach was far too limited, from the style of football to the ambition, and it ultimately meant Everton never made that one Aberdeen-style breakthrough.
Moyes is a manager who has always accepted boundaries and tried to work within, rather than strive to push them out. It is most obviously reflected in the rigid football and all those orthodox crosses.
At a club like United, where a massive mental leap was always going to be required to even begin to work through a momentous change like Ferguson’s retirement, that was never going to be enough. It remains remarkable they had such a blind spot to all that.
To put that another way, how many clubs beyond United were even looking at Moyes? Tottenham decided against it. Schalke were the most prominent name suggested in speculation.
Now, all that United have is speculation — or perhaps just blind faith — that it will improve. It may well do, but it’s going to take time and suffering.
The key point is that it didn’t need to be like this. While United were always going to have huge problems post-Ferguson, picking Moyes has made those issues worse right now.
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