Before we proceed, I’d like to start by pointing out to English-speaking pundits that it’s pronounced “Van Harl”, not “Van Garl”. It’s your job to know this. Then again, this is the group that once pronounced Paul Scholes’ name like that of a popular brand of sandal and spent a decade guessing at how to say “Solskjaer” (FYI: it’s Sol-ska-hay-ja-hoyzens-uuuur).
But I digress.
I’ve started to hear the rumblings of a slowly building debate over whether David Moyes was in fact doing a better job as Manchester United manager this time last year than Louis Van Gaal is currently.
Statisticians say “yes” as David Moyes did have more points at this stage, despite having a more difficult set of fixtures. My instinct however, is to say “no”.
Let’s consider the circumstances.
The team that Moyes inheritted from Sir Alex Ferguson were champions by a considerable margin.
That’s not to say the squad was without its flaws. Fergie had for a number of years, given the teams midfield shortcomings as much regard as Kaci Hickox has to social anxiety over the Ebola virus.
The defence had been managed carefully. Vidic and Evra were at the back end of their careers. Rio Ferdinand had one last good season, via meticulous scheduling of training, rest and playing time to overcome his physical deterioration. When possible, the younger players were mentored by veteran players.
Despite this, there was enough raw talent that combined with Fergie’s managerial skills and the continuing threat of punishment by Mike Phelan wearing even tighter shorts, the team remained successful.
When Moyes arrived, the midfield was overdue a couple of strong additions and the defence could have used some reinforcements. However, the need was relative. To be top Champions League contenders, such acquisitions were paramount. To be dominant over their top Premiership opposition, such players would deliver an edge. Against the majority of domestic opponents however, the squad should have been more than equipped.
I gave Moyes the benefit of the doubt in the opening months. I expected a downturn in fortunes. As much as United’s detractors liked to point to financial muscle, tinfoil hat theories regarding injury time and Howard Webb in general, the job Fergie had done over the years was nothing short of phenomenal.
With this in mind, I resolved that as long as we remained in strong contention for a Champions League place, I would patiently accept any performance.
I had concerns: managing Everton could be very different to managing a title contender. It wasn’t necessarily easier but it called on different attributes. Some managers make the transition. Others are Roy Hodgson at Liverpool.
From early on, Moyes demeanour took on a deer-in-the-headlights quality. Comments about having to acclimate to a big squad after relying on a clear XI in his last job, hinted at a need for on-the-job training that shouldn’t be necessary for the incoming manager of an elite football powerhouse.
The transfer season conjured mental images of Moyes and incoming Chief Exec, Ed Woodward huddled in a corner, clinging to one another, tears rolling down sobbing red cheeks, exclaiming “I don’t know what to do!!”.
The only activity seemed to be a succession of clubs politely telling the them to “Sod off” after receiving paltry bids. As time rolled on it felt less and less competent, right up until deadline day which made the rest of the window seem well-navigated by comparison. A day of frantic activity ended with nothing more than questions over three people turning up at Bilbao supposedly pretending to represent United, a fax issue in Madrid and Marouane Fellaini being signed at a world class premium for millions above his recently-expired release clause. The syllables “Clust”, “Erf” and “Uck” spring to mind.
The transfer window was closed with only one overpriced afro’ed behemoth to show for it.
Oh well. It was still largely the same squad that won the league at a canter. How bad could it be?
And in any case, if the negotiations for Ander Herrera and a loan for Fabio Coentrao had reached such advanced stages that they barely missed the deadline, that business could be wrapped up and actioned in January, right?
A few things stand out here for me, compared to Van Gaal. Upon being announced as manager, Moyes went on vacation. We heard nothing from him until his official start date in July. For all we knew, Ed Woodward had strolled into a Wardrobe in the spare room and spent much of the summer drinking tea with a fawn.
From day one, despite being at the World Cup with Holland, Van Gaal showed involvement with the club. He reportedly nixed some potential deals and approved others. While Woodward again showed worrying signs of having misused the Tools of Kagrenac on the Heart of Lorkhan, he finally materialised to get plenty of business done.
Van Gaal had signed two reputedly promising midfielders, an elite winger, a reputedly decent defender and loaned an elite striker. Had this occurred under Moyes, things could have been far better. This would have shored up the areas of need and allowed the team to remain competitive.
As it is, Van Gaal started from a much harder place. The older players had gone. The younger players were stagnating under the strain of pressure and diminished confidence. As United entered the 2014 summer transfer window, the only reinforcements signed had been the aforementioned Fellaini and Juan Mata from Chelsea, who plays in one of the few positions where the team was oversubscribed. Januzaj had been blooded and was a confirmed first team squad player.
The net result was a team weaker and severely lacking in confidence compared to the previous season.
The results under Moyes may have been better. I submit that the performances have not. I see a few problems with the former gaffer. He came across as overawed by the appointment, stubborn in approach (as exhibitted by the rejection of Fergie’s advice to retain the existing support staff) and reactive as a tactician.
The latter was a big contributor in my book. In fairness, it served Moyes better away from home where teams were more likely to attack. In some ways, as the spectre of Man United faded for opposing teams, it actually played into his hands as they became more aggressive. As with his time at Everton however, it was a style that only worked some of the time and never against the toughest opponents. At Old Trafford, where teams were increasingly less intimidated and United were expected to be proactive it was a disaster.
Say what you will about the results under Louis Van Gaal, but what United show under him that they didn’t under Moyes is a sense of direction, the feeling that something is being built towards. In a word, progress.
Moyes was handling a squad which had been largely playing together for years. Whereas Van Gaal has signed multiple players who will need time to bed in and acclimate before showing their best, the Moyes era simply saw established players go into a progressive decline. While Moyes had the team frequently outpossessed and on the back foot, Van Gaal has reversed that trend. Whereas United looked more and more afraid as time went on under Moyes, under Van Gaal we see a team that despite injuries and transition, is beginning to show fight and determination.
The results have been unacceptable this season, just as they were last, especially given the teams faced. However, while I frequently looked and hoped in vain for Moyes’s incarnation of Manchester United to show me something, anything to provoke belief, I see it here.
Manchester United under Van Gaal showed me against Chelsea and Manchester City that they can give the best a run for their money. Maybe it’s a false dawn. Perhaps they remain a middling team with great strengths and major weaknesses who simply played up to their opposition. At least this time around, I feel excitement in the need to wait and see.