I was driving in my car today, listening to the radio, and Coldplay’s “The Scientist” was playing. The line “Nobody said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be so hard….” got me thinking about the struggles two very different managers have had while trying to take over from arguably the greatest manager of all time; those being both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson.
There have obviously been a lot of comparisons drawn between the two successors and how well or poorly they are fairing, so I thought we’d try and take a closer look at what’s been going on at Old Trafford over the last 18 months or so.
The first point to consider – and one of the main reasons I think a direct comparison is foolhardy – is the starting point for each manager. David Moyes took over a team of Champions. A team who had just won the league at practically a canter; had it all sewn up by mid February and were even on course to set a new record points tally for the Premier League too. Even if you want to write off that title winning season as an anomaly; it’s still a team that had finished in the top 2 positions in the league for the previous 8 years. They weren’t exactly punching above their weight.
Louis van Gaal on the other hand, took over a team who had just had its lowest finish (7th) in 24 years. A team who had seen a quite incredible fall from grace, who had its collective confidence smashed into little bits, who had seen proud home records broken every other week, a team facing up to no longer playing amongst Europe’s elite for the first time since 1997, a team who had just lost 4 locker rooms leaders from the squad.
In theory, Moyes could ride an initial wave of enthusiasm and confidence while van Gaal was charged with rebuilding that broken confidence and getting United back competing for trophies. Maintenance is always that bit easier than restoration.
The next point often made is the difference in the amount of money spent by each manager. As we all know, van Gaal had quite a bit of money to spend last summer, approximately £150 million on Angel Di Maria, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo. The summer before Moyes spent £27 million on Marouane Fellaini. A bit of a contrast, I think you’ll agree.
I don’t believe Moyes had no money to spend; I think had he wanted to splash the cash, he would have had the funds made available to him. “Dithering Dave” is a nickname he earned a long time ago, and it was evident during the summer of 2013 that it was well earned. A long time was spent procrastinating over Cesc Fabregas and Leighton Baines, time ran out on securing Ander Herrera a year earlier than his eventual move, United made a late bid of around £40million for Sami Khedira and by all reports United tabled a record fee for Gareth Bale before the Welshman chose Real Madrid. So as far as I can put together, money was available to Moyes – it was just a case that he and the board moved to slow, or they ended up using it poorly.
It’s a fact that LVG has spent more than Moyes did, but it seems an unfair stick to beat him with, when the option to spend money was just as open to Moyes as it is to LVG.
The money issue often gets brought up when the ever popular points total rears its head. We’ve had a weekly update throughout the season informing us how LVG’s points tally was faring to Moyes after the same amount of games. Actually no, it wasn’t weekly; it was weekly for the first few weeks when LVG’s United were struggling. Then United when on a 6 game winning streak and people just stopped mentioning it – only to jump straight to that point of attack again once United started to struggle again this season.
It does seem like a fair point; but the counter I’d like to make to that – and I understand that this might be a hard sell – but I think that 37 points is worth more this season, than they were last. I think they are harder to come by, if that makes sense?
For a start 37 points at this point in the season this year gets you 4th spot, while last year 37 points only had United 7th. Winning points has become harder to do. Now it might be a case that the top teams in the league are getting weaker than they were a few years ago – but that’s another debate for another day. The league on a whole is far more balanced this year. There is less of a gap in quality throughout most of the division.
Some further evidence to this point; last year after 21 games, 6 teams had over 40 points, this year only 2 have breached that mark. Last year, after 21 games, the gap between the Champions League places and the relegation zone was 24 points, this years it’s been cut down to 18. We’re in mid January and nobody is cut adrift at the bottom of the table. And even beyond the half way point of the season, up as far as 12th is looking downward nervously.
The league is definitely becoming more competitive. When things like this happen, it’s an easy narrative to say that United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham or Everton are not performing, they are playing below par or are just being inconsistent. We seem far quicker to jump to that conclusion rather than actually heap praise on the likes of West Ham, Southampton and others for performing so well; or that minnows like Burnley are bucking the trend.
Maybe it comes down to personality? Taking over at Old Trafford is a big job and you need a big personality to do so. I like Moyes, I think he is a good guy and a good manager, but he looked lost at United. It felt to me like he had lost the dressing room very early in the season, while despite a stuttering season, it appears that van Gaal still has the belief of his players – and that’s in spite of persisting with a formation that none of the players look comfortable in. Maybe instructions just carry more weight when you’re Louis van Gaal as opposed to a man who has never won anything in his career.
Neither Moyes nor LVG have set the world alight in their first seasons at Man United, but at least with LVG they look to be moving forward – albeit it slower than most would have expected. The freefall from the Moyes era has been stopped and the team is starting to look at bit more structured and functional – if extremely boring to watch at times. The swagger hasn’t returned to the Red Devils just yet, but it doesn’t look a million miles away either. You can put up all the stats in the world, but what it boils down to is that United fans seem happy with LVG, so something is working. It might be a slow process, but forward is forward.
by Andrew Furlong