April 22, 2014 1:42 pm

Manchester United’s biggest problem is not selecting next manager

FILE - In this Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 file photo Manchester United's manager David Moyes gestures to his team during their English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Emirates stadium in London. Manchester United says manager David Moyes has left the Premier League club after less than a year in charge, amid heavy speculation he was about to be fired. United released a brief statement in its website Tuesday, saying the club "would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role." (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)©AP

David Moyes’s sacking, after just 10 months as Manchester United’s manager, is above all a story of image. No other British company receives more press coverage than United. Being its manager is therefore in large part a public relations job. Moyes’s image hampered him throughout his brief reign. Arriving from smaller Everton without a big name, he lacked the stature to dismantle United’s revered team. Then, when his ageing players failed to deliver, leaving United seventh in the Premier League, his own PR failed him.

With hindsight, Moyes inherited structural problems. Sir Alex Ferguson retired as United’s manager last May after a glorious 27-year reign, saying he was leaving behind “an organisation in the strongest possible shape . . .  The quality of this league-winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success”. That proved false.

Tenure of Premiership managers

For decades, Ferguson had planned ahead, renewing his great teams even when they were at their zenith. However, in his final years he focused less on rebuilding. Consciously or not, he seems to have constructed a team to peak in his last season. Even by August 2012, when he bought Robin van Persie for £24m from Arsenal, he must have had some inkling that he himself would be retiring before long. The Dutchman’s transfer fee paid off in the short run: van Persie’s brilliant first six months at United sealed Ferguson’s last title. Predictably, though, the ageing injury-prone striker then got injured again. United’s best player has missed most of Moyes’ tenure.

Several of the other starting players whom Moyes inherited; Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic, are now 32 or older. The sophisticated daily physical tests now common at leading clubs must have shown that these men could no longer meet the demands of top-class football.

Moyes should have cleared most of them out last summer. Then, their standing was still high and some would have fetched decent transfer fees. Furthermore, by shedding their hefty salaries, Moyes would have freed funds to build a new younger team.

Yet he probably didn’t dare take on the veterans in any PR battle. Their reputations were bigger than his: he was never a great player and 11 years of diligent, impressive work as manager of Everton didn’t earn him legendary status either. Moreover, he must have feared taking the blame for a new team’s inevitable teething troubles. He therefore allowed the old men one more season, and that cost him.

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Most managers have relatively little influence on their teams’ results, argues Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan and my co-author for our book Soccernomics. Rather, the key determinant of a club’s league position is its wage bill. Prof Szymanski shows that in the English and Italian top divisions, averaged over a period of 10 years, the correlation between wage bill and league position is about 90 per cent. In other words, if you can afford good players, they will win matches. Managers matter much less. Prof Szymanski reckons that only about 10 per cent of managers consistently overachieve relative to their wage bills. Ferguson was the UK’s foremost overachiever – but Moyes too was among that elite 10 per cent during his Everton years.

The ageing of United’s squad is surely the main reason for the team’s failure this season, rather than the loss of Ferguson’s motivational skills. The widespread fascination with motivation in football is probably misplaced. Almost any footballer who has risen high enough to play for Manchester United is able to motivate himself. Most players play for their own careers, rather than for a club or manager. Watched weekly by millions of judges, they have enormous incentive to perform – whoever the manager is.

Talk of Moyes having “lost the dressing room” is surely overplayed, too. Of course players were dissatisfied with him. That is because the team was losing. In top-class football, results usually determine mood, rather than vice versa.

In PR terms, Moyes’s response to bad results was dreadful. His long, baffled unhappy face – caught by TV cameras whenever United conceded a goal – became the symbol of his team’s malaise. Ferguson, a master of PR, tended to respond to defeats with anger. That displaced blame – on to the referee, or, implicitly, on to his players. Moyes’ sad expression looked like an admission of guilt.

Nor could he ever construct a narrative of hope. Had he fielded a new young team that had lost matches, he could have said: “Rebuilding takes time, but we’re gradually creating another great United team.” Instead, at press conferences he looked glum and defensive. He also trod on United’s own values. The club stands for attacking football and self-assurance. Moyes’s team began playing defensively and he came to sound defeatist. Before last month’s home game against Liverpool, he said United’s ancient rivals were favourites to win. After Liverpool duly triumphed 0-3, their manager Brendan Rodgers commented: “I would never say that at Liverpool – even if we were bottom of the league.”

The bigger problem for any new manager is that United’s golden age may be over. From 2008 through to 2011, the club enjoyed statistically its best period: three English titles and three Champions League finals, one of which was won. Those days aren’t coming back

One aspect of Moyes image problem was probably beyond any PR agency’s control: succeeding Ferguson. Sir Alex didn’t merely win trophies, but also incarnated the club’s history and values. By comparison, Moyes inevitably looked like a hired hand.

Image has become all the more important for managers in England since 1992, when Sky TV began showing live matches almost daily – something unprecedented in English football. Driven by Sky, newspapers expanded their coverage of the game. Press conferences began to attract hordes of journalists. Because British players traditionally don’t speak in public, the manager became the club’s face and voice. When results were bad, he was sacked. Today, the manager is football’s version of the Aztecan human sacrifice. Prof Szymanski and Thomas Peeters, of Antwerp University, have shown that median tenure for managers in England’s top division has dropped from 1,233 days in the 1970s to just 497 days in the past two decades.

United had given Moyes a six-year contract. But in this media-driven era, 10 months was the longest stint of failure they could allow him. Part of the manager’s job is to act as scapegoat. That shields the club’s owners from blame. United’s owners, the Glazers of Florida, would not have wanted the media to shift its focus from the manager to the £500m-plus they have taken out of United since buying the club in 2005, chiefly to fund their £790m leveraged buyout. If Moyes and Ferguson had £500m more to spend, United’s team would be younger and stronger today.

©Reuters

Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs, who has played for United for more than 20 years, will be caretaker manager for the season’s final month. But the bookmakers’ favourite to become United’s next permanent manager is Holland’s coach Louis van Gaal.

In some ways the Dutchman looks perfect for the job: he is a respected coach, with a bigger reputation than Moyes ever had, who plays attacking football and specialises in building young teams. (Indeed, he seems to distrust veteran stars). However, Van Gaal too is weak at PR. Whereas Ferguson seemed to disdain journalists, Van Gaal often loses self-control in their presence. His bizarre red-faced rants can make him look like an angry schoolmaster from a comic book. His rhetorical question to one journalist – “Am I so clever or are you so stupid?” – has become a Dutch classic. When Van Gaal managed Barcelona in the late 1990s, he quickly alienated the vast media army that covers the Catalan club. Ferguson could afford to lash out at journalists because he had built up an unassailable reputation, was speaking his own language and used his anger strategically. Van Gaal’s methods seem suboptimal for Britain’s most public company. Hugo Borst, Dutch author of a new book on Van Gaal, says: “He’s a first-class professional, but the press will be a real problem. Expect things to escalate at some point.”

The bigger problem for any new manager is that United’s golden age may be over. From 2008 through to 2011, the club enjoyed statistically its best period: three English titles and three Champions League finals, one of which was won. Those days aren’t coming back, not even if the Glazers meet expectations by spending close to £200m on new players this summer. Given the inflation at the top end of the transfer market, and United’s need for several world-class players, even £200m might not be enough to match Chelsea or Manchester City. Ferguson could compete with them despite United’s lower spending, but then Ferguson was an almost unmatched overachiever.

Money buys success in football and several clubs now have more money than United. From 1997 through 2004, United topped the consultancy Deloitte’s “rich list” of European football clubs ranked by revenues. In 2012-13, United dropped out of the top three for the first time since Deloitte began compiling the list. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich now have higher revenues. Moreover, Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have oil-rich owners who pump money in rather than sucking it out. By the logic of the market that means there are six clubs in Europe more likely to win the Champions League than United. In the domestic league, by the same logic, the club’s natural position is now third behind Chelsea and Manchester City. (Less wealthy Liverpool will probably win this season’s Premier League, but their overachievement is probably unique in recent English history.)

United’s biggest problem isn’t David Moyes. It’s money.

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Letters in response to this article:

Shades of an inappropriate transfer of leadership / From Mr Gideon Gent

An own goal for Manchester United / From Mr Nick Handley

Moyes failed to motivate Manchester United players / From Mr Jean-Paul Burge

Man United’s own goal may have been scored by Sir Alex / From Mr Charlie Rubin

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